19 December 2016

Jules Holroyd and Joshua Forstenzer: Obligation and responsibility in the refugee crisis

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  • Should the UK help more refugees?
  • Why does the responsibility fall on us?
  • Aren’t we - as a state, or as individuals - doing enough already?
  • Won’t taking more refugees change ‘British culture’?

These are amongst some of the commonly heard objections to offering aid and assistance to those facing the crisis of leaving their homes and seeking refuge. It is easy for these objections, often given considerable air time in the popular media, to dominate the discourse about the crises facing refugees.

Working with the University of Sheffield Creative Media Team, and shooting on location at Sheffield Donations for Refugees sorting site, Jules Holroyd and Joshua Forstenzer have produced videos as part of a series that aims to engage with these objections. Postgraduates and staff from the Department of Philosophy have engaged with philosophical research on questions of obligation, responsibility, ‘culture’, and bring this research to bear on these contemporary issues. The hope is that this can change the tone of the debate, which is often rather hostile to refugees, and present fair-minded reasons for helping. We don’t expect these contributions to be the last word on the matter, but we hope them to enrich the debate with philosophical arguments. More videos will be produced in the New Year.

In the video above, Jules Holroyd, Vice Chancellor's Fellow, engages with the objection that the responsibility to help doesn’t fall on us, in the UK, because people and states that are nearer have greater responsibility.

Whether this objection holds water depends on whether nearer states in fact do offer safety, and on whether being nearer does in fact bring a greater responsibility to help. We know that, for example, those fleeing the war in Syria cannot always find safety in states that are nearer to their homes, but may face continued persecution and oppression there. But further, some philosophical methods can help us to see that being nearer need not in fact mean that there is a greater obligation to help. For example, imagine a case where being nearby means you can easily help: You see a child drowning in a river, and are well placed to jump in and save their life. By engaging in a ‘thought experiment’ whereby we change some features of the example, we can see more clearly whether being near really matters. We suppose, then, that you are far away but can still help the drowning child easily - by pressing a button to get a flotation device to the child. Surely the obligation to assist still falls on us, despite being far away. This suggests that what matters is not how near you are, but how easily you can help. So, if we in the UK have the capacity to help - either directly offering time and resources as individuals, or via the actions of our government and the assistance they provide - it seems we should do so, irrespective of how near or far we are.

Are refugees a threat to the British way of life?

Joshua Forstenzer, Vice-Chancellor's Fellow for the Public Benefit of Higher Education, deals with the worry that welcoming refugees to Britain is a threat to the British way of life, ultimately arguing that it is not.

And this for the following reasons:

  1. Even if we greatly increased the number of refugees accepted by the UK, their numbers are likely to be fairly small in proportion to the total UK population;
  2. Refugees typically present social and economic opportunities for the countries that welcome them;
  3. From a cultural standpoint, every wave of refugees welcomed to Britain in the 20th century (from Eastern European Jews at the turn of the century to Somalis in the 1990s) have made a positive contribution to the British way of life, giving us quintessentially British cultural icons such as Marks and Spencer and Mo Farah;
  4. The British way of life itself is the product of waves of immigration (more about the history of UK migration)

The video further invites us to consider the notion that acceptance and openness to diversity may well most truly constitute the British way of life: it would be a shame to lose sight of this in the face of one of the gravest humanitarian crises since World War 2.

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