Population Policies, Migration and Refugees in

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Editor: Bruce Jennings
Date: 2014
From: Bioethics(Vol. 5. 4th ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 8
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Population Policies, Migration and Refugees in

Global migration is as old as history, but its significance has waxed and waned over the centuries. In the late twentieth century, political, economic, and social factors brought it once more to prominence; a 1993 United Nations Population Fund report asserted that migration “could become the human crisis of our age.”

What accounts for the contemporary significance of global migration? For one thing, the world no longer Page 2459  |  Top of Articlecontains politically unincorporated territories, so that every instance of migration is not only a move from some nation or other, it is a move to some nation or other. Nations are sovereign states whose recognized rights include the right to control their borders—the right, therefore, to decide who may enter their territory. Thus, a decision to migrate to some place is a decision that, politically if not morally, is not for an individual alone to make—it requires the consent of the receiving country. In some cases, even the decision to migrate from a place has been taken out of the hands of the individual; some nations, that is, have claimed the authority to decide who may leave as well as who may enter.

There are further reasons for the increased significance and magnitude of international migration: explosive, uneven population growth in different nations; large disparities in economic wealth and economic development between countries; special interdependencies between particular countries; and advances in transportation and communications systems. Not surprisingly, people tend to move from crowded, poor countries to less crowded, richer ones where economic and other opportunities are better. The desire to migrate may be fostered by television and other mass media, which arouse awareness of opportunities in faraway places, while the ability to migrate may be aided by transportation systems that make relocation easier. It has been said that the question is not why people migrate but why they do not migrate more often, given conditions in many “sending” countries and the basic economic principle that resources flow to optimal locations. Migration always involves both “push” factors that give people reasons to want to leave a place and “pull” factors that attract them to someplace else.

International migration raises fundamental ethical questions about the moral significance of national boundaries and social communities, the nature and extent of human rights, and the circumstances in which people have moral obligations to aid others or to accept them into their communities. It also raises a host of empirical questions about the effects of migration on both sending and receiving countries and about the extent to which migration can be controlled. On the basis of current knowledge, it cannot be said that the empirical questions are any more tractable than the ethical ones. Both the facts about migration and the relevant moral principles are highly controversial.


It seems a safe assumption that, other things being equal, most people would rather remain in their native countries than begin anew in a strange land. But other things are not always equal. The contemporary world is organized into nation-states possessing very different characteristics, a situation creating disequilibrium. Countries that are relatively rich, safe, or politically free tend to attract people—either as permanent residents or as temporary workers—from countries not possessing these features. Not only do individuals in such circumstances have reason to migrate, but the countries from which they come may view emigration as a way to relieve political or economic pressures. Moreover, receiving countries often have powerful economic interests in acquiring foreign labor. Disentangling the various interests at stake—between sending and receiving countries, and between different groups and classes within each—is a complex task.

The pressure point in contemporary discussions of migration centers primarily on its effects on receiving countries. It is perhaps a truism that if too many people come to those countries, they will eventually cease to be attractive either to their original inhabitants or to anyone else. But the question is how many are too many, and why? How should a receiving country decide which of those seeking entry ought to be admitted?

These questions are misleading if they suggest that an immigration policy is simply a way of implementing charity or beneficence. Immigrants, legal and illegal, serve important interests of receiving countries or of significant groups within them. The issues at stake can be organized by elaborating four considerations appropriate to formulating an immigration policy—leaving aside, for the moment, the perspective of sending countries. First, what is at stake for those seeking entry? Second, is immigration the only way their needs can be met? Third, what costs and benefits—economic, social, and cultural—are at stake for the receiving country as a whole and for particular groups within it? Should these costs and benefits be weighed differently depending on who bears them? Fourth, do receiving countries sometimes have moral obligations to accept potential immigrants—on the basis of past actions, a special relationship with the sending country, or general humanitarian grounds? This fourth question can be addressed only after the first three have been explored.


The first two considerations—what is at stake for those seeking entry, and the extent to which migration is the only way their needs can be met—are captured in the way different categories of people who migrate are usually described. The basic distinction is between refugees and immigrants.

According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the definition accepted by the United Nations (UN) says that a refugee is a person who,

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is Page 2460  |  Top of Articleunable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. (Article 1.A.2, in Goodwin-Gill 1983, 253)

Essentially this definition has been in force since shortly after World War II, in response to the upheavals surrounding that conflict.

The meaning of immigrant or migrant has traditionally been understood by contrast to refugees: those who migrate are not fleeing political persecution. The difference between migrants and immigrants, furthermore, is not a formal one; based on common usage, one may say that migrants relocate temporarily, or travel back and forth between their home country and another, whereas immigrants relocate permanently.

The suggestion is typically that immigrants move for economic betterment, with the implication that they are “pulled” rather than “pushed.” But this implication, although often reasonable, is sometimes highly misleading. Even to speak of economic betterment misleadingly suggests an acceptable baseline from which one aims to improve. But many who migrate for economic reasons find themselves in desperate circumstances—as desperate, sometimes, as those of political refugees. The causes of migration may be natural disaster, external aggression, civil war, or internal oppression, all of which can severely affect even those who do not suffer direct political persecution. Furthermore, it may be that those who wish to migrate cannot be helped where they are. Recognizing these problems and the possible bias in the UN definition, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), in its 1969 Convention on Refugee Problems in Africa, added the following to the definition of a refugee: “every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality” (article I, section 2, in Goodwin-Gill 1983). Thus, for example, “environmental refugees” may be forced to flee their homeland because of deforestation resulting from trading practices and the import strategies of rich countries or international institutions. The OAU definition accommodates the truth that in today's world—as Aristide R. Zolberg, Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo argue—“the causes of life-threatening conditions in the developing world stem from an interpenetration of national and transnational, or global, processes” (1989, 33).

Why does it matter how refugee is defined? The reason is that the term has special legal, moral, and emotional force; to be counted as a refugee is to be treated as having a compelling claim to admission, whereas potential immigrants have a much weaker claim, in part because of the assumption that their needs can be met without relocation. Many countries are bound by international agreements forbidding refoulement, the forcible return of a refugee to his or her country. To exclude from the definition extremely pressing claims that do not result directly from persecution has a powerful influence on the lives and well-being of millions of people.

The definition of a refugee can be manipulated in other ways. Thus, although the United States helped draft the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it did not ratify it and adopted the UN definition only in the Refugee Act of 1980. Until that time, ideological considerations played a large part in US policy; priority was given to those fleeing “Communist or Communist-dominated” societies. Even since 1980, ideological considerations have continued to influence US refugee admissions. Of course, many of those seeking to migrate—for example, Mexicans to the United States or Turks to Germany—are not in desperate straits. They are poor compared to most people in the receiving countries, but they do not usually come from the poorest stratum of their own society; the poorest lack the physical, emotional, and economic resources to uproot themselves from their homes and begin again. What is at stake for these potential immigrants? A better life, a decent life—a life that most of those in the receiving countries would consider much superior to what is available in the sending countries, but one that it is in no way inappropriate to aim for. The life left behind, then, is not desperate, but it may not be acceptable either.


No one would oppose immigration unless he or she believed it presented significant drawbacks or costs. Those who favor either stricter limits on the number of immigrants or stricter conditions of entry typically argue that at certain levels (often current levels) immigration carries significant economic, social, or cultural costs. Sometimes the concern is primarily with those who enter illegally, either because it is believed that the flow of illegal immigrants inflates the number of outsiders to unacceptable limits or because as illegal immigrants they pose special problems not posed by those admitted through legal channels.

A central debate concerns the effects of immigrant labor on jobs for natives. In the United States, the debate takes the following form: some who wish to restrict immigration believe that immigrant labor displaces the worst-off native citizen groups and depresses wages (Briggs 1992). Immigrants, it is said, will work for wages that Page 2461  |  Top of Articlecitizens, possessing the elevated standards prevalent in more developed societies, find unacceptable. Illegal immigrants make things even worse, these critics argue, because they are fearful and thus willing to accept whatever they can get. Proponents of immigration argue, by contrast, that immigrants do work that citizens consider too menial, such as domestic work and hard agricultural labor. In addition, they say, because the labor market is not a zero-sum game and because immigrants are also consumers, they often stimulate the economy, thereby creating new jobs (Simon 1989).

It is extremely difficult to sort out the various issues implicit in these claims and to derive conclusions with any degree of certainty. Immigration has multiple effects, and unequivocal conclusions about these effects lack plausibility. Most economists seem to agree that immigration increases aggregate national wealth but that some displacement of low-skilled workers and depression of their wages do occur. For obvious reasons, the welfare of lowincome citizens should be of special concern: policies that make the worst-off even worse off are difficult to justify. But economists disagree about the magnitude of these problems, and many argue that in some occupations, immigrants and citizens do not compete.

In any case, it is easy to see how foreign labor serves business interests. This is especially true in industries dominated by undocumented migrant labor—those that are part of the “informal economy”—where workers' docility and fear are easy to exploit. In some industries, such as the garment industry in the United States, women, who sometimes do “home work,” are particularly at risk (Fernandez-Kelly and Garcia 1989).

Another issue that is partly economic and partly social concerns the extent to which immigrants burden a society's social services and, particularly because of language deficiencies and cultural differences, its educational institutions. Even if new immigrants do use such services disproportionately—and this remains a point of controversy—they also contribute significantly to a nation's tax base. Some argue, furthermore, that countries with low population growth, such as the United States and the nations of western Europe, will need immigrants to help pay for programs such as Medicare and Social Security for older citizens. In the United States, these costs and benefits cannot be easily weighed against each other, because for the most part social services are funded locally, and local jurisdictions are not reimbursed proportionately for the services they render. The countries of western Europe may face different and greater problems because of their more comprehensive social support systems.

Perhaps the most complex “costs” that immigration is said to impose are social and cultural. Several issues are relevant. For one thing, immigration sometimes produces conflict among ethnic groups. In part, this can arise because lowincome native-born groups regard the newcomers—accurately or inaccurately—as competing for jobs and resources. But it may also occur when immigrants constitute “middleman minorities,” a role played historically in many countries by Jews, Asian Indians, and Chinese (Portes and Rumbaut 1990). Conflict of this kind exists today in the United States, for example, between African Americans and the Korean merchants who own shops in their communities.

Some critics argue that too many immigrants may threaten a society's distinctive way of life, diluting or destroying its identity and its institutions. This is a difficult criticism to assess, in part because the values said to be at stake are elusive and vague. Historically, immigrants have often been viewed with suspicion and fear (Higham 1963), and sometimes the concern about culture amounts to no more than veiled xenophobia or racism. The immigration policies of many countries, such as the United States and Australia, have during extended periods excluded or severely limited the entry of non-northern European or nonwhite immigrants (Jones 1992). When immigrant groups consist partly or largely of nonwhite peoples, as they often do today, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that claims of cultural integrity contain a racial component.

If one supposes that these attitudes do not exhaust the concern about cultural integrity, then one is faced with difficult questions about what a culture is and how immigrant groups mix or assimilate into it, or do not (Gordon 1964). It may be argued that the worry about cultural integrity rests on a misconception about culture. A culture is not an unchanging entity that is threatened by, and too inflexible to accommodate, influences from without or within. Especially in the contemporary world, cultures change. It is possible to imagine radical, unacceptable changes that render the old culture unrecognizable, but the burden of proof is on the critic to show that immigrant groups cause such transformations.

In the United States, immigrant groups have shown a remarkable capacity to assimilate into the dominant culture. Historically, the nations of western Europe have had less experience with immigration than the United States; partly for that reason, the citizens of such a nation do not see themselves as part of a “melting pot,” a “salad,” or a “nation of immigrants,” as Americans often do. Apart from this matter of self-conception, these societies are ethnically less heterogeneous than the United States. But one cannot conclude from this alone that they have more to fear from immigration.


Just as the costs and benefits to receiving countries are controversial, so are those to sending countries. Out-migration serves to reduce economic and population Page 2462  |  Top of Articlepressures, but it can also cause “brain drain”—the loss of some of the most productive members of a society—and it can reduce the pressure for needed social, economic, and political reforms. At the same time, however, some countries, such as the Philippines and El Salvador, now earn more from remittances sent home by migrants than from any export. Migration can thus produce important benefits to sending countries and to families within them.

But as important as these issues are, the central point of controversy today concerns the impact of migration on receiving countries. This is not unconnected with the fact that the moral and legal right to leave a place is generally accepted; debate centers on the right to enter. Thus, even if overall a decline in emigration benefited a sending country, few would endorse prohibitions against leaving. Thus, the hard core of the argument—about what people or nations have the right to do or to prevent and about what strictures on mobility ought to be implemented—concerns the point of entry, not the point of exit. If immigration today is more imminently pressing than emigration, then the problems it poses—that is, the problems in receiving countries—will be the engine that drives new approaches and policies. At the same time, as the world becomes increasingly interdependent economically, as well as in every other way, it is clear that there can be no “solution” to immigration that is not at the same time a solution to emigration. If people are to stop coming to the developed countries, conditions in their home countries will have to become more attractive. Policies are needed to weaken both the pulls and the pushes of migration.


Uncertainties about the effects of migration on sending and receiving countries and on particular groups within them; a sense that to a large extent these phenomena exemplify forces beyond an individual's control; and the legacy of political realism, according to which ethical considerations do not and should not operate in international relations—all of these may contribute to the view that moral questions have no place at all in discussions of migration.

But such questions cannot be avoided. In the case of refugees and others not officially designated as such but who are equally desperate, migration involves clashes between the claims of some individuals both to survive and to attain basic levels of health and well-being, on the one hand, and the claims of nations, or individuals within them, to exclude these people from such basic goods by refusing them entry, on the other hand. Even when the needs of those seeking entry are not quite so stark, migration poses difficult questions about the relationship between rich and poor—both individuals and countries—and the nature of the moral ties between them. Do rich countries have an obligation to aid poor countries, either by accepting immigrants or by some other means? On what basis could such a moral obligation stand? And how far does it extend?

According to a commonly held view, nations have the right to prevent the entry of whomever they wish. But this claim needs further analysis. It may be uncontroversial that nations have the legal right to refuse entry to noncitizens and thus may use whatever criteria they like to decide admissions. Even this claim is somewhat misleading, however, because nations bound by agreements forbidding refoulement may not ordinarily expel refugees even if they have entered illegally. But refusing admission to those who have not yet entered does not constitute a violation of international law.

Yet a legal right is not a moral right, nor is it equivalent to what is morally right. Consider the well-known case of the St. Louis. In June 1939 the United States turned away a German vessel carrying more than 900 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. They had been promised, then denied, visas by Cuba; proceeding up the US coast, they requested refuge from the US government. These “boat people” were not inside US territorial waters, and in any case, international agreements regarding refugees had not yet been established; thus, there is no doubt that the United States was within its legal rights in refusing the refugees' appeal. But did it have a moral right to refuse their request? Or did it, on the contrary, have a moral obligation to provide at least a temporary haven?

Some people may shy away from speaking in terms of rights and obligations in this context. But few today would deny that the United States ought to have taken in the refugees or that it was wrong and reprehensible for it to have refused to do so. The moral principle underlying such a judgment might be expressed thus: if a person or a nation can prevent a great harm at little or no cost to itself, it is wrong not to do so.

This principle fits the case under discussion because taking in the St. Louis passengers, whose lives hung in the balance, would have had no adverse effects on the United States. Contemporary issues, however, raise two kinds of questions not raised by this example. First, in most cases, those seeking entry are not as desperate as were the refugees from Nazi Germany. It might be argued that what is at issue in such cases is not preventing a great harm but providing a good, and that people are not obviously worthy of blame if they choose not to provide that good.

In any case, it is the second question raised by contemporary migration that more seriously challenges the relevance of the principle that one ought to act if one can do so with little or no cost to oneself. The great number of people who might be inclined to migrate—and who might Page 2463  |  Top of Articlebe encouraged to do so if they were aware that others have been admitted—calls into question the assumption that migration imposes no costs on countries that open their doors, or on particular groups or individuals within them. Debate continues about the economic, social, and cultural costs of migration. Some hold that the costs of migration at current levels are not significant, whereas others claim that it has adverse effects on the well-being of groups in the resident population. Thus, two critical empirical questions are at what point migration brings harm to groups in the receiving country, and which groups there are affected. The crucial moral question is whether and to what extent people in receiving countries should bear the costs of accommodating immigrants.


Why, morally, should people in receiving countries bear any costs to promote immigration? Two kinds of reasons can be offered. First, it might be argued that it is wrong or indecent for some to have so much while others have so little, even if the haves are in no way responsible for the plight of the have-nots. Second, it can be argued that the haves owe something because they bear some responsibility for the situation of the have-nots, perhaps in virtue of some prior or current relationship between them.

Considering these two kinds of reasons in turn, from a moral point of view, the global distribution of wealth and poverty as it affects individuals is largely arbitrary. Whether one happens to be born in Sweden or Pakistan, Australia or Somalia, is a matter of chance, but it makes all the difference to a person's life prospects. What follows morally from this fact? There is little consensus. To some, it seems obvious that radical inequalities are unfair or otherwise unacceptable to the extent that they are undeserved. On this view, because people in rich countries are lucky to have been born there and those in poor countries are unlucky, and because these chance occurrences have much to do with how people fare in the world, something ought to be done to redistribute wealth from rich to poor. The same conclusion regarding the need for redistribution might be based not on the arbitrariness of birthplace but on a principle of humani-tarianism or benevolence: those who can help people in dire need ought to do so. Migration is one way to achieve redistribution. Whether and in what circumstances it is preferable to other approaches, such as humanitarian or development assistance to poor countries, will depend on a variety of factors.

But others draw no such conclusion from the moral arbitrariness of nationality. In part, their refusal may flow from the conviction that this line of thinking “proves too much”: not only does one not deserve to be born in a rich country, but one does not deserve to be born to rich parents or to be endowed with superior genes. Taken to its logical conclusion, the critics say, this argument removes the grounds for all systems of rewards and punishments and would mark the end of a free society. For this or other reasons, such critics insist that although it might be decent or nice or admirable for rich countries to share their wealth, the fact that birthplace is arbitrary implies no moral obligation to do so and, furthermore, that poor people or poor countries who do not receive such benefits have no cause for complaint.

Disagreement about what follows from the moral arbitrariness of nationality goes to the deepest questions about moral responsibility and social justice. Progress toward resolving these questions, if it can be achieved at all, is impossible without extensive and detailed argument. But there is another rationale for the conclusion that rich countries ought to make some sacrifices for the well-being of immigrants from poor countries—a rationale that does not depend on the moral arbitrariness of birthplace or on simple humanitarianism. This is the view that rich countries owe something to poor countries on the basis of past or present actions and relationships. For example, in 1974 the UN General Assembly's Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order argued that rich countries have “underdeveloped” poor countries: that it is because of colonialism and exploitation, at least in part, that there are now radical disparities in wealth and well-being among nations, and that poor countries are poorer than they would have been had there been no interaction. If this is true, then poor countries are owed something by way of reparations or compensation, not simply in virtue of benevolence.

There are several problems with such claims. Even if one agrees that rich countries did mistreat poor countries in various ways, it is difficult to know what the victims of such exploitation and harm would be like today in the absence of these actions. Without knowledge of this kind, it is almost impossible to decide what reparations or compensation are owed. Moreover, it is possible that in the absence of colonialism, some developing countries would not exist and would be even worse off than they are today. And some, such as Singapore, have fared well despite a colonial legacy.

An obligation may rest more specifically on a particular relationship between countries. For example, acceptance by the United States of large numbers of refugees and immigrants from Vietnam can be viewed as an acknowledgment of the moral import of US involvement in Vietnam and the US debt to the Vietnamese people. American relations with Mexico fit this principle as well, although in a less extreme form. Mexican labor was crucial to the growth of many American industries, and recruitment of Mexican labor by US mining and railroad companies and by agricultural growers dates to Page 2464  |  Top of Articlethe middle of the nineteenth century. European countries' use of so-called guest workers can be understood similarly to generate obligations: having brought workers to one's country when they were deemed necessary, one is not free to sever the relationship after the “guests” have set down roots.


Whether on grounds of the moral arbitrariness of nationality, general humanitarianism, or compensatory justice, it seems clear that developed countries, which tend to be the recipients of immigrants and refugees, have moral obligations to developing countries. To what extent such obligations are best fulfilled through migration requires further investigation: In some cases it will make more sense to move resources to people than to move people to resources.

More fundamental questions remain, however. How extensive are these moral obligations? How much ought people in rich countries sacrifice, if that is necessary, to raise the welfare of poor and oppressed people to tolerable levels? It is clear that no general answers can be given to these questions. In part, the answers depend on how obligations to those outside one's country are to be weighed against obligations to those within. Does one not, it may be asked, owe more to the poor within one's own society than to those elsewhere? And is it not likely that serious commitment to fulfilling obligations to one's fellow nationals will strain one's resources and therefore one's virtue as it is?

Perhaps part of an answer to this question can be found by addressing the concerns of those who view claims about the moral obligations of rich countries to poor countries as misplaced or pointless, because they believe that national policies are not based on such considerations, or even that they should not be. Obviously the foregoing discussion rejects this view. Nevertheless, it is important to see—both because it is true and because it may motivate those unmoved by considerations of morality—that “self-interest rightly understood,” using the phrase of the nineteenth-century French statesman and author Alexis de Tocqueville, may also serve to support policies that reduce global inequalities.

In what ways? With international economic interdependence ever increasing—and telecommunications and transportation systems rendering the world of the haves more accessible both psychologically and physically to the have-nots—in the long run, rich countries will be unable to keep their privileges to themselves without employing methods that are repellent, and perhaps ineffective. One might go further and say that the same factors that render the world more interdependent and the North more visible and immediate to the South also render the South more visible and immediate to the North. And so it will become more difficult for those in the North to maintain their humanity while denying their connections with distant strangers of whose suffering they are aware. The reasons that people have duties to those within their community, and that their well-being depends on the well-being of other members of their community, still stand. But the boundaries of these communities now may have to be enlarged.


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Judith Lichtenberg (1995)
Professor of Philosophy and Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown

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