HART Prize for Human Rights 2018| ‘The Refugee Crisis: Burden-Sharing and Moral Obligations’

20 March 2018

With the most number of entries we’ve ever received, the competition was even harder with such exceptional submissions that demonstrated inspiring passion for Human Rights advocacy.

Woojin Lim, 17, won 1st place in our HART Prize for Human Rights Junior Essay Category 2018 with his essay titled:

The Refugee Crisis, Burden-Sharing and Moral Obligations

Around the globe, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people top an overwhelming 65 million individuals (Edwards, 2016; Domonoske, 2016). Whether as a result of war, political persecution, gang violence, or environmental destruction, the rise of displaced individuals in the 21st century has been an unprecedented global phenomenon. Underlying the magnitude of the problem lies the question of whether or not states have a moral obligation towards these refugees, and if so, how such obligations should be weighed against a state’s sovereign right to control its own borders.

By definition, refugees are people whose basic needs are “unprotected by their country of origin” and have no remaining recourse other than to seek international protection and restitution of their rights and needs (Shacknove, 1985). Refugeehood involves the breaking of the social contract between the individual and the state — a political bond that is fundamental to legitimate
rule (Gibney, 2014). The absence of this relationship creates a necessary duty for the international community to intervene and provide adequate protection and universal human
rights to the concerned individuals (Ibid, 2014).

As with the case of defining a ‘refugee’, international law provides underlying principles on how responsibilities to refugees should be incurred on states and what these might involve. Enshrined in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the bedrock of refugee protection is the principle of non-refoulement. This premise provides that no refugees should be sent back to the frontiers of territories where their lives or freedoms would be at significant risk (UNHCR, 1951; UNHCR, 1977). Michael Walzer argues that states have an obligation not to expel refugees who arrive in their locational territories; since these people already have actively fled from their home countries, sending them back is morally unacceptable because it is a use of force against desperate and helpless individuals (Walzer, 1983). However, there are two worries to this “locational-based principle”. Since it tends to privilege those refugees who can access resources and have capacities to search for asylum, many others who lack enough resources to cross international frontiers remain vulnerable amidst oppression (Gibney, 2004). Furthermore, states located near sites of displacement tend to find themselves with the highest amount of refugees (Ibid, 2004).

The resulting unjust refugee distributions between states create inequality amid international burden-sharing. Whereas the world’s six most wealthiest countries, who make up more than half of the global economy, host less than 9% of all refugees, the lack of legal routes to entering the developed world has forced many refugees to seek shelter in nearby low-income countries and overcrowded refugee camps located near strife-torn areas (Perry, 2016). Countries neighbouring Syria currently host more than 6.8 million refugees alone, with Turkey hosting over 3.2 million (UNHCR, 2017). As a result, Western states keep privileged policies that contain flows of refugees outside their own regions (Parekh, 2016). In overall response to these dilemmas, asylum should be offered to the refugees who are most in danger regardless of their location, and a just distribution should be more sensitive to the integrative capabilities of particular states (with regard to GDP, size, political stability, etc.) (Gibney, 2004).

Even if there exists a vague sense of moral obligation towards refugees, the perennial question of identifying the limits of a state’s responsibilities to refugees remains. What is the point at which it is morally justified for a state to refuse to take in refugees? In relation to a utilitarian context, Peter Singer’s moral principle of aid argues that a state must continue to bear refugees until the costs to the residents of a state of accepting one extra refugee outweigh the benefits to those refugees (Singer, 1972). In other words, this “Good Samaritan obligations” view means that countries only have obligations to help refugees to the extent to which nothing of comparable moral significance is sacrificed (Parekh, 2016). Such a situation might be reached when a culture’s heritage is diluted by accepting large numbers of foreigners or a strain on domestic environmental and economic resources becomes severe (Ibid, 2016). Especially when the funds used to resettle foreign refugees trade-off with funds that could be used internally, citizens of the state may be displeased about their safety, sovereignty, and cultural integrity (Ibid, 2016). Indeed, several philosophers have defended the right of states to restrict refugee resettlement. Michael Walzer once argued that states have a right to defend “communities of character” by preserving their cultural distinctiveness (Walzer, 1983). On a similar note, Christopher Wellman postulated that the state ought to take care of their own citizens first and foremost, aiding non-citizens in secondary ways (Wellman, 2008).

In discussing how we should ground our moral obligations to refugees differently, Serena Parekh suggests we should think about these current status quo harms associated with the treatment of the refugees as structural injustices. As Iris Young expounds, structural injustice does not result from deliberate harm, but rather from the unintentional outcome of different actors working for their own “morally acceptable ends” (Young, 2003; Young, 2013). In other words, though the treatment of the forcibly displaced can be a moral injustice, it is not a result of a deliberate intention of that state to cause harm nor any ill-intentions of the international community; rather it is a consequence of various states acting to their own interests in some manner to protect their citizens and national interests (Parekh, 2016). Nonetheless, these procedures still serve as structural barriers that block refugees from seeking asylum and accessing resources such as security, education, and healthcare (Ibid, 2016). Instead of attempting to shoehorn moral culpability on states, the focus of the global community should be to recognize the structural injustice that continues to harm refugee populations and to act accordingly in rectifying this injustice. Central to Young’s sense of collective, political responsibility is the rejection of unacceptable and unjust policies of refugee containment and the ability of states to work together in creating strategies on how to better the lives of refugees. Though Western states may not be liable in a legal sense for the harm of causing mass displacement or placing refugees in camps for years, they still ought to have a shared sense of political responsibility to redress injustice because of their participation in a diverse, global institutional system that contributes to injustice (Gibney, 2014).

The philosophical debate on how far these moral obligations extend or how fellow citizens should contribute to helping refugees remain unresolved. However, at the heart of these considerations, it is important to acknowledge that the developed world’s responsibilities to refugees are not merely exhausted through resettlement. Canada may have resettled approximately 50,000 Syrian refugees, but her obligation to the 11 million Syrians who have been displaced by the war and the conditions in which they live in remain as ongoing areas of
moral consideration (Amman, 2015; Syrian Refugees 2017). As an active member of the international community, Canada ought to further uphold humanitarian and political responsibility in her commitment to international law and moral values.


Amman, J. (2015, December 21). Canada Aims to Double Intake of Syrian Refugees to 50,000: McCallum. Retrieved from

Domonoske, C. (2016, June 20). Refugees, Displaced People Surpass 60 Million For First Time, UNHCR Says. Retrieved from surpass-60-million-for-first-time-unhcr-says

Edwards, A. (2016, June 20). Global Forced Displacement Hits Record High. Retrieved from

Gibney, M. J. (2004). The Ethics and Politics of Asylum. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press. Print.

Gibney, M. J. (2014). Political Theory, Ethics, and Forced Migration. The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Retrieved from

Parekh, S. (2016, January 06) Moral Obligations to Refugees: Theory, Practice, Aspiration. Retrieved from

Perry, J. (2016, July 18). Oxfam: Poorest Nations Shouldering Responsibility for World’s Refugees. Retrieved from

Shacknove, A. E. (1985). Who Is a Refugee? The University of Chicago Press: Ethics Vol. 95 (2), pp. 274-284. Retrieved from

Singer, P. (1972). Famine Affluence and Morality. Princeton University Press: Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 1 (3), pp. 229-243. Web. 05 Nov. 2017. Retrieved from

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (1951, July 28). Convention
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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2017, November 05). Syria Regional Refugee Response. Retrieved from

Walzer, M. (1983). Spheres of Justice. New York: Basic Books. Print.

Wellman, C. H. (2008). Immigration and Freedom of Association. UC San Diego Philosophy: Ethics 119 (1), pp. 109-141. Retrieved from

Young, I. (2003, March). From Guilt to Solidarity. Retrieved from

Young, I. (2013) Responsibility for Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Print.

See the full list of HART Prize for Human Rights 2018 winners and shortlisted entries here

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