Rising Fences: Migrants, Borders, and a New Frontier for Ethics

Jan 21, 2016


Jan 6, 2022

Border, Macedonia-Greece

Border, Macedonia-Greece, Feb 2016. Jeroen Akkermans (CC)

This lecture was delivered as the 2016 Dorsett Fellow Lecture at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, January 21, 2016

What will 2015 be remembered for? The image that comes to mind is “rising fences.” If we took a satellite photo of the planet, that would be the story; fences going up everywhere.

The wars and political chaos of the past year created a massive wave of truly desperate people. The wave is global in scale. Europe has borne the brunt. But the United States, Canada, Australia and many other nations are not immune.

What is the response? What should be the response? 2016 may be the year when many new fences become permanent. Or not. We should discuss the possibilities. Four short quotes come to mind as a way to frame our discussion.

Robert Frost: Realist

The first quote is from Robert Frost. When coming to New Hampshire, Frost is inevitable. Everyone knows the line from his poem Mending Wall, “Good fences make good neighbors.” At face value, the reader of the poem understands the Yankee practicality implied in that phrase. It is reminds me of another New England legend – the legend of Lake Chaubunagungamaug (CHOW BUNA GUNG A MOG] located not far from here in Massachusetts. When I was a kid, we used to challenge each other to pronounce this unpronounceable 17-letter word. Translated from the Native American Nipmuc language the lake’s name means, “You fish on your side, I fish on my side, and nobody fish in the middle.”

But I don’t think Mending Wall is about civility – going along and getting along. Frost uses the “good fences” line ironically. The phrase is uttered twice by the neighbor, not the narrator. The poem begins with the line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And the most challenging lines to my mind are:

Before I’d built a wall I’d like to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offense

What I take from Frost is that a fence tells us as much about what we are trying to keep in as what we are trying to keep out. A fence reveals who we are, who we want to be, and how we relate to others. Building a fence is an act of self-expression.

Victor Orban: Identity

Identity is also the theme of the second quote I’ve selected, this one from Victor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary. Orban is short and to the point:

“If we let everyone in it will destroy Europe.”

Orban raises the existential question: What is Europe? Implicit in his quote is that there is something that binds Europe together. History, culture, shared values and common interests – these are the basic elements of any community. These characteristics combine with a frontier – a physical border – to define the distinct community that we know as Europe.

The Europe Union of today did not happen spontaneously or by default. It was constructed through a long process of purposeful integration, building common infrastructure, norms, standards, and, eventually, laws. A paramount achievement was the Schengen Agreement of 1995 that began the process of abolishing internal borders inside the European community. This was a major step in making Europe what it is today – a single community with freedom of movement, a single currency, and tightly coordinated laws. While it might be easy to dismiss Mr. Orban’s rhetoric as xenophobic or alarmist, it is not hard to understand how some might interpret the breach of borders as a significant challenge to a hard won status quo. The Europe we know today did not emerge spontaneously. It was built as a deliberate act.

Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein: Responsibility

If the first two quotes raise the issue of self, the second two represent the flip side of the coin – the other. Quote number three, from Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, moves the conversation from self to other. In commenting on the refugeee crisis Zeid has said,

“Today anti-Semitism, islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, and anti-migrant sentiment are again rising across Europe, and we must stop now and reassess precisely where we are.”

Zeid reminds us that the migrant crisis of 2016 has echoes of the past. We have been here before. And the results have not been good. Do we want to repeat the responses of the 1930s – the last great wave of displacement – when displaced people fleeing Nazi Germany were denied safe refuge?

In a recent speech at the Carnegie Council, Zeid retold the story of the Evian Conference of 1938. 31 nations met in Evian France, the famous resort, at the invitation of President Roosevelt as the Nazi challenge was rising. As Zeid put it:

“Although many delegations voiced eloquent dismay over the torment experienced by the Jews of Germany and Austria, those sentiments were rhetorical only. For the outcome of the meeting was a polite but blank denial of reality. Neither Europe, nor the United States, nor Australia would accept the refugees in any meaningful number.”

It is impossible to know how much of this response was based on simple bigotry, and how much on the complexities of forging any collective action on such issues. However, we do know that we feel a sense of shame when looking back. I imagine that most of us hope our generation will do better.

Donald Trump: Emotion

The final quote of our four quotes is unavoidable given that the New Hampshire presidential primary is just days away. I made this note last summer. Hoping it would go away. But here we are. The quote, from Donald Trump, is already etched in the public record:

“I will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.”

The fact that this was uttered – and to some degree welcomed – by a leading candidate for president of the United States is an unpleasant and inconvenient truth that must be discussed.

Populism and nativism are an integral part of American political history. So in some sense what we are seeing can be explained in part as a cycle we have seen in the past. After all, the Know Nothing Party of the 1840s and 50s proudly took on a similar sounding anti-immigrant platform. The targets then were Catholics – primarily Irish and German. The goal of the Know Nothings was to close the borders. The argument was that thousands of undesirable peasants were taking jobs, causing crime, and burdening tax-payers. “Preserve America for America” was their slogan.

Trump taps a vein of American populism that has never really gone away. If I could offer one word of reply, it would be this: facts. The facts belie Trump’s emotional appeal. Just as German Irish immigration formed the backbone of American industry in the late 19th and early 20th century, so too does current immigration provide the labor and vibrancy to our 21st century economy. There is also an additional fact that can’t be ignored – a fact so stark that it reveals the pure emotionalism of Trump’s position. The fact is this: In 2015-16, more Mexicans are leaving the United States than coming. A recent Pew Research Center report says, “From 2009-2014, 1 million Mexicans and their families (including U.S.-born children) left the United States for Mexico.” During the same period, 870,000 Mexican nationals left Mexico to come to the United States. You heard this right: more families moved north to south than south to north. But these are not facts you will hear from Trump.

So to sum up our quotes, we have at least four claims in play: Frost’s sense of realism, Orban’s concern for identity, Zeid’s appeal to responsibility, and Trump’s resort to emotion.

We should not underestimate any of these imperatives, least of all emotion. One reason the migrant crisis is so concerning is the human cost we see on a daily basis. The vast scale of the crisis hits us in the stories of particular individuals. We see it in the story of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi who lifeless body was captured in photograph as it washed ashore on a Turkish beach. His family was fleeing the Syrian civil war in Kobani, trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. Canada was their ultimate destination.

And who can forget the story of Abdul Rahman Haroun, the Sudanese man who walked 31 miles through the Channel Tunnel – from Calais to Kent, as the last leg of his odyssey on his escaped from war ravaged Darfur? According to press reports, “Haroun had traveled through North Africa and sailed across the Mediterranean before walking across Europe to get to Calais.”

The migrant crisis is not something “out there,” far away. It is becoming more and more present in the daily lives of Europeans and Americans. Perhaps you have seen photographs of tourists on Greek islands enjoying beach vacations while inflatable rafts of refugees float by. In the United States, perhaps you have read reports of women and children held in processing camps along America’s southern border, awaiting hearings and possible deportations back to their countries of origin in Central and South America.

Emotion is an indicator of serious moral concern. What I would like to do now is to put some of this emotion into a framework for reflection and analysis. Rather than dismiss our emotional responses, I would ask: Can we learn something from them? Even better, can we steer them toward a constructive public policy?

The Ethical Challenge

The ethical challenge in the migration issue is straightforward. It’s a version of the clash between the universal and the particular, cosmopolitanism and patriotism. The definition of the word “cosmopolitan” is “citizen of the world.” It is an appealing proposition founded on the principle of equal moral standing for all human beings. But as compelling as world citizenship and moral equality may be, we are all citizens of particular countries. We are not in fact citizens of the world. While many of us may be cosmopolitan souls, our passports suggest a different reality. There is no world state to which we can pledge allegiance and expect protection in return. It is our particular state that provides the social contract by which we live.

Because of this structure, each country will, by its very nature, serve the interests of its own citizens first, especially when it comes to the primary duty of providing stability, order, and security at home. As individuals, we may feel a similar tug toward the local even as we recognize what the scholar and writer Michael Ignatieff has called “the needs of strangers.”

My own view, which I would like to some time to develop with you now, is that the global vs. local is over-determined. It is a potential trap we impose on ourselves. Perhaps there are ways to think and work together to solve what is, in effect, a massive collective action problem. And if we cannot solve it, perhaps we can mitigate some of the pain and suffering.

Global Scale of the Problem: Facts

I have some maps and graphs to show you. But first, two points to keep in mind. First, in 2015, more than 1 million migrants entered Europe. This is the biggest European migration since World War II.

Second, as we consider the numbers, bear in mind that an important distinction is often made between the terms “migrant” and “refugee.” To quote from a very helpful New York Times primer on this point: “A refugee is person who has fled his or her country to escape war or persecution and can prove it…Among those crossing the Mediterranean in the first half of 2015, the greatest numbers came from Syria, Afghanistan or Eritrea.” Migrants, by contrast, are those moving across borders for reasons other than direct fear of war or persecution. Most are fleeing poverty, seeking better opportunities, or wishing to join relatives.

There are important legal distinctions between the designation of “migrants” and “refugees.” Refugees receive the benefit of the Refugee Convention of 1951, granting basic protections such as the right to apply for asylum. “One of the most fundamental principles laid down in international law us that [legal] refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat.” Individuals classified as migrants receive no such automatic protection.

Michael Ignatieff elaborates on this point as a key to understanding the current crisis as both an intellectual and political challenge. If I may quote directly from the abstract of his recent lecture at the European University in Budapest:

“According to Hannah Arendt, our ‘right to have rights’ comes from two sources: our citizenship in a given state and our shared identity as human beings. Refugees have lost their citizenship rights; migrants have given them up. What rights can they then claim, as human beings, when they arrive at our frontiers?”

Ignatieff introduces a profound question about rights and responsibilities. If we adhere to the natural law idea that some rights exists prior to the state, what then does this mean for state’s duties to non-citizens, those who arrive under various circumstances on the doorstep?

As we think about the current crisis, we might reflect on whether the distinction between “refugee” and “migrant” holds up. Is it important to make a distinction between victims and others? Is political persecution the key variable, or should their be a broader criteria such as threat to well being? Do we want to make distinctions between types of depravation or suffering? If so, where do we draw the lines?

With this background in mind, here is the context. Here is a useful narrative provided by on online resource called Story Maps.

Refugee Origins: approximately 14 Million in 2014 – 6.5 Million from Syria and Afghanistan; Source, UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees): Also, UNHCR uses category “Global Forced Displacement” due to persecution, conflict, generalized violence and human rights violation – that number is as high as 59 Million, up 8 million from the year before.
Refugee Population: 14.4 Million in 2014 – you can see large flows into Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon in 2014; in 2015, more than 1 million flowed into Europe
Migrant Deaths: 3,845. Many were dramatic, all heart-breaking: drowning in the Agean and Mediterranean seas; suffocation in transit trucks; accidents while trying to cross tracks and bridges
EU Immigration Quotas: 120,000 in 2014. In 2015, there was some movement but not much – with most of the discussion around formal asylum seekers (those who have submitted paperwork). These numbers are still out of alignment with the actual number of migrants, more than 1 million in 2015.
Migration Routes into Europe: Fences of various sorts seen in many places. Bulgaria-Greek border; Turkish-Greek border; Macedonia-Greek border; Croatia-Serbia (road closings); Hungary-Croatia border; Hungary-Romania border; Slovenia-Croatia (train closings); Austria-Hungary border (increased security); Germany-Austria (increased security); Denmark-Germany (increased border controls); Denmark Sweden (Increased border controls).
This is our theme of rising fences: Razor wire, concrete, guard posts, and all manner of police and security apparatus. Some of these routes have been made relatively humane and efficient – especially in choke points in Greece and Italy, where processing centers give food, shelter and basic goods and provide transportation so that migrants can move north. Other routes are less humane. Some of you will remember the iconic image of a Hungarian camerawomen who tripped and kicked a fleeing refugee near a border crossing between Hungary and Serbia. Under even the best circumstances, these crossings are rough
Europe Sea Arrivals: Here you can see the stress on southern Europe; and unfortunate by-product given the weakness of the economies in Greece, Italy, and Spain. The crisis is European and global – but the immediate consequences are felt in places with limited capacity. As the Danish Prime Minister put it when commenting on his country’s most recent response, which included not only imposing stricter border controls, but also reducing benefits to new arrivals: “It is clear to all of us in Europe that we need an overall European solution. The solution will not be found at the national border behind country A and country B.”

Responding to the Challenge

European leadership these days naturally turns Germany – the most powerful economic state in the Union. It leader, Angela Merkel has not shrunk from the role. 2015 ended with Merkel taking the position, “We can do this,” meaning that Germany could absorb the 1 million migrants that had arrived. Not all would receive asylum – yet she seemed confident that Europe, led by Germany, could get ahead of the crisis moving forward. Merkel took a strong stance welcoming Syrian refugees in particular. For these efforts, and for her leadership on the Euro and Ukraine crises, she was recognized as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”

In her New Year’s Eve address, Merkel said:

“I am convinced that handled properly, today’s great task, presented by the influx and the integration of so many people, is an opportunity for tomorrow.” …”Successful immigration benefits a country – economically as well as socially.” … “It is important not to follow those who, with coldness or even hate in their hearts, want to claim German-ness solely for themselves.”

Merkel also used her speech to point out that at next summer’s European soccer championship in France the German national team would be featuring German-born stars of Turkish, Ghanaian, Albanian, Tunisian, Polish, and Moroccan ancestry.

Merkel’s speech came on the heels of considerable grassroots activity in response to the urgency of the migration crisis. Local soccer clubs, schools, churches, and families have pitched in in different ways.

Behind the rhetoric seemed to be a confluence of values and interests. According the Financial Times, an official EU report estimates that population-flat or -declining Europe needs 60 million new citizens by 2050 to maintain economic momentum.

This positive approach to absorption and immigration runs against a considerable counter-current that many of you may already be thinking of. Merkel herself made waves in 2010 when she made a speech in which she said, “multi-culturalism has utterly failed.” Her speech was echoed in similar fashion by David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy. What was spreading across Europe five years ago, and continues to this day, is a sense that immigrant groups are not integrating into European society. They are not becoming part of the culture, part of the economy, part of the society.

Merkel has evolved dramatically from her 2010 skepticism in light of the current crisis. But she has not abandoned her previous position entirely. For Merkel, what is essential is that immigrants are willing to adapt to their new circumstances, that they show a genuine commitment to what she called in her recent New Year speech:

“Our values, our traditions, our understanding of the law, our language, our rules, and our values – all of these things undergird our society and are the fundamental requirements for the positive and mutual respectful coexistence of all the people in our country.”

Two slogans come to mind. No rights without responsibilities. And freedom is not free – duties of both citizen and state are required. Merkel appeals to both. In other words, Merkel expects immigrants to respect the social contract if they wish to avail themselves of the right to asylum and resettlement. In a sense then, these rights are conditional.

The second challenge to Merkel’s optimism comes from the recent violent incidents in Cologne, Stuttgart, Hamburg and elsewhere. As reported widely, just hours after Merkel’s New Year’s Eve speech, groups of men (reported to be Middle Eastern or North African) accosted women who were out celebrating the New Year in streets and squares. Accosted may be too polite a word. Allegations include groping, robbing, and rape. The facts are still coming to light, but I think it is safe to say that there is a level of shock that will be felt for some time. If it is true that groups or gangs of migrant men have perpetrated such crimes, it will give fuel to the argument that immigration and integration is failing.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is a leading voice of alarm about this trend. In a recent column ominously titled “Germany on the Brink” he wrote:

“If you believe that an aging, secularized, heretofore-mostly-homogenous society is likely to peacefully absorb a migration of that size and cultural difference, then you have a bright future as a spokesman for the current German government.

You’re also a fool. Such a transformation promises increasing polarization among natives and new arrivals alike. It threatens not just a spike in terrorism but a rebirth of 1930s-style political violence.”

Douthat goes on to suggest closing borders temporarily; an orderly deportation process focusing on young men – a similar suggestion to the one offered by another conservative columnist, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal who also suggests targeting young men for exclusion; and “giving up the illusion” that integration is possible under the current circumstances. For those of you interested, you can read about Douthat’s skepticism in his blog where he has posted his “Ten Theses on Immigration.”

While I have a very different view from Douthat’s on the possibilities for pluralism within western liberal democracies, I would say that his concern about security reflects genuine concern among a large group of people. The first obligation of any state is to provide protection for its citizens. Its legitimacy rests on its ability to do so – and if a population feels anxiety and uncertainty, it is counterproductive to summarily dismiss these concerns out of hand.

To go back to our theme of “fences.” The construction of a fence is not an irrational act. There are rational reasons for states to build barriers. It is not the strong states that are causing the current crisis. It is the weak and failing ones. The challenge now is for the strong states to provide a global framework for the flow of human beings around the planet. Each nation will have to figure out what conditions it will set, and what it will do for itself. But each will also have to figure out what part it can and should play in the bigger picture. No nation is an island – not even the United States or Canada, with two oceans to protect them from the rest of the world.

Perhaps it is no accident that the natural fence provided by two oceans has enabled the North Americans to be a bit more open than the Europeans. Justin Trudeau, the new prime minister of Canada made a strong statement as an “anti-fencer” by personally welcoming a plane load of Syrian refugees as they arrived in Toronto on a government-sponsored military transport. It was a heart-warming and inspiring Christmas story. The greeting was accompanied by a commitment of the Canadian government to accept 25,000 refugees in the coming months. We will see if that degree is sustainable into 2016 and beyond.

President Obama used his influence at the end of 2015 to expand the refugee quota in the United States as he tries to steer the United States toward a more accommodating posture. But he is facing continuing opposition in Congress. The president is also facing criticism from both sides – conservative and progressive – for current policies on detaining some refugees as they await asylum hearings. This is especially acute as it pertains to families – women and children in particular – along the southern border.


So what are we to conclude from the turbulent scene that we have been discussing? I’ll leave you with three ideas.

First, for all of the structural issues driving the current crisis, leadership matters. National leaders like Merkel, Trudeau, and Obama are at the fulcrum, communicating with the base of their support on one side and global geo-political forces on the other. Political leadership on this issue will require leadership in at least two directions: “in” toward restive and anxious publics; and “out” toward weak and ineffective international institutions.

The late American strategist George Kennan, known to be an arch-realist, put the challenge of leadership this way:

“It is at the national level that the main burden of legislation and administration will admittedly have to be borne, if certain kinds of [global crises] are to be halted…But it is also clear that the national perspective is not the only one from which the problem needs to be appreciated.

International agencies can help to gather data and determine facts; promote coordination of research; and even establish international standards.

What is lacking is an organizational personality – part conscience, part voice – which has at heart the interests of no nation, no group of nations, no armed force, no political movement, and no commercial concern but simply those of mankind generally.”

Kennan and his fellow realists have a strong sense that real power is at the state level – and it is likely to remain there. It is virtually impossible to recognize – never mind realize – universal human rights outside of national boundaries.

Therefore, the needs of stateless peoples – their human interests – must be funneled through “established channels of organized justice.” International community does not really exist when it comes to the social contract. There is no exchange of rights and responsibilities in the notional “world community” as we have at the state level. So to make progress on policy, leaders have to recognize that the moral concern for outsiders must be accounted for in the internal mechanisms of the state. It won’t happen automatically.

The leadership challenge is to reconcile national interests and global responsibilities. There are many dimensions to it. But perhaps the first is to approach it with approach it with empathy for all sides. As we have discussed, there are many interests at stake, and tradeoffs are inevitable.

Second, as the quote from George Kennan attests, collective -actions are necessary to address global-scale human interests. The migration issue shares similar characteristics to the global environmental crisis. Coordinated activity is required. Yet incentives are not easy to come by; and enforcement is impossible. On the migration issue, voluntary action will be the key:

There is a need to commit and coordinate relief. Public assistance is necessary to achieve the scale required. But private relief – especially from churches, religious organizations, and NGOs have an irreplaceable role to play in filling the gap. Organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children have enormous capacity, especially because they have the ability to work well in weak and failed states. For individuals who seek to be more active in responding to the current crisis, these organizations may provide the most effective means to participate in a meaningful way. Often lost in the conversation is the significant power of private and non-governmental actors – so we should not lose sight of their capacity and track record of extraordinary work. We should think about ways to empower them.
Security forces are needed to contain flows of refugees. This includes providing and securing relief camps closer to home so that some refuges can return. It also requires more active military engagement to create safe harbors. It seems to me there can be more pooling of resources and risks to provide this security.
There is also a need to design humane procedures for “processing” refugees. Recent stories of “raids” and summary deportations raise the stakes for more urgent and active responses to this element of the crisis. Again, this is an area where pooling of resources – and development of best practices based on experience – can be helpful.

The recent United Nations Conference on Climate Change that yielded the Paris Pledge for Action agreement might be a useful model and a harbinger of the future. What we saw in Paris was the purposeful coordination of national policies around specific, common goals. It is a hopeful development for the management of global-scale collective action problems.

Third and finally, if we wish to set a goal for the countries receiving immigrants, I propose the goal to be reestablishing the terms and conditions for a credible pluralism.

In my view, Douthat’s pessimism notwithstanding, pluralism is the essential element and we should not give up on it. Pluralism depends on a commitment to openness and self-correction. It reminds us that it is counter-productive to think that we can “purify” the world – that we can put a face on “evil” and eradicate it (or keep it out). As Ian Buruma said in a recent talk at the Carnegie Council, what may be more dangerous than the refugees themselves is the hysteria they produce.

Pluralism is ambitious, but realistic. It does not necessarily seek strong consensus. It will settle for a modus vivendi. Pluralism allows for competing ideas for the good life – and it makes space available for such self-determination. In a pluralistic society there is plenty of space to agree to disagree.

The new frontier for ethics is an ethics for a connected world. It is a global ethic that has its relevance locally. It is an ethic that strives to align what we do for our country with what we do for the world. This isn’t to say that sometimes the two will not conflict. They will. This is a fact in all ethical systems. Various goods conflict and we must choose. But that does not mean that we are without direction. We can chart a course that is more humane, and that takes into reason and emotion, head and heart. It can have big aspirations, while recognizing that human limits. While we may not able to do everything for others, we can do something – the least of which is to recognize our common plight and the tragedy of the current situation.

In short, we can do our part, ask others to their part, and work toward common goals. What we shouldn’t do – in my view – it to retreat behind fences, come what may. We owe the displaced a recognition of common humanity. We owe them a moral response beyond what is legally required. A fence may be a necessary thing. But no fence is permanent or impenetrable. As Frost’s poem reminds us, fences come and go, just like us.

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