Several puzzles lie at the center of the controversy regarding the right to asylum, some historical and political, others conceptual and ethical. The right to asylum has been recognized as a duty of humanity since the ancient period; why did it lose its status as posing an absolute universal duty in the mid-20th century? Is the answer strictly a political one, as Hannah Arendt suggests, [1] that when millions of political refugees were left stateless between the two world wars in Europe, opening one’s borders to these political refugees was viewed as a threat to the sovereignty of the European nation states at which they arrived. Similarly, the sheer numbers problem has been offered as the reason why President Clinton withdrew his promise to accept Haitian refugees when the Haitian state experienced vast chaos and political violence; it was estimated that tens of thousands of Haitians would be arriving on U.S. shores shortly before the Presidential election. [2]

Arendt further argues that the right to asylum as it was interpreted by the participating nations drawing up the UN International Protocol Regarding Refugees [3] was primarily motivated by the objective of protecting individual state sovereignty. This explains why the 20th century interpretation of the right to asylum was couched in terms of the right of non-refoulement, i.e. not being sent back to the site of persecution. As such, it’s being interpreted as a negative right, rather than the positive right to the resources that were needed to restore the persecuted or traumatized refugees to a level of physical and psychological functioning and well-being essential to exercising powers of citizenship and meaningful membership in community life. As an expression of sovereignty on the part of nation states in the mid- to late 20th century the right to non-refoulement (rather than the right to hospitality or the right to basic need satisfaction of persecuted and traumatized asylum seekers), it poses significantly fewer demands on the sate, and therefore constitutes less of a threat to sovereignty. In addition, given the historical and conceptual connections between state sovereignty and authority over one’s borders, and, in general, over issues of inclusion and exclusion, none-refoulement is consistent with sending refugees to third countries, in particular, those they may have passed through to arrive at the territory at which they’re seeking asylum.

Originally the concept “asylum” was linked to its Greek origin as meaning the right of non-seizure or arrest; it later became understood as a right of protection from serious harm, e.g. persecution, and historically has been responded to in a variety of forms. Humanitarian intervention has entailed either evacuation to a safe or at least safer place, although genocide has also elicited a response of military intervention, regarded as an alternative form of humanitarian intervention. In addition, asylum seekers have often fled from genocide by walking hundreds of miles to bordering states, where they have been given refuge in refugee camps; or have used other forms of transportation to arrive at distant territories, where they have faced long periods of incarceration in detention centers awaiting processing of their applications. Little attention has been paid in many camps and detention centers to their traumatized condition, but such sites do fit the criterion of providing protection or non-refoulement.

One way to resolve the ethical puzzle as to which specific duty is entailed by the right to asylum is to ask whether the right encompasses both a positive and a negative duty. Rather than viewing the possible responses nation states can provide to people seeking to escape genocide as essentially issues of application to be resolved on the basis of pragmatic criteria, the alternative is to interpret the right to asylum as entailing both positive and negative claims on potential host countries. As a negative right, the right to asylum for individuals seeking to escape genocide can be understood as an absolute right not to be killed gratuitously, i.e., outside the context of a war, and regardless of whether or not one surrenders to the military or paramilitary personnel doing the killing. [4] As such, it needs to be distinguished conceptually from the right of economic migrants to emigrate to a country where they can live a decent life. As a positive claim on host countries, it differs from other rights based in the right to life of potential victims, because it’s being claimed by a group that may have already been substantially harmed in their flight from genocide, as witnesses to some of the cruelest, most inhumane acts of barbarism committed against humanity. As a positive right, it can be viewed as a duty to necessitous strangers to be restored to the level of physical and psychological health and functioning essential to exercising the powers and capacities of personhood and citizenship.

The following essay attempts to provide support for this particular resolution of these issues by considering the writings of both Hannah Arendt on stateless people in the 20th century, Derrida’s writings on cosmopolitan cities of refuge and the duty of hospitality, and empirical and narrative accounts of political refugees’ situations in refugee camps worldwide.

Arendt on Stateless People.

What’s distinctively valuable about Arendt’s analysis of the plight of refugees during the European wars of the 20th century is the focus on their essential state of rightlessness. As stateless people, refugees are denied the basic political status of being a person, i.e. if they lack the basic right to have rights, in contrast to what Arendt refers to as a mere human being. For Arendt this means they have no public forum in which they can make claims to have their basic human rights or political rights recognized. It would seem that the primary object of her concern with the needs of the stateless people would have been the suffering they experienced when denied their basic human rights to subsistence, shelter, medical treatment, etc. But it’s not the suffering the German Jews and other Europeans experienced in the refugee camps in the 20th century that primarily concerns her: it’s that they were powerless to do anything about such suffering resulting from being denied a forum in which to claim their basic human rights.

Some interesting implications for the recognition of the right to asylum in the 21st century follow from this interpretation of Arendt’s analysis: that the right to asylum is not solely to the claim to have one’s suffering mitigated, whether in the form of medical treatment, food, water, shelter, access to one’s family, etc. Although lack of access to these basic goods entails one’s being denied basic human rights, it does not entail a duty to provide asylum even when such suffering is a result of fleeing genocide. Humanitarian aid can be provided in refugee camps in the same country as the genocide is occurring or in bordering countries, where they may be denied the opportunity to become integrated as citizens into the host country. Such refugee camps can be interpreted as minimal first-responses to the protection from genocide and persecution asylum seekers require. But refugee camps, in particular those in countries bordering the site of genocide or persecution, do not ameliorate the situation Arendt regards as essential to the asylum seeker as stateless persons: the most basic right to claim one’s rights and have them enforced as citizens in a democratic political forum.

Refugee camps do not change the essential political status of refugees as stateless persons occupying a no man’s land where even their basic subsistence needs may not be met. They’re often places where females are regularly raped by enemy forces or lawless predators, where militias or rebel groups abduct children into fighting forces, where disease and malnutrition add to the loss of lives, and where illiteracy and separation from one’s family and communities makes reintegration into social life in the future very difficult. They vary in the level of danger with which refugees must cope depending on the political will and circumstances of the country in which the camps are located. [5]

Understanding why Arendt’s focus is not on ameliorating the suffering of refugees in these camps or on the move to safety but rather on enabling them to regain political status requires an understanding of what Arendt believes was lost with regard to personhood in the concentration camps run by the totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century. Prisoners in these camps were deprived of what Arendt conceives of as the essence of human freedom: the ability to take initiative with regard to one’s fate. The capacities for natality (beginning something new) and spontaneity give political action and speech in the public realm of democratic decision-making its distinctive value for persons as democratic citizens. Loss of membership in the state for Arendt is tantamount to losing the right to make one’s claims heard in the political realm, including the claim to basic human rights, a claim refugees currently can only hope to be recognized by the international community. Without the political institutions that citizenship gives access to, refugees can appeal to philanthropy, NGO’s, acquiescent border guards and bordering countries, but they can’t voiced their claims as a matter of right. They can only hope to affect the political will of any of these groups, a result that can depend on a variety of arbitrary factors, including economic resources, and as well as political relationships among ethnic groups,

The most fundamental right that refugees are being denied while stateless is of such paramount importance to Arendt because of its relationship to the value of personhood: autonomy, natality, spontaneity, and freedom as initiative over one’s fate. Although occupancy in some camps have provided minimal opportunities for political organizing, political influence and limited control over their living conditions, these opportunities can’t begin to approximate those of citizens who can utilize the political realm in democratic nations and be accorded equality of rights satisfaction that’s provided to citizens as a matter of right. [6] Arendt’s arguments take on a particular significance when applied to the situation of the right to asylum of refugees fleeing genocide. In her essay entitled “We Refugees” she castigates the German Jews she’s met while a refugee in France and then later as a citizen of the U.S. for failing to keep their Jewish identity relatively intact and instead eschewing it for the sake of assimilation into their host country. [7]

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she had engaged in a similar attack on the “exception Jews” who were ancillary to the development of the burgeoning nation states in 19th century Europe, i.e., for failing to accept their responsibility for political engagement, thereby blinding themselves to the factors that precipitated their genocide in the 20th century at the hands of the Nazi regime. [8] For Arendt, retaining one’s identity as members of ethnic communities as well as achieving one’s own unique personal identity in the public realm in the context of human plurality and the other’s response to one’s claims are key to understanding what’s lost when one loses one’s political personhood. Yet, in “We Refugees” statelessness is described as a condition which imperils the lived experience of identity in community as well as the possibility of using the political realm to assure the opportunity for transmission of one’s cultural identity to one’s families. She describes the particularly painful loss of home which entails the familiarity of daily life, the loss of work and the attendant sense of usefulness, the loss of the opportunity to speak one’s own language and the natural reaction and spontaneous experiences of feelings it allows for, the loss of friends and family and the consequent rupture of private lives.

Much of Arendt’s criticism of the modern state in The Origins of Totalitarianism is based on its having reduced the public political realm with its tremendous potential for the discussion and resolution of genuinely political issues into a forum for social and economic interest satisfaction, with citizens often being reduced to clients. Yet the discussion presented in “We Refugees” of the tremendous input on the self’s identity, esteem and engagement in community life, when he is torn from the setting of home or ordinary life, reveals a different perspective on the relationship between the private and the public political realm and provides significant implications for refugees ‘ positive right to asylum. Of particular import here is the relationship between having political status and rights and issues of identity.

Liberal political institutions have historically been committed to protecting the private realm of family and household from the intrusion of the state based on the value of protecting the private individual’s identity, self-conception and private values. From such a liberal perspective, one’s identity is importantly linked to one’s actions, commitments and relationship s in one’s private life. Liberal political theory also puts great emphasis on the relationship between self-actualization and the freedom to express one’s views in the open marketplace of ideas. Arendt’s view that the public political realm being the site of identity formation in the context of plurality with different others challenging one’s views and identity, as well as validating them as distinctively one’s own, can be viewed as a distinctively liberal orientation.

Bringing these two separate lines of Arendt’s questioning together regarding the connection between identity and the political realm reveals an interesting set of issues for political refugees’ right to asylum, as the right to have rights. Issues of identity appear in two distinctively separate but related spheres, both for Arendt in her general political theory as well as for refugees with regard to the right to asylum. On one hand, the loss of home, continuity and familiarity inhibit refugee’s capacity for free, spontaneous political action given the connection between spontaneity and identity. A stable, unified self is better equipped to act spontaneously in the voicing of one’s political interests and rights, because she can react more confidently and self-assuredly because of her knowledge of her life plan, project, values and visions for one’s family and community. Separation from one’s family and community can bring about a sense of permanent separation, and can result in the diminution of the sense of pride in these affiliations that has sustained these people and provided much of their will to life in hostile, dangerous circumstances. Confidence in one’s self and pride in one’s community can allow for spontaneous political speech and initiative-taking by making it less likely a political agent will be vulnerable to merely reacting to other’s political rhetoric in an extremely vulnerable state of dependency as a refugee. [9] So, not only does the first-minimal response of protection and non-refoulement provided by refugee camps deny asylum seekers a forum for articulating what they envision as their best options for the future lives as members of stable, safe family and community members, the absence of such a forum means the loss of opportunities for mitigating the threat to their identity, an essential element for building stable, healthy communities for themselves in their post-refugee lives.

Yet, an important question still remains unanswered in Arendt’s analysis: is their being outsiders to both their former culture and nation state as well as foreigners to the state they’ve fled to that makes them marginal and disposable? Arendt’s most obvious response is that they’re being outsiders and therefore disposable is a function of their unable to claim their rights in a political forum. Her argument is that without a polity a person loses his humanity. Yet the access to a political forum to fight for their rights is hardly the primary concern of traumatized refugees who are attempting to transplant their cultural understandings in their host country. The paradigmatic context in which this freedom to act on one’s own initiative is linked to the extreme lack of it exemplified in the context of concentration camp prisoners. Viewed from this lens and based on her own experiences in fleeing Nazi genocide, it does seem clear that this capacity to act, rather than a mere animal capacity for behavior, is a fundamental type of human freedom. Secondly, there is a long philosophical tradition linking the freedom and opportunity to make one’s imprint on the world to the conditions for the development of the self and one’s identity. Thirdly, Arendt’s emphasis on the interest of a political refugee being that of the right to rights must be understood in light of these conceptual connections. It’s the move from being an object being acted on (in refugee camps, in being subjected to genocide) to being a subject that’s essential to understanding the situation of the refugee fleeing genocide.

But two problems arise with this solution to the problem stateless people fleeing civil war, persecution and genocide. One is the problem of recognizing how the value of such freedom to act depends on the presence of certain social and material prerequisites. Secondly, deprived of the family, culture, and social community which provide meaning to one’s action, as well as contribute to their efficacy, the benefits of self-actualization themselves are compromised. One clue to understanding why Arendt downplays these losses and their impact on political effectiveness can be gleaned from the following discussion in which Arendt is examining the aftermath of the experience of the horror of the camps: “A change of personality of any sort can no more be induced by the thinking about horrors than by the real experience of horror. The reduction of a man to a bundle of reactions separates him as radically as mental disease from everything within him that is personality or character unchanged, just as he left it.” [10] Even is this claim were substantiated by research on the lives of the concentration camp survivors of the Nazis, there is good reason not to make that assumption or draw further implications from it for 21st century survivors of genocide. Although the U.S. was not receptive to the requests for asylum made by the Jews escaping the Nazi’s genocide, Jewish communities worldwide have found the cause of Jews surviving World War II worth defending. Similarly, there was U.S government support for Cambodian refugees from the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal war against the Cambodians in the 70′s; however, this was linked to the U.S. own contribution to the chaos and loss of lives by the bombing of Cambodia towards the end of the Viet Nam war. The same support is currently not forthcoming for African survivors of genocide in Rwanda, Sudan or Dafur.

I will argue below that a new paradigm is needed for understanding how the recognition of refugees’ right to asylum must be based on a positive right to the resources needed to survive as functional citizens in host countries. This entails the opportunity and resources to draw from their cultural and family backgrounds the most basic material and psychological pre-requisites for citizenship. In addition, rather than viewing their primary role or political value in their host country as consisting in their fighting for their right in a political forum, I want to present a model of their potential contribution to the host country as “chameleon intermediaries”.

Refugee Camps as a Response to the Right to Asylum

The situation and prospects of asylum-seekers reveal strong reasons to regard their interests as constituting a right to asylum. The notion of right implies a correlative duty on specific duty holders, in this case the international community as a whole. Yet, several arguments have been posed that militate against the conclusion that any particular nation state must incur that duty as a matter of right. Michael Walzer approaches the issues of immigration rights in general from the viewpoint of communitarianism. [11] Essentially; his claim is that for communities within the larger nation state to retain their cultural autonomy without becoming fortresses of their own, a nation requires a sovereign government with coercive power to determine criteria of inclusion in and exclusion from their territory. Otherwise ethnic or cultural enclaves themselves can become sovereign political units, thereby threatening the integrity and order of the larger nation state with the worst-case scenario being the threats of secession and civil war. A policy of open borders then is not consistent with sovereignty of the nation state as a whole. Sovereignty then becomes the key political and ethical issue in determining the duty to accept immigrants, with duties to refugees and asylum-seekers viewed as subsets of the duty to needy strangers.

Walzer approaches the issue of the conflict between national sovereignty, which presupposed the right to cultural autonomy, and the duty to needy outsiders as a conflict between internal and external principles. A nation’s sovereignty entails the right to determine the ethical principles upon which claims of justice among citizens can be resolved. Walzer further describes these internal principles as relational, suggesting that they’re a function of the nation’s particular cultural norms. In contrast, the nation’s duties to needy outsiders are described as external principles, i.e. general ethical claims that are also generally referred to in the literature on the rights of refugees as basic rights of humanity. When external principles conflict with internal ones, cultural autonomy as a precondition of sovereignty is threatened. Furthermore, these internal principles themselves can become an object of degradation if they’re violated as a result of taking in outsiders and treating them unethically, e.g. through racism, discrimination, rights-violations, etc.

Sovereignty has been viewed as threatened by nations’ responding to the duty to protect asylum-seekers on two different fronts. First, if unlimited (i.e., open borders) the resulting ethnic enclaves formed by new and former residents who have formed autonomous communities can develop into sovereign entities unto themselves. The policy for determining which refugee groups and how many should be included therefore must be based on rational criteria of inclusion. Michael Dummett argues that such rational criteria can be determined by a group of national states voluntarily taking on the duty to provide asylum and who can assign an international commission to review applications and assign refugee groups to respective host countries by applying the agreed upon rational criteria. His suggestions include: available resources of the host country; existing family and cultural ties; languages spoken by the refugee group; cultural attitudes toward the refugee group in the potential host country. [12] Participating nations could set appropriate limits to the numbers of refugees they’re willing and able to accept, given issues of scarce resources and cultural integrity.

This proposal constitutes an enormous improvement over the current state of affairs with regard both to the legal status of the right to asylum, as well as the plight of asylum-seekers currently residing in refugee camps and detention centers. Currently the legal status of the right to asylum amounts only to the duty of non-refoulement, i.e. not to send back the asylum seeker to the home country where they face persecution, genocide, imprisonment, or grave rights- violations. Such a duty falls on the country upon whose shores or borders the asylum seeker has arrived. Given the distinction made between immigrants (e.g. economic immigrants) who can apply for immigrant status while residing in their home country and asylum seekers who can only apply for asylum once they’re arrived at the potential host country, asylum seekers without the funds or opportunities to travel to hospitable host countries are severely disadvantaged. For example, the U.S. Government under the Clinton and Bush presidencies offered an alternative to the processing of asylum applications on U.S. territory to Haitian and Cuban refugees by providing sites of review of applications on the military base in Guantanamo Bay, aboard ships, and in the Caribbean islands. Once an overwhelming number of refugees from Haiti were rumored to be arriving and applying for asylum, even these alternative arrangements were rescinded and boats were returned to Haiti. [13]

An international commission authorized by voluntarily participating countries to determine assignments based on agreed upon rational criteria would diminish the likelihood of asylum seekers languishing in detention centers without the option of consulting with attorneys who speak their language, or of arriving on the shores or borders of countries who hardly have the economic resources to provide sufficient food, water, medical care, psychological counseling and education for groups who could be camp residents for several years. [14] The decision for which groups are assigned to particular countries could be based on general, rational criteria rather than on proximity to the site of genocide or persecution or based on ideological criteria, such as the U.S. used during the Cold War, admitting asylum seekers from communist countries such as Cuba and Eastern European Bloc states. A further serious ethical concern has also been made apparent by the current legal requirement that asylum seekers be present in the territory of the host country to which they’re seeking asylum. One consequence of this requirement is the situation of hundreds of thousands of refugees living for years in dangerous unhealthy environments in refugee camps across the borders from their home countries.

Arthur Helton in The Price of Indifference [15] argues that there are extremely important political reasons for the international community as a whole to respond to the worldwide refugee crisis rationally and effectively. He describes them as the ultimate transitional figures, a destabilizing force depending on the political situation in the countries at which they seek asylum, in particular when they settle in dangerous refugee camps. Helton further claims that they’re often both the cause and the outcome of political instability; one example being the objective of Saddam Hussein’s expelling the Kurds, forcing them into Turkey where their presence further destabilized the Turkish government. Similarly, Milosevic sought to make refugees out of the ethnic Albanians residing in Kosovo, i.e. it wasn’t merely an outcome of his strategy of ethnic cleansing. The political refugee’s transitional status is further exacerbated by their having witnessed extremes of cruelty, degradation, violence to family members prior to their arrival in refugee camps, but where they often experience danger, violence, rape, abduction into child soldiering [16]</a) and a level of neglect inconsistent with basic humanity. Somali and Sudanese refugees in the Dadaab camps in Kenya experienced pervasive violence, restrictions on their education (and therefore future employment and social usefulness to their home country and face the impossibility of ever becoming part of Kenyan society. (FN 16 Helton) In addition these camps have been regarded as plagued by disease and malnutrition; most of the Chinese routed out of Cambodian cities by the Khmer Rouge into refugee camps in Thailand died of malnutrition and malaria. [17] Given their situation of being economically destitute and without possibilities of employment in the camps, they become easy prey for recruitment by militia, rebel or government military forces.

Not all refugee camps deprive refugees the opportunities and resources for retaining their cultural identifications and kinship ties. The Lakore camp housing Burundi refugees in northwest Tanzania have allowed for a certain modicum of political organizing, influence and power (e.g. the continuation of “big man” politics retained from African village life). Turner describes this camp as viewed by the Tanzanian government as an “exceptional space” with Tanzanian officials as having ultimate authority over issues of control over movement, jobs and assimilation, but which has a the same time afforded refugees opportunities to restore a semblance of family life by setting up an adoptive foster family system and other support networks. The UNHCR has also managed the camp in such a way as to promote empowerment among Burundi refugees by providing social services and support systems that enhance individual and community health and well-being, thereby better helping to prepare them for reintegration into normal community life.

Certainly there are other international responses that need to be institutionalized to ameliorate the 21st century refugee crisis, besides offering them temporary settlement in camps or in potentially long term assimilation into host countries’ citizen populations. These can include humanitarian intervention rather than evacuation, thereby obviating the need for asylum. Currently attempts at intervention in humanitarian crises such as mass terror (violence against one’s political enemies or opponents), civil war, genocide, or grave human rights violations haven’t been successful for a variety of reasons, including inadequate, inefficient, unorganized military and institutional responses from NGO’s. But given the long-term nature of state building and ending ethnic violence whose passions have been reinforced by decades of cycles of violence and retribution, the asylum option remains one of the most humane and promising in light of the urgency of the situation and prospects for these ‘ultimate transitional figures” who are the living testimony to the unstable, uncertain prospects for their nation or people’s future.


Several implications for the right to asylum can be gleaned from Derrida’s deconstructive analysis of the right to hospitality [19] First he appeals to Kant’s view that the right to hospitality of travelers arriving at a foreign destination is a right of visitation, not a right to a permanent home. So, the duty of providing asylum when modeled on the right to hospitality would entail providing hospitable guest provisions, and could be viewed as an extension of the moral principle of reciprocity, although without the expectation that the favor or gift be reciprocated automatically by the guest. [20]

Although the duty of hospitality has historically been acknowledged as owed to travelers passing through one’s territory and therefore not an absolute or permanent claim on one’s resources, there is some value to making this analogy with the right to asylum in the contemporary context of refugees. The duty of hospitality can be extended to asylum seekers as a short term response to their situation of homelessness and statelessness. Such a duty is inconsistent with restraining asylum seekers for several months or longer in detention centers without opportunities for contact with attorneys who speak their language. One important dissimilarity between refugees fleeing genocide and our own national population of homeless is the trauma that many of them have experienced in fleeing and witnessing murder and other forms of violent and inhumane loss of life and limb or other forms of bodily security, home, family, and community. In addition, the sooner children and adolescents fleeing persecution or genocide can be given psychological counseling and emotional support, the better their prospects for integration into normal, functional community life. The duty of hospitality that’s owed to refugees although typically short term has urgency beyond alleviating the traveler’s discomfort. Once an individual refugee or family has been restored to a level of physical health and emotional equilibrium, they can decide whether they wish to return to their home country if stabilized, or to put roots down in their host country with a possible option of dual citizenship.

Derrida’s genealogical analysis of the right to asylum as originating in the ancient duty of hospitality is also a deconstructive analysis, revealing conceptual impasses in this ancient right that are analogous to contemporary aporias. The duty of hospitality has its conceptual grounding in the right to private property held by the master of the household who extends hospitality to needy travelers. But the extending of hospitality to a guest in his home ultimately turns him into a hostage to his guest’s needs, thereby compromising his unrestricted liberty to exclude others from the use of his property. Just as the value of the right to private property is diminished when on no longer is in a position to exercise control over its occupants, a case can be made for a similar set of problems besetting host countries who open their borders to desperate traumatized others.

Although the sovereignty of nation sates and the control over whom to include therein as a matter of fact can be threatened by the presence of cultural enclaves as discussed above, sovereignty as a matter of principle entails the authority to determine who are friends and who are enemies and under what conditions exceptions to immigration policies can be enforced. [21] Furthermore, as Nietzsche argued, just as mercy and compassion can be extended by governments who have maintained an enviable climate of law and order as an expression of their power, so can these virtues be institutionalized in the form of asylum rights. [22]

In addition, applying the moral resources of a virtue ethic of compassion can be viewed pragmatically as providing greater flexibility in the institutionalization of this right, i.e., in a manner consistent with a host country’s future resources and political commitments. Accepting a refugee population based on such an ethic can also enhance the possibility that a nation state will be forging its identity as based on a political persona which is not limited to self-interestedness in the face of tremendous suffering of others.

A second aporia that emerges from Derrida’s deconstructive approach is that of the essential nature of the demands of justice, given his view that achieving justice presents a person (or here a state) with an infinite responsibility, most obviously in the context of the face-to-face relationship. In addition, the modern conception of “rights” is ambiguous as to whether this concept refers to the moral ideals that ground legal rights, or whether it’s an acknowledgment of particular cultural norms which have already been institutionalized into legal requirements. A two-level analysis of the basis to resolving modern rights conflicts can provide some insight as to how this challenge may be answered. [23] First, an analysis of the seriousness and weight of the interests at stake would be provided, including a comparative analysis of the interests in conflict. The seriousness of those fleeing genocide can hardly be underestimated: the interests in not being killed, maimed, raped, abducted into child soldiering, witnessing any of one’s family members undergoing those traumas; not losing one’s family members due to extended periods of displacement; as well as the interest in keeping intact one’s home, ancestral lands and community. In addition to the weight of these interests which are routinely threatened by genocide, the second level of rights-analysis would ascertain the power differentials between the parties with conflicting rights claims, here sovereign states’ rights to sovereignty and cultural integrity and autonomy vs. the rights of those escaping genocide. Imminent victims of genocide are relatively powerless to do anything but flee on foot in comparison to the power of sovereign states to take appropriate measures to safeguard their cultural and political resources. Furthermore, Derrida’s insistence on justice as always “a venir” (to come) suggests why it cannot be achieved by the balancing of present interests; the demands of justice aren’t achieved by the bringing about of harmony and order. These claims may be contaminated by the legacy of historical power and wealth acquisitions resulting from colonialism, nationalism or imperialism and hardly qualify as components to be balanced or harmonized in order to achieve justice.

Thirdly, one of the conceptual tools that Derrida offers to confront the aporias besetting certain untenable polarities is that of positing a third term which then functions to mediate between the two opposing terms Such a term can be found in the idea of cosmopolitanism in its Kantian sense as world citizen. [24] Such an affiliation can ameliorate the apparently conflicting claims of national sovereignty with its emphases on borders and exclusion and that of stateless citizens as bereft of any national political associations whatsoever. Appealing to a cosmopolitan identity can serve to ameliorate the unproductive, backward-looking policies these approaches have produced, one of these policies being that of viewing the problem of immigration as one of foreignness and the sites of the solution being the emigrants themselves and the borders they’re attempting to cross.

In addition the universal human rights claimed by stateless citizens have been argued to have both diluted the conception of “citizens” as claimants on the resources of nation states [26] rather than providing an additional level of protection of the dignity of persons, irrespective of their residency. Arendt makes a similar point in her analysis of the perception of Stateless persons during the interim during the two world wars as being stripped of their residence in a nation and “reduced” to a universal state of personhood thereby stripping them of the cultural affiliations and norms that sustain social interaction. [27]

Cosmopolitanism would entail a positive affiliation with citizens of diverse cultures, informed by the interdependent of those linked by transnational policies, rather than a null set of moral norms and resources. Embracing world citizenship enhances the potential for more democratic resolutions of global economic and political problems to the extent that it can transform citizens from the status of passive recipient of transnational transactions to an active participant in determining global policy concerns. In addition, embracing a cosmopolitan conception of citizenship and thereby tapping into one’s imaginative resources in order to better comprehend the plight of refugees can work to expand the boundaries of the self, thereby diminishing the tendency of modern Western citizens to withdraw into the realm of narrow nuclear family socio-economic concerns and into individualistic pursuits of interest satisfaction. Honig points out how the paradigm of immigrants actively seeking their human rights can model a more participatory form of citizenship. [28] This could be contrasted with a contemporary interpretation of rights in the form of the citizen as client relationship to the state, as well as with a modern focus on the right to be left alone or to advance one’s narrowly construed financial and consumerist interests.

Finally, when democracy is viewed as a political system in which all members have an equal right to have their basic needs represented by the political and legal institutions, global citizenship and awareness can reveal commonalities between host country citizens and accepted asylum seekers with regard to the impact on both groups brought about by transnational policies. Unemployment, whether due to local plant closings or to civil wars; food scarcity based in local agricultural practices or in the production of export crops in poor foreign countries which often result in political conflicts and emigration; homelessness whether caused by inadequate social services or civil war are all deprivations of vital interests that may no longer be displaced onto the problem of “foreigners”. Such a broadening of the parameters of groups these problems to include the discussion of the experiences of both categories of citizens can refocus the “them” and “us” categories to refer to those who formulate transnational policies that promote or exacerbate the above-cited deprivation of basic needs.

Yet, although the presence of refugees can enhance the workings of democracy by providing a vehicle by which first-hand accounts of massive rights-violations are occurring elsewhere, thereby falsifying official reports minimizing or denying that genocide is taking place abroad, and in providing exemplars of active rights-takings in the difficult quest for asylum, certain factors can work toward diminishing democratic processes. Honig elucidates this problematic in her argument for the “undecidability” of foreignness and the foreigner. [29] Despite our recent history of the achievement of many civil rights for blacks and other minorities, the current xenophobia of foreigners as terrorists has worked to obfuscate the drastic though passive acquiescence of the American public and its representatives with regard to privacy rights in the government’s quest for information. Rather than viewing this rights-violation as a power grab and denial of accountability on the part of the government, it has been projected onto foreigners as the cause of our disabling with regard to rights-protection. Expressions of xenophilia have been focused on cultural products available to the many in a multicultural society, rather than in light of the potential for building more democratic institutions in the form of public fora for holding the government accountable for diminishing civil rights. For those native citizens already alienated by the rapid transformations occurring in contemporary forms of social interaction (Internet, commercialization of the private sphere, proximity with foreign language speakers), an increasingly multicultural milieu has been shown to increase the isolation of such individuals. Greater involvement in local neighborhood activities and democratic grassroots organizations which include the refugee populations could ameliorate such alienation and isolation.

Another area of discussion that Derrida offers that’s illuminating with regard to refugee settlements in host countries is his discussion of cosmopolitanism, in particular, with reference to cosmopolitan cities, such as ancient Alexandria. [31] Derrida points out that as a result of Christian Pauline thought on the issue of cosmopolitanism, it has become interpreted as citizenship in a world community. Such cities functioned in ancient epochs as sites of residence that occupied a different political status than other political entities, i.e. provinces, villages, or nation states; they found themselves in a unique position of being relatively autonomous from the jurisdiction of the empires or larger territories in which they were located and affiliated with. Valued as centers of trade and cultural diversity, their flourishing in cultural and economic terms was tied to their diverse resources rather than to the economic and political benefits made possible by their being part of a cohesive, well-ordered nation. Taking heed from such a political model for cosmopolitan cities of refuge, Derrida’s discussion suggests some interesting solutions to the issue of possible locations’ and resources for asylum seekers.

Many urban areas in the U.S. are witnessing a steady decline in urban populations as a result of corporate outsourcing and other economic results of globalization, including vast shifts in employment opportunities and remuneration, a decline in the quality of inner city neighborhoods, setbacks in the quality of urban education, etc. Utilizing these areas as sites of urban renewal on the model of cosmopolitan cities can provide an economic boost to cities who seems to have run out of options with respect to urban shifts of population to suburban neighborhoods. Neighborhoods could be revitalized as ethnic populations create districts with restaurants, services, markets, and other other cultural opportunities essential for rebuilding their lives in a new community. Derrida’s appeal to Kant’s description of these cities as possible sites of reflection, as well as his own view that they could offer opportunities for progress, creativity and transformation suggests several interesting possibilities for urban revitalization. First, it would provide an opportunity for residents of the host country to become more informed about the richness and vitality of the refugee groups’ culture. Secondly, it can provide people of African ancestry to get the opportunity to explore the artistic, spiritual and other cultural resources of African refugees. Urban leaders and activists of African ancestry could utilize these groups in their efforts to develop an African cultural consciousness in youth in inner cities as a basis for developing their self-esteem (e.g. African drumming, dancing, story-telling). Thirdly, approaching the issue of ethnic communities in cities of refuge as a cultural resource, rather approaching the issue strictly in economic costs and benefits can broaden the parameters of political debate in host countries about immigration, which has been primarily couched in rigid polarized categories of conflicting rights (resident citizens vs necessitous strangers). A shift in the debate from one oriented towards issues of sovereignty, cultural economy, and limited economic resources to one broadened to include cultural understandings can involve a broader range of participants in the debate: artists, teachers, youth groups, activist, urban planners, neighborhood organizers, schools, etc.

Despite the apparent cultural benefits to be derived from hosting ethnic groups in cities of refuge, issues of cultural autonomy and integrity have been posed with regard to the American Ethic of unity through assimilation. Two responses are possible, given these concerns. One is offered by Danielle Allen in her book Talking To Strangers, Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown vs. Board of Education, in which she makes a distinction between the political ideal of unity in contrast to that of wholeness. [32] Allen distinguishes between the metaphor of “oneness” which she regards as only one way to direct citizenly practices and customs toward the sovereign state’s ideals of integrity and community. And as such, the myth of oneness or unity in the United States has given rise to an interpretation of national integrity based on homogeneity. Her analysis of the tragedy of Little Rock, Arkansas, documents a violent confrontation between black and white citizens vehemently blocking the entrance into the public school of black students who were following a federal order to integrate the Little Rock schools Her account of the level of violence, anger and subsequent separation that resulted from the confrontation illustrates the political practices and issues that arise when a model of oneness is the dominant interpretation of national wholeness or integrity. She concludes with reference to the violence of the confrontation, “most important, the citizenship of oneness consisted not so much, as we tend to think, of exclusion as of (racial) domination and acquiescence.” [33] Concerns about the threat ethnic enclaves pose to national sovereignty can be ameliorated when the reference point if shifted from the ideal of oneness as homogeneity to that of an ideal of wholeness, which is consistent with a wide variety of components contributing their distinctive cultures to the whole.

Secondly, an important distinction needs to be made between two different conceptions of cultural autonomy: one as independence from the coercive or manipulative pressures that can be placed on cultural groups when being overtaken by the ubiquity and dominance of a larger, or more influential cultural group. A second conception of cultural autonomy is predicated on a definition of individual autonomy, as a capacity for critical reflection and evaluation of one’s desires and motivations and possibly a transformation of these as a response to such critical evaluation. This second conception of autonomy is enhanced, rather than diminished or threatened, by being exposed to alternative value systems or cultural forms of life.


One can conclude from the above discussion that although the right to asylum of those fleeing genocide has been argued for as an absolute (negative) right not to be killed, and as such, as posing an unconditional duty on the international community as a whole, the current situation of millions of displaced political refugees seeking asylum can be responded to as a positive right to be restored to their capacities for community life. Their experience of those fleeing genocide qualifies them to be placed in a different category from other necessitous strangers, economic migrants or travelers. Potential host countries can voluntarily assign an international commission to determine which various groups are best matched to potential host countries based on a set of criteria determined by the international group as a whole. Viewing the negative duty as absolute and the positive one as conditional on voluntary participation and the application of rational criteria can help reduce the tension between the right viewed as comprised of contradictory duties (i.e. conditional and unconditional)

Secondly, appealing to ethical concepts framed in the language of virtue when approaching the positive right to asylum can break the standoff many developed countries find themselves dealing with when the debate is couched in terms of incompatible rights. Tying this discussion to Arendt’s concerns with asylum seeker’s lack of the powers of initiative taking, the positive right to

asylum can be interpreted as a duty to provide the opportunities and resources needed for utilizing their capacity for initiative taking with regard to their group’s fate. Although it was Arendt’s intention to argue for the right to have rights as an essentially political right, it’s clear that the value of such a right awarded to citizens presupposes meaningful contact and support from one’s family and friendship networks. Providing “exceptional spaces” for restoring their hope and Furthermore, this solution seems additionally valuable in an era in which globalization has been interpreted by developing countries primarily in terms of economic activities occurring in spaces accessible to the public through the mediation of telecommunication, mass media or financial reports. Cities of refuge would provide opportunities for developing new insights and creative solutions to problems globalization has yet to bring about by involving different combinations of citizens in “exceptional spaces.”

Finally, the second generation of political refugees who have obtained asylum can function as “chameleon intermediaries” with the capacity for interpreting the differences between their own native culture and the culture in which they find themselves in a uniquely valuable manner. On one hand, they can seize the opportunity to move more smoothly between the culture of their relatives and the host country’s own diverse cultural legacy by offering interpretations of each, gained from the perspective of those occupying two worlds. [34] Offering their authentic perspective of chameleon interpreters could be invaluable in promoting the rich cultural resources of their families while at the same time diminishing the alienation that often occurs when an immigrant or refugee perceives his options as assimilation or isolation.


[1] Hannah Arendt, “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man”, The Origins of Totalitarianism,, Harcourt Brace, 3rd edition, 1966.

[2] Arthur C. Helton, The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[3]The UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees requires states to offer refuge to persons who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling, to avail ohimself f the protection of that country”, from Phillip Cole, Philosophies of Exclusion, Liberal Political Theory and Immigration, University of Edinburgh Press, 2000.

[4] Helen Fein defines genocide as a sustained attack perpetrated against a definable group – ethnic, religious, political, racial – with a sustained purposeful design on killing the members of a group because they’re members of that group and requires further that they’re defenseless and will continue to be killed regardless of whether or not they surrender. She also argues that the killing doesn’t end when the larger war is over. “Genocide, Terror, Life, Integrity and War Crimes: The Case for Discrimination” from Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions, , Geroge J. Andreopoulos, ed. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

[5] Helton, op.cit.

[6] Simon Turner, “Suspended Spaces – Contesting Sovereignties in a Refugee Camp”, from Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, eds., Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World, Princeton University, Princeton, 2005.

[7]Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” from Feldman, The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, Grove Press, N.Y. 1978

[8] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, op. cit.

[9]Lost Boys of Sudan, Point of View Video Production, Actual Films and Principe Production in association with American Documentary, Inc. and ITUS, 2003.

[10] Arendt, op.cit.

[11]Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, Basic Books, 1983.

[12]Michael Dummett, On Immigration and Reform, Routledge, 2000.

[13] Helton, op.cit.

[14] Dummett, op. cit.

[15]Helton, op. cit.

[16]“Darfur Refugees Forced to Join the Fight”, Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 2006. The article documents children being abducted from refugee camps in eastern Chad and forced to fight with both Chadian and Sudanese rebel groups operating in the area. “Although the exact number is unknown , the UNHCR estimates that around 4,700 (adult and children) refugees in Chadian camps were abducted last month (March 2006).” P. 6.

[17]Helton, op.cit.

[18]Ben Kiernan, “The Cambodian Genocide: Issues and Responses” from Andreopolous,op.cit.

[19]A deconstructive analysis will be interpreted here as one which focuses on the conceptual impasses arrived at when a concept is broken down to reveal an untenable set of polar terms.

[20]Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality: Cultural Memory in the Present, trans. Rachel Dowlby, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2000.

[21] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political , University of Chicago Press, 1996.

[22] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, trans. F. Golffing, N.Y . Doubleday,1956

[23] Michaeleen Kelly, “Rights and Power, A Feminist Re-thinking of Liberal Rights”, Journal of Social Philosophy, Fall, 1994.

[24] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Thinking in Action,Routledge Press, NY 2001.

[25]foreigners with a resulting “we” vs. “them” resolution, thereby eliminating serious analyses of the global conditions and national policies contributing to emigration.

[26] Pheng Cheah, Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2006.

[27] Arendt, op. cit.

[28] Arendt, op. cit. Honig, op.cit.

[29] Honig, op.cit.

[30] Honig, op. cit.

[31] Derrida, op.cit.

[32] Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers, Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown vs. Board of Education, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004.

[33] Allen, op. cit

[34] An interview in October, 2009 with the Roeun family of Elkhart, Indiana revealed the importance of providing second generation children of political refugees who had fled from Cambodia during the Pol Pot genocide with opportunities for occupying such dual roles. One daughter described her high school education in both San Francisco and in Mishawaka, Indiana as invaluable as a result of teachers who provided in San Francisco a Cambodian club for providing Cambodian students with opportunities to share with one another stories of their culture, and in Mishawaka, Indiana an ethnic culture club which played a similar role for immigrants and refugees. The areas of Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana provide numerous occasions for celebrating the Cambodian culture in the form of yearly holidays (Cambodian New Year celebrated at the same time as Chinese New Year) as well as providing markets for the purchasing of essential ingredients for making Cambodian food. These educational and cultural opportunities are extremely important for the well-being of the Cambodian people living in the U.S. Cambodian refugees are believed to be the least well-equipped of all refugees in the U.S. with respect to transferring the economic, educational and material resources of their culture. This is due to the Khmer Rouge killing so many of the Cambodian intellectual and upper economic classes. This may also contribute to the fact that although it’s been on average “more than 2 decades (that have) elapsed since arriving in the United States, our sample revealed high rates of past-year (2004) PTSD (62%) and depression. (51%)” “Mental Health of Cambodian Refugees 2 decades After Resettlement in the United States”, Grant Marshall, Terry Schell, Marc Elliott, S. Megan Berthold, Chi-Ah Chun, JAMA, 2005.


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Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” from Ron Feldman, The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, Grove Press, N.Y. 1978. “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man”, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace, 3rd edition, 1966.

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Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, Basic Books, 1983.

Aristide Zolberg, A Nation By Design, Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006.


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