Refugees and Humanitarian Ethics: Beyond the Politics of the Emergency
“The subject of refugees and displaced people is high on the list of international concerns today not only because of its humanitarian significance, but also because of its impact on peace, security and stability. The world cannot reach a new order without effectively addressing the problem of human displacement.” The wording of the High Commissioner’s statement is worth reflecting upon for it points to a fundamental ambiguity that characterizes conventional multilateral responses to the phenomenon of global refugee flows: what is the relationship between a commitment to humanitarian action on the one hand, and to the principles and norms which underline the “peace, security, and stability” of the international system of states on the other? While the first commitment appeals to a common human identity as the basis for multilateral humanitarian action, the second directs our concern toward maintaining a world order which insists upon citizenship as the authentic ethico-political identity. In the discussion that follows I wish to explore this ambiguity by investigating the conditions under which refugees have been classified as an object of humanitarian concern. This, in turn, means investigating how the category of the “refugee” has been invented and naturalized. I will stress that the contemporary range of ethical possibilities that inform multilateral responses to refugee flows is intimately related to ongoing struggles surrounding the nature and location of “political” community and identity. This paper will consequently focus on the question of whether international humanitarian responses to refugee flows work to reinforce or transform the constitutive principles of modern statist conceptions of community, identity, and world order.