Misplaced Idealism and Incoherent Realism in the Philosophy of the Refugee Crisis

Publikation: Bidrag til tidsskriftTidsskriftartikelForskning


The refugee crisis, both in the global sense of the staggering number of refugees in the world at the moment and in the specific sense of, e.g., the people fleeing the war in Syria, raises a number of philosophical questions. One set of questions concern how we should conceptualize what is going on. This includes the framing of the entire phenomenon as a “refugee crisis” and the concept of “refugee” invoked in doing so. The philosophical question here concerns what we mean by this, why we frame what is going on in these rather than other terms, and what the implications are of doing so. Another set of questions concern what the appropriate normative response to the refugee crisis is: what duties do which actors have to respond to, e.g., refugees from Syria, and what is the best way of doing so? While these two questions are analytically distinct, the answers to them are arguably not, since the labelling of some people as refugees in ordinary as well as legal parlance implies acceptance of certain duties towards these people, minimally the duty of non-refoulement (Lister 2013, 648).
There are genuine disagreements about exactly in which sense the people fleeing Syria are refugees, i.e. precisely which concept of refugeehood we should use, exactly which duties other states have to help them, what the justification for these duties are, and how best to discharge them in practice.
While there are philosophical questions about the refugee crisis, the practical problem of bridging the gap between the duties of justice and the limited subset of these duties that actual agents, e.g. states, comply with is not susceptible to philosophical solution. This difference, however, is one that philosophy can say something about. I suggest that the difference is not only about a gap between what states ought to do and what they in fact do. I will suggest that the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory (Rawls 1999) also plays a role here, which we should pay attention to when engaging in philosophical discussion of the refugee crisis.
This should come as no surprise, since the crisis clearly is non-ideal – otherwise we would not call it a crisis. Nevertheless, I will argue, many contributions to the philosophical debate about both the conceptual and normative issues fail to take properly account of this difference. I will argue that this makes several otherwise interesting and apparently plausible contributions to the philosophy of the refugee crisis problematic. They are problematic in the sense that they mix up ideal and non-ideal aspirations and assumptions in an incoherent way undermining the proposed views.
I will present two examples of this problem, one from the conceptual debate about how we should understand refugeehood and another from the normative debate about how states should discharge their duties to help refugees. The first example is David Miller’s refugee definition offered in his recent work on the philosophy of migration. The second example is a common argument for why European states should help in neighboring countries rather than by taking in more asylum seekers. Both are examples of arguments about how we should understand or respond to the refugee crisis, which appear to offer coherent principles for the moral guidance of political actors but which are actually incoherent as principles of practical reasoning for the context they aim to address.
TidsskriftJournal of Global Ethics
Udgave nummer3
Sider (fra-til)269-278
Antal sider10
StatusUdgivet - 14 dec. 2016


  • flygtninge
  • flygtningepolitik
  • migration
  • politisk realisme
  • ideal teori
  • David Miller

Citer dette