Refugees and the Humanitarians’ Dilemma

Refugees

The doctrine of humanity’s original, common ownership of the earth was a staple of natural rights philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These philosophers greatly influenced the natural rights philosophy of America’s founding generation, a philosophy which the founders articulated, among other places, in the Declaration of Independence. I’ve mused this last week on the arguments of one of these natural rights theorists, Hugo Grotius. Grotius devotes a great deal of attention to how (in his view) the original state of humanity’s common ownership of the earth continues to influence just claims even after the rise of nations and private property.

Of special interest given current events are Grotius’s arguments on the implications of the original condition for immigration and refugees. Earlier I considered Grotius’s argument that a nation must allow immigrants to claim “waste or barren land” in a country as a matter of right. But barren, unused land was not the only condition under which Grotius would require a nation to admit immigrants as a matter of (natural) right. Perhaps even closer to current events is Grotius’s discussion of “necessity” as a condition conferring a right to immigrate into other countries.

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