One Man’s ‘Burden’ is Another’s Refugee

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Eritrean refugee in Sudanese camp, Khashm el Girba / photo: daveblume/flickr
Eritrean refugee in Sudanese camp, Khashm el Girba / photo: daveblume/flickr

Every year, 20 June marks World Refugee Day . The UNHCR notes that for the 42 million uprooted people around the world, “a shortage or lack of the essentials of life – clean water, food, sanitation, shelter, health care and protection from violence and abuse – means that every day can be a struggle just to survive.”

So how could this situation be improved? In the first of his lectures as part of the Reith Lecture Series 2009 , Harvard professor Michael Sandel discusses the idea of tradable refugee quotas. In this system, each country would be allocated a yearly quota based on national wealth. Then, states would be free to buy and sell these obligations – and, according to market logic, everyone benefits: Countries unwilling to accept refugees meet their obligations through outsourcing, those willing to accept gain a new source of revenue, and more refugees are rescued than would otherwise find asylum.

This solution can be traced back to law professor Peter Schuck , who published an article in the 1997 Yale Journal of International Law entitled “Refugee Burden-Sharing: A Modest Proposal.” Sandel highlights the objectionability of viewing refugees as burdens – rather than as human beings. This is echoed by the UNHCR, which has taken “Real People, Real Needs” as its slogan for this year’s campaign. Amid the global economic crisis, it is important to remember that refugees are individuals with real needs; a responsibility as opposed to a nuisance.

The transcript of the lecture (in rich text format) is available to download here

To listen to audio streaming of the lecture (requires RealPlayer), click here . Sandel discusses the refugee issue at approximately 13’20.

Further Reading
“International Trade in the Provision of Public Goods? The Case of Refugee Protection” – an open-access journal article

Modern-day slave trade? – an article from the Malaysia Star newspaper

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