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Saturday, 1 January 2011

Borders and Refugees

The politics of refugees and policy responses in Australia raise questions about how we understand the role of borders and the moral responsibility and status of nations. This later issue is one that the Christian community or movement needs to do some serious thinking about given its fundamental theological commitments regarding ecclesiology, the character of the church, and its practice of mission.

The ABC religion and Ethics website has recently re-listed a number of articles relevant to this issue.
 Luke Bretherton in The Moral Status of Borders frames the moral issues at stake in the following way:


Mass migration is a central feature and consequence of globalisation and will continue to be a major factor of social, political and economic life for the foreseeable future. Mass migration is, of course, not a new phenomenon, but it is morally and politically problematic for two key reasons.

It is politically problematic because it involves crossing borders between different nation-states and therefore it involves the re-negotiation of the fundamental political and legal status of the individual concerned.

It is morally problematic because current immigration policies adopted by all nation-states favour the needs of the strong (the existing members of a polity) over the weak (asylum seekers and vulnerable economic migrants).

The underlying options shaping the political debate and policy response to mass migration seem unable to cope with either reality. We seem to be forced either to prioritize the needs of the strong, and so have closed borders with tight immigration controls and large-scale deportation of illegal immigrants in the hope that this will deter further migrants; or we prioritize the needs of the weak and have open borders.
Bretherton then sets out two major ethical stances that are prominent in the debate:
  • Liberal utilitarianism starts from the principle that democracies owe an equal duty of care to all humanity and that by implication borders should be open. What is critical here are the rights of the individual and that these should in general take priority over the existence of a particular political community.
  • A communitarian approach takes the stance that borders are not only practically necessary but morally required and needed to sustain the life of the community.
Christians, Bretherton argues, have difficulty with utilitarianism because of its abstract account of the individual. We are called to love, as the parable of the Good Samaritan exemplifies, particular people in particular places. On the other hand, the cultivation and maintenance of a distinctive national life as argued by the communitarians, cannot be an end in itself, but must be subordinated to the concern for a broader international order of justice and freedom. Though Bretherton does not develop this point, there is a case here for viewing concern with such an order from the perspective of the catholicity of the Christian movement, a commitment that is not confined within the limits of the world of nations.


The true end of humans lies neither in family, nor in a particular culture or nation, nor in some kind of worldwide polity, but in communion with God. The way we order the relationship between the needs of migrants and the needs of existing citizens needs to be set within this bigger picture.


... we need to see borders as a face that we, as a nation, present to the world. A face is what says that I am somebody who deserves respect, that I am not simply a piece of land to be bought and sold or a thing to be used for a time.

It says that I have a personality and a history and a way of doing things, but also that I am made for relationship and without coming into relationship with others who are different from me, then I do not grow.

Ultimately, it says that I am a face who seeks to look upon the face of God and who finds the face of God reflected, not in the faces of the strong and powerful, the skilled and the economically capable, but in the faces of the orphan, the widow and the refugee - and this is who God bids invites me to be hospitable.

To think of borders in terms of the metaphor of the face re-orientates us to see there is value to be placed upon the existing community, but the existing community is not an end in itself. It is only fulfilled as it moves beyond itself and comes into relationship with those around it.
On this basis Bretherton provides a quick sketch of the policy stance that would follow from the metaphor of borders as the face of a community.

Borders are a means of framing and structuring this relationship, and orientating places like Britain and Australia to the rest of the world in a way that presents an enquiring, confident, hospitable face rather than a closed, incestuous, hostile face that abjures its responsibility to the poor and vulnerable.

By understanding a nation's borders as a face, we can express pride in our national character and history. We can also require that those whom we welcome learn our language and commit to the economic, social and political life of this country.
But it also requires that we move beyond mere humanitarian concern or isolated charity, and toward authentic long-term relationships, and it is this that enables strangers to become citizens.
So much for the first of these articles. The question left hanging here relates to the role of the church in arguing for and articulating such an option.

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