Hypocritical Inhospitality: The Global Refugee Crisis in the Light of History

Luke Glanville
Content Type
Journal Article
Carnegie Council
Political authorities often claim that states have an absolute right to decide for themselves who enters their territory and the conditions on which they enter by mere virtue of their sovereignty. In 2018, for example, the then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, responded to the UN’s criticism of the Donald Trump administration’s practice of separating children from parents entering the United States without documentation, including those claiming asylum, with a typical appeal to sovereign prerogative: “We will remain a generous country, but we are also a sovereign country, with laws that decide how to best control our borders and protect our people. Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.”1 A brief glance at the history of sovereignty, however, reminds us of two crucial things. First, sovereignty is socially constructed, and its meaning and implications have changed and continue to change over time. Sovereignty need not entail, and historically has not entailed, an absolute right to regulate the movement of people in and out of one’s territory.2 Second, we are reminded of the deep and problematic ties between the history of sovereignty’s construction and the history of the European colonial project.3 Sovereignty was for a long time considered a privilege enjoyed only by Europeans and those non-Europeans whom Europeans deigned to acknowledge as civilized members of the “family of nations.” It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that Europe’s widespread empires were finally dismantled, self-government was granted to formerly colonized peoples, and the institution of the territorially bounded sovereign state spread across the globe. More than that, for centuries, the wealth of Europe’s sovereign powers was augmented, and the territories of their soon-to-be-sovereign settler colonies beyond Europe were acquired by means of violent conquest, subjection, enslavement, displacement, and, often, slaughter of nonsovereign indigenous peoples. The powerful once demanded hospitality from the vulnerable. They now deny it to them. That much is well known. What is less well known is that one justification that European imperial powers offered for the violent subjection of nonsovereign non-Europeans, at least for a time, was indigenous peoples’ violation of a supposedly natural and enforceable duty of hospitality. Today, many of these same powers—including European Union member states and former settler colonies, such as the United States and Australia—work tirelessly and expend billions of dollars to resist granting hospitality to forcibly displaced people seeking asylum at their borders or waiting in refugee camps and urban centers in developing regions of the world. The powerful once demanded hospitality from the vulnerable. They now deny it to them. This essay examines the hypocritical inhospitality of these wealthy and powerful states in four stages. I first outline how the notion of a duty of hospitality was deployed as a justification for European colonialism. Second, I contrast this historical demand for hospitality with the denial of hospitality by former colonial powers today, noting that they legitimate this denial by again imposing an expectation of hospitality on others. Third, I consider the justified limits to the duty of hospitality, explaining how Immanuel Kant and others usefully sought a formulation of the duty that would protect the vulnerable from the predations of powerful intruders while still requiring the powerful to provide relief to the displaced vulnerable. And fourth, I argue, given that certain states accrued vast wealth and territory from the European colonial project, which they justified in part by appeals to a duty of hospitality, these states are bound now to extend hospitality to vulnerable outsiders not simply as a matter of charity or even reciprocity, but as justice and restitution for grave historical wrongs.
Refugee Crisis, Colonialism, Humanitarian Crisis, Hospitality
Political Geography
Global Focus