Maeve Sherlock: 'The place of asylum in our new moral landscape'

From the British Institute of Human Rights lunchtime lecture by the chief executive of the Refugee Council

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The 1951 Refugee Convention was framed in response to a colossal ethical failure: Jews fleeing Nazi Germany found closed doors wherever they turned. As a consequence, the Convention's framers placed their faith in a system of legal obligations, mindful of the suffering and devastation that sprang from reliance on the humanity of states. Now, the legal rights enshrined in the Convention have been eroded through a process of legal and political attrition, and the advocacy of refugee and human rights organisations has failed to arrest their decline.

How do we begin the process of reaffirming our commitment to the right of asylum, and providing protection to those who need it? For those of us committed to the human right of asylum, perhaps the answer lies in a radical affirmation of the ethical basis for the legal rights of the Refugee Convention.

The utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer has argued that globalisation has enormous and as yet unexplored implications for our moral landscape. In a global economy it is no longer possible to close our doors to the vulnerable, and use the boundaries of the nation state to draw the boundaries of the duties we owe each other. In a sense, the legal right to asylum, always global in scope, is coming of age.

In practical terms, this means articulating the so-called asylum "debate" in the context of the West's role in creating the crises from which refugees flee. It means looking holistically at the connection between poverty, famine, social and political instability and refugee-producing situations. It means being prepared to talk about those who fall outside of the Convention definition, such as those fleeing conflicts, or internally displaced people.

Thinking in this way could be a powerful tool to advocate for the legal right to asylum, for stemming the erosion of our protection system, and rebuilding it. Restating the human right to asylum means taking on the challenge of considering our ethical responsibilities to each other in a "globalised" world: perhaps this is how we can make sure the UK's door is open.

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