The Especially Vulnerable Status of War Refugees


Jennifer Kling is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan who works primarily in social, political, and moral philosophy and who is currently focusing on issues that arise in just war theory.  Professor Kling gave a talk at this summer’s Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress on “Who Owes What to War Refugees”.  What follows below is a short excerpt from that talk.  What’s Wrong? is grateful to Professor Kling for making this short piece available to its readers.

(image: refugees)

The Especially Vulnerable Status of War Refugees

War refugees are overwhelmingly likely to be persons of color, women, children, or members of some other systemically oppressed group. (A systemically oppressed group, to follow Marilyn Fricker, is a group that is oppressed on the basis of their group membership across many, if not all, of the various spheres that comprise social and political life.) As members of systemically oppressed groups, war refugees are especially vulnerable to severe harms and wrongs. I argue that war refugees’ especially vulnerable status makes it so that others have extra obligations to protect and care for them, in addition to the obligations that normally hold between people as a matter of course.

To see this, consider the case of African-Americans in the United States. Their systemic oppression (I assume, for the purposes of this blog post, that African-Americans are systemically oppressed) makes them especially vulnerable to severe harms and wrongs, and further, makes it so that we have extra obligations to ensure that our actions do not further harm and wrong them. As a care ethicist might put it, African-Americans have extra needs in virtue of being systemically oppressed, and we are obliged to respond to those needs. (I follow Nel Noddings on this point.) In other, perhaps more common-sense terms, I think that we have an obligation not to rub salt in the oppressed’s wounds. The recent controversy over the Confederate flag is a case in point; to continue to fly the Confederate flag at the Alabama state capitol would be, at least in part, to poke viciously at an already-tender group.

To take another example, let us consider the phenomenon of “mansplaining”. (This term was introduced by Rebecca Solnit, and refers to the common phenomenon of a man insisting on explaining something to a woman, usually in a condescending tone, even when she repeatedly points out that she already knows about/understands the issue in question.) Mansplaining is different from the more general phenomenon of arrogance, precisely because of the history of women as a systemically oppressed group. Although everyone might well have an obligation, in general, not to be annoyingly arrogant, it seems as though men have an extra obligation not to mansplain to women, because to do so is to contribute to and make worse an already-existing vulnerability and source of harm.

Following these examples, insofar as war refugees are overwhelmingly likely to be members of systemically oppressed groups, they also are especially vulnerable, and so we have extra obligations to protect them. The ‘we’ in this case refers to national and extra-national groups, who are, I think, the relevant actors on the international stage. (I do not have the space here to argue for this claim; so, I simply assume it for the sake of the argument.) Thus, national and extra-national groups have an extra moral duty, besides the obligations that hold between persons in the normal course of events, to protect and care for war refugees. At the very least, if my argument is correct, national and extra-national groups are obliged not to make the situation of war refugees worse through careless policy decisions, ineffective political wrangling, and/or evasive diplomatic maneuvers. War refugees are already especially vulnerable; as such, they deserve extra care and attention, rather than the half-hearted efforts that currently exist today.



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