To ignore others can be to forget oneself: Europe’s laws of hospitality and the refugee crisis

by Garrett Wallace Brown

As Europeans confront the profound political challenges of the current refugee crisis, they would do well to reflect on a longstanding ethical tradition: the laws of hospitality. From ancient Greece to the Enlightenment, a call to welcome strangers escaping harm, persecution and death has been at the centre of Europe’s history of ideas.

The laws of hospitality first appear in Homer’s The Odyssey as Xenia, Greek for ‘guest-friend. Xenia posits that one has a moral duty to accept strangers who arrive upon your land with hospitality and respect. This demand was protected and governed by the great god Zeus himself. There are over 20 so called ‘hospitality moments’ expressed within the pages of The Odyssey, where virtues of mutual hospitality and the capacity to help were extolled. As Homer writes:

Come, friend, and give me something: For you seem to be no lowly man among the Greeks, but a noble human. So you should offer more than others can. I, too, was once a man of means; my house was richly and I often gave to vagabonds, whoever they might be, who came in need.

The virtue of hospitality also appears in Greek philosopher Diogenes’s famous claim, when entering Athens in 300BC, to be a ‘citizen of the world’ (kosmopolites). The 16th century scholar Bartolome de Las Casas argued that a right to hospitality was a natural right bestowed upon all humans, both European and ‘native’, and that failure to respect this law of nature, like with Zeus in ancient Greece, would defy the will of God.

The laws of hospitality appear most significantly in the work of Immanuel Kant, who argued that all humans deserved universal respect and hospitable treatment when in need, since we would want this to be a universal law of nature when we ourselves were fleeing harm, persecution and death. As Kant states in the Third Definitive Article, a person ‘cannot be turned away’ if this would ‘cause his death’ or create immediate harm to him and his property. This Kantian idea influenced the foundations of human rights theory, in which the moral worth of human beings applies equally to all, and thus entitles people to certain protections from arbitrary abuses of power, harm, torture and death.

The tradition of hospitality is not limited to the European philosophical context: the spirit of hospitality toward refugees is deeply imbrued in Confucian and Islamic philosophy, as well as embedded within the normative ethics underwriting international law. In response to the disgraceful treatment of Jewish and other refugees during and after the Second World War, the 1951 Refugee Convention builds on Article 14 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, positing that ‘everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ Under this Convention, failure to process asylum seekers properly would be an ethical wrong, since treaty and customary law demand that it ‘must be performed in good faith’ and that ‘no state shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’

Nevertheless, European philosophers have played a crucial role in shaping the norms of hospitality that are now enshrined as universal in international law. In confronting the current refugee crisis, Europe seems to have retreated from its better philosophical traditions, forgetting the virtues of hospitality, and turning away or denigrating people who are desperately in the need of help and protection. For example, the current rhetoric deployed by the Conservative government in the United Kingdom either disingenuously or ignorantly portrays asylum seekers to the general public as being ‘illegal’ immigrants, despite the fact that the exact opposite is true, since any claim to asylum is in fact following legal procedure under the 1951 Refugee Convention - in which claimants are legally ‘seeking’ asylum status while their claims are being legally processed by an appropriate authority. The current crisis offers disturbing reminders of Holocaust Europe. Like the Jews and others before, mass populations are turned away at borders, without safe refuge or suitable protective alternatives; in Denmark, refugee finances have been confiscated, and politicians have called for refugees to wear visible symbols to demarcate themselves from citizens.

Moreover, there are troubling signs of European governments ‘offshoring’ their ethical duties to provide hospitality by paying or encouraging other countries to host refugees. This serves to collect refugees as far from European borders as possible and to sidestep international legal obligations. Yet often the host countries – like Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan and Lebanon – are not the most capable of helping refugees, whereas the European countries that have the means choose not to exercise their capacity, violating historic laws of hospitality.

Although there are certainly opportunistic cases where people mask economic migration in claims of asylum, there are also clearly a vast number of people who fear great harm, who did not want to leave their homes, who would like to return to their homelands if safe, who would die if returned, who risked their lives to leave, who are simply in need of immediate protection and hospitality, and who have turned to Europeans for help.

Because this is as much an ethical question as a political one, Europe faces a profound question of moral identity and political action. In facing this question, Europeans would be wise to remember their more progressive philosophical roots as well as to not forget difficult lessons learned from its troubled and at times shameful history. As Marcus Aurelius wisely warned, ‘to ignore others can be to forget oneself.’

The philosophical tradition of hospitality from Homer to Kant asks a simple question: if you were in great harm would you want hospitality in the form of refugee protection to be a universal law of nature? If the response is even possibly yes, then Europeans need to seriously reexamine both their current rhetoric as well as political practice. Europe is at risk of jettisoning a long tradition of hospitality in its moral thinking, even as that same tradition is commonly celebrated as representing the very heart of what it supposedly means to be European.

About the author

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Dr Garrett Wallace Brown is Reader in Political Theory and Global Ethics at the University of Sheffield. His main research interests include normative political theory, Kantian political and legal philosophy, and the interface between political theory and international relations theory.
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