Accepting refugees isn't a gift — it's a human right: Michael Ignatieff

In a time of growing authoritarianism and a decline in democratic institutions, it is a greater challenge to accept that despite the language of “us and them,” we have obligations to strangers both inside and outside our borders. Michael Ignatieff talks to Nahlah Ayed about citizenship, moral values, and what we still owe each other.

'What kind of people are we? Are we a people that shuts doors or are we a people that opens them?'

Throughout his career, Michael Ignatieff has been searching to answer a significant question: what do we owe to each other? (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Originally published on September 16, 2019.

What do we owe our neighbour?

It's a question Michael Ignatieff has spent a significant part of his intellectual life chasing. The writer, scholar and sometime politician has written books, given lectures, made documentaries — much in the service of trying to come to an answer that holds up whatever the political climate may be.

Michael Ignatieff is currently the president and rector of the Central European University based in Budapest. He spoke with IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed about the rights of refugees, citizenship, moral values — and what we still owe to each other.

Here is part of their conversation:

You point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was brought to bear so that people would have the moral courage to point out when rights are being violated. And yet we've seen examples where that isn't the case. So where's the failure?

Well, the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights was created in 1948 by a generation that was just waking up to the reality of the Holocaust and and to the terrible experience of total war. And it was an attempt to use the law to say: we're all human. Human duties trump allegiance to nation, tribe, ethnicity and religion. And it's an enormous human achievement. I think it's the first authoritative declaration of that kind. It's inscribed in the constitutions of pretty well every country in the world and has done an enormous amount of good. 

There's a lot of loose talk out there about human rights being over, as it were. I think that's not true. I think that it's the most important language that has created ethical obligations across the barriers, across the walls, across the frontiers, and has created forms of solidarity that are extremely important and need to be defended. 

'There are refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution that Canada has an obligation to take in,' says Ignatieff. On Feb. 26, 2017, in the early morning, migrants from Somalia cross into Canada from the U.S. by walking down this train track into the town of Emerson, Man. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

But having said all that, there just isn't any doubt in my mind that as a Canadian citizen, I put Canadians first. It's just the way it is. In the same way that I put my children before you. I start with my own and I think moral priorities are just that way with human beings. I don't think there's anything scandalous about that. I don't think there's anything that can be changed about that. We put our countrymen and women first, as we put our families first. 

And then the issue is: should we not care about anybody on the other side of the wall at all? And human rights says: no, that won't do, either. It's OK to put your country first and your countrymen and women first, but you do have duties across the world. They are human beings.

It will shame Canadians if we treat people, the other side of the wall, like beasts. It will be a disgrace to who we are if we do that. This is what human rights has made us aware of, that we are bound to others in that way ... And I think the human rights revolution has captured that thought and given it a legal form that it didn't have before.

One of the disturbing elements of our attitude toward people across the wall is that it's much easier to think of giving them a gift than according them a right.- Michael Ignatieff

You've described the treatment of migrants as a battle between state policy and ordinary compassion. Which is winning at this stage?

Well, what's very puzzling and disturbing is that if you ask Canadians why we should let in refugees, I think very few Canadians will say that it's because there is a thing called the International Refugee Convention — the Geneva Convention — and that these people have rights, and because they have rights we have an obligation to take them in. 

I think a lot of Canadians think a very different thought which is that we're a generous, compassionate, rich people and we should let some people in. But notice what you've just done. You've shifted from a language of rights to a language of the gift. We make a gift of Canada to people we designate as worthy of the gift. That's very partial. It's very selective. We get to choose who gets the gift.

Canadians think of granting asylum requests as something that stems from their compassionate natures, says Michael Ignatieff. But, he adds, thinking of refugee status as a gift rather than thinking of it as a right can be dangerous. A refugee's rights cannot depend on our feelings of generosity, he says. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

If they all have rights, then we don't have as much capacity to choose who we let in. So I think one of the disturbing elements of our attitude toward people across the wall is that it's much easier to think of giving them a gift than according them a right. And I think that's happening everywhere. I think just as a practical political matter. If you look at how Canada has sustained generous refugee and migration policy for 40, 50 years, it's through the language of the gift, not through the language of rights.

But that means when it gets tough, if our economy tanks, or if there's some international terrorist crisis or something, the gift gets withdrawn pretty quickly. And so that's a challenge. And it then requires political leadership which is to say: who are we? I mean, that's always the thing that has to happen in Canada. You have to say: who are we? What kind of people are we? Are we a people that shuts doors or are we a people that opens them? And that will, I think, turn it around.

But I'm very struck now by, in a sense, the fragility of the language of rights. I do believe that people at our borders have rights claims. I do believe that there are refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution that Canada has an obligation to take in. I want to make that clear. I'm just saying that it's a much weaker language than the other ones that are available.

**  The Needs of Strangers is the third episode in our series, Walking the Border: Walls That Divide Us

** This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa. Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.


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