Citizens of the World. Moral Obligations of the Industrialised Countries towards Migrants from the Global South

People all around the world, especially in economically developed countries where data and sources of information are more easily available, are witness of some troubling facts proving current substantial global poverty. The world is evidently highly unequal in terms of power and wealth. Moreover economic hardship, political turmoil or even persecution and conflict have in many cases led to large-scale migration, often semi-legal or illegal, at the national, regional and international level. This has been considered one of the most important events of the post-colonial period. But what should be industrialised countries’ reaction towards this migratory phenomenon? Should accepting people coming to these countries be the minimum requirement of solidarity towards their harsh living conditions? Should countries from the Global North see migrants as an opportunity or hope for development and refreshments of their societies and values, or as a threat to their very own existence? Or should they just not care, because what happens outside their borders it is not their business?

Immigration policy is directly linked to each country’s understanding of justice and morality. In general, governments differentiate between citizens within their countries and people from outside, which has had several ethical consequences. On the one hand, the idea that justice requires the continuous and systematic redistribution of resources within countries is now a common, even if not a wholly unchallenged, one. However on the other hand, the same idea applied to the world as a whole is still generally regarded as fairly wild. But why should the distinction of the national and international societies make a moral, as opposed to a psychological, difference to the case? Voluminous literature has been developed on global ethics, fairness and human dignity. In an ever-changing world, where people from all around the globe are more connected than ever, the question on migration and its moral consequences has never been that relevant. I believe industrialised countries, due to past and current actions, should not only care about people leaving behind their home countries and looking for a better future abroad, but should treat national citizens and foreigners alike. There are several moral reasons why Western countries should obey this duty:

First of all, it can be argued that countries from the Global North have special duties towards poor countries and their citizens arising from historical injustices, i.e. the role the former played in creating the situation in which poorer countries currently are. The history of colonialism, slavery and genocide play a role in explaining the uneven starting points of the rich and poor countries, and thus in explaining their affluence and poverty respectively. The African diaspora has largely been seen in terms of the horrific experiences of Atlantic slavery. These ‘victim’ diasporas were clearly terrible events and their effects are still felt today. Thomas Pogge, a German cosmopolitanist philosopher argues ‘(…) it is the rationale for saying that we are not entitled to the huge advantages we enjoy from birth over the global poor, given how these inequalities have been built up.’ (Pogge 2005: 12) Janna Thompson, a Professor of philosophy at La Trobe University, takes a step beyond by claiming ‘If harm has been done in the past by states, deliberately or through negligence, to individuals of other states or their social and political institutions, then justice requires that some kind of compensation is due to them especially if the effects of that injustice are still present.’ (Thompson 1992: 79)

Today’s global economic system is a product of these historical injustices and thus reinforces structures of rich versus poor countries. It is often argued that Western countries have effectively created and continue to control the global economic order through institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation, which are said to perpetuate and aggravate poverty. Pogge extends this point: ‘if the global economic order plays a major role in the persistence of severe poverty worldwide and if our governments, acting in our name, are prominently involved in shaping and upholding this order, then the deprivation of the distant needy may well engage not merely positive duties, to assist but also more stringent negative duties not to harm.(Pogge 2004: 265) If the current global economic order does indeed cause and maintain global poverty, which at the same time fosters migration at the international level, developed countries’ moral response towards migrants should at least welcome them within their borders. To a greater extent, Western states have a duty to desist from causing harm, which would mean changing the global economic order in order to satisfy the needs of everyone in a fair way.

Furthermore, global warming is a recent development, for which mostly nations of the Global North are responsible. It is causing devastating effects on less developed countries. Nicholas Stern, a British economist and academic, explains, ‘The poorest developing countries will be hit earliest and hardest by climate change, even though they have contributed little to causing the problem. Their low incomes make it difficult to finance adaptation. The international community has an obligation to support them in adapting to climate change.’ The current worsening of global environmental conditions is already obliging millions of people to migrate somewhere else. Again, due to their active role on causing climate change, Western nations should be responsible and accept immigrants within their territory.

All the arguments mentioned above are supported and enhanced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations created in 1948. The Declaration states that the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Moreover the peoples of the United Nations have reaffirmed in the Charter ‘their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.’ In its 13rd and 14th Articles, the Charter identifies the moral standards nations all around the world should have towards migration. Article 13 states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state’ and that ‘everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.’ Furthermore, Article 14 proclaims that ‘everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’

Even though the Charter is not legally binding, states should stop differentiating between their national citizens and people from other parts of the world. Furthermore Charles Beitz, an American political theorist, argues in his book Political Theory and International Relations (1979): ‘since the international economy forms a single unit, because of the degree of interdependence between national economies, we should treat the whole world as, morally speaking, a single society.’ In this line of thinking I believe migrants should not be considered as such, but as citizens that belong to the same world as everyone else. No difference should thus be made.


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