Notes from the field

Falling out of time

What are the moral consequences of irregular migrants’ prolonged waiting?

Refugee camp

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In this latest blog entry, philosopher and professor Odin Lysaker reflects upon the ethical role of time in the case of refugees. The text is based on his contribution to the WAIT research project:

Vulnerable groups

Child refugees should not be imprisoned. Hence, this particularly vulnerable group must not be detained at prison-like detention centers, even during the waiting time of pending dispatch. Thus concludes the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution in their recently launched annual report to the Parliament.

Still, if this happens, the report continues, the government’s treatment of child refugees must comply with the human rights, hereunder human dignity. This basic moral principle requires recognition of each person’s inherent value, as stated in the Preamble of UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Protracted refugee situations

Currently, forced displacement is globally at its highest in decades. UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) documents that by the end of 2017 this number had reached 65.6 million people. They have been uprooted from the belonging to their homes, due to events such as war, violence, persecution, or natural disasters.

Many of these refugees are exposed to so-called protracted refugee situations. By introducing this concept, UNHCR seeks durable solutions to the global challenge of forced displacement as well as prolonged waiting. This term is defined as a situation in which refugees find themselves in a “long-lasting and intractable state of limbo”. What is more, these refugees’ lives “may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile”. Also, refugees in this limbo situation are “often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance”.

UNHCR defines protracted refugee situations as those lasting at least five years, with no prospects of durable solutions. However, according to UNHCR’s last figures of 2017 globally great many protracted refugees are experiencing this situation far longer than five years. In fact, this situation today lasts an estimated 26 years on average. Even so, in some cases protracted refugee situations last for generations, such as in the case of in the refugee camp Dadaab in Kenya or Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip.

Consequently, the prolonged waiting caused by forced displacement in the case of protracted refugee situations is viewed by UNHCR as one of the defining humanitarian and development challenges posed today.

Time as a scarce good

As explained by Hannah Arendt in her book The Human Condition, time is an existential precondition for all human activity. In result, time is non-chosen and thus cannot be chosen away. Moreover, these conditions should be recognized across cultural and other divides.

Arendt thinks primarily of the event of birth: when born one’s lifespan is initiated. In turn, each person develops the freedom to appear, think, judge, as well as to interact with others. To be a human, then, Arendt argues, is ontologically speaking to exist as a temporal being. So, prior to all our identities, life projects, or visions about the good life, we must recognize our own as well as others temporally preconditioned existence.

Time is a scarce good, therefore, in the sense that it serves as a condition for developing one’s life in compliance with human rights, human dignity, as well as life quality. So, according Martha Nussbaum, each human being should be able to live to the end of a human life of normal length. This requires to live one’s life above a certain threshold level, which keeps you away from dying prematurely or even before the life is so reduced as to be not worth living. To fall out of time, then, and thus having one’s lifespan put on hold, is not only legally, but also ethically speaking unacceptable.

Ethics of waiting

Recently, through the lens of what she terms as an ‘ethics of the temporary’, Serena Parekh links the above described prolonged waiting in the case protracted refugee situations, on the one hand, and time as a human condition in Arendt, on the other. Parekh argues that what is needed to avoid prolonged waiting is a “morally acceptable way to house refugees and allow them to live with dignity while they are waiting to be resettled or to return to their home countries”.

One way in which to normatively justify such an ethics is to reject all prolonged waiting that exceeds the legally defined limit of five years, which would be in line with UNHCR’s definition of protracted refugee situations. Furthermore, in line with the Arendtian idea of time as human condition and thus a scarce good, it can be argued that as soon as the capability to live one’s lifespan in accordance with one’s inherent dignity and human rights as well as life quality is limited by the prolonged waiting, it is morally non-acceptable.

To be in sync, or not to be in sync, that is the question. To fall out of time, then, is to live a life characterized by being in sync or resonance with oneself, others, and the world at large. Hence, to have one’s lifespan, including the protection of one’s human rights, put on hold may imply that the person’s inherent dignity is misrecognized.

So, as I see it, the all-important lesson to be learnt from what above is called the ethics of the temporary is to find ways in which that all human beings can live in sync. If the government shall take seriously the report of the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution, then, a step in the right direction would be to acknowledge time as a scarce good. If so, this should in particular be done regarding child refugees’ prolonged waiting, since this causes morally unacceptable protracted refugee situations.