Nationality vs. Humanity: The Stranger’s Case

                          “It is nationalism which endangers nations, and not the other way round.”                                                                                                   Ernest André Gellner                                                                                                                      (British-Czech philosopher and social anthropologist)

French President Francois Hollande recently issued a statement that his country is prepared to open its borders and welcome 24,000 migrants seeking asylum over the next two years. This statement, issued on September 7, 2015, is part of a new plan designed by the European Union to accept and appropriately distribute the massive exodus of refugees fleeing from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other surrounding nations. When asked to comment on French polls that indicated 55% of the national population was opposed to accepting more refugees, Hollande responded that asylum is a constitutional right and a moral duty, and that “France’s image and standing in the world were at stake.”  

In light of the recent terrorists attacks on Paris, and amid reports that one of the attackers held a Syrian passport, Hollande has emphasized the necessity of making proper background checks prior to accepting these refugees. Hollande has declared war on ISIS, but made it clear that France will maintain its “humanitarian duty” and promise to welcome refugees over the next two years.

While many refugees initially identified Germany as the most ideal place to relocate with supposed security and job opportunities abound, other European countries are now offering comparable conditions and welcoming the migrants. In fact, because Germany has been accommodating such a massive influx of individuals in recent months, France has offered to help by offering an expedited asylum application to migrant families arriving in Munich: temporary housing in France along with a two-week approval process as opposed to the usual six-month process.

These recent political and cultural strides made by France are particularly notable given the nation’s sticky history with immigration and ethnic tension. Having just spent a month living and learning in France, I can attest that it is challenging to go more than a day without hearing an allegation that the presence of ethnic minorities, foreigners, and immigrants creates a grave problem for the nation. A commonly held belief among French traditionalists is that these groups directly threaten and compromise the very essence of true “Frenchness.” Many harbor a sense of nationalism that transcends the concept of national pride and actually results in extreme and egregious discrimination—for example, some believe that to be truly “French” is to be white, Catholic, and multi-generationally French. This statement parades as protectionism when in reality it is rooted in racism. This has created an ongoing and very heated dialogue surrounding immigration policy in the last century.

This French perception of nationalism (hopefully) seems foreign to us in the United States. Our nationality law is based on the principles of jus soli (Latin for “right of soil”), meaning that individuals gain immediate citizenship upon being born in the U.S. This has subsequently created the notion that America is a mixing pot of racial identities—our sense of national pride comes from being united as American, not from being one united race. In contrast, most states in Europe, Asia, and Oceania grant citizenship based on principles of jus sanguinis (Latin for “right of blood”) or a restricted version of jus solis—as is the case in France. Under this philosophy, individuals become citizens depending on their parents’ citizenship and not by birthplace. This has fostered and accentuated the cultural division in France between natives and immigrants which has resulted in the emergence of a perceived social hierarchy. Because of this heated history and conflicting cultural dynamic, President Hollande’s decision to welcome refugees in spite of opposition (and in spite of recent events) deserves recognition.

France’s situation forcibly evokes a particularly challenging set of questions: at what point should international leaders place a greater emphasis on obligations to humanity than on obligations to their own national interests? How do leaders of the Western community in particular negotiate or reconcile national interests with moral duty? Is there such a thing as a moral duty to the international community? According to the UNHCR: “Since, by definition, refugees are not protected by their own governments, the international community steps in to ensure they are safe and protected.” In fact, in the past few decades 142 nations have signed on to both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol. By signing this international treaty and its 1967 amendment, the UNHCR states nations are essentially agreeing that “refugees deserve, as a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and, in many cases, the same treatment as nationals.”

While we have historically seen that most national actions, even humanitarian ones, are often out of self-interest, it is my sincere hope that international authorities will continue to improve and open their borders to those in need. Afterall, those of us born in Western nations with relatively safe conditions could have just as easily been born into a nation experiencing a crisis. Wouldn’t we then hope and pray for assistance and asylum in the E.U.? In the U.S.?

This debate reminded me of an excerpt from Shakespeare’s play “Sir Thomas More.” Sir Thomas More is a lawyer, sent to address an angry crowd of individuals rioting to get rid of “those immigrants” or “strangers.” Shakespeare delivers a powerful message that transcends time and place when More challenges the natives to consider what they would do if they had to flee their home country:

“Whether would you go?

What country, by the nature of your error,

Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,

To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,

Nay, any where that not adheres to England,–

Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased

To find a nation of such barbarous temper,

That, breaking out in hideous violence,

Would not afford you an abode on earth,

Whet their detested knives against your throats,

Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God

Owed not nor made not you, nor that the elements

Were not all appropriate to your comforts,

But chartered unto them, what would you think

To be thus used? this is the strangers case;

And this your mountanish inhumanity.”

(Sir Thomas More, Act II, Scene IV)

This is the stranger’s case—the immigrant’s case. For many, it’s near impossible to fully comprehend the plight and experiences of today’s refugees, but so important to try. While it’s challenging to reconcile national interests with humanitarian needs, our nationality shouldn’t supersede our humanity.

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