Why should countries accept refugees?

by Henrique F. Barbosa*

Why do countries accept refugees? This appears to be a simple question. A quick answer would mention that most countries — over 145 of them — are bound by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 protocol.

This answer, although legitimate, does not address the root issues of the question: why did these 145 countries sign up to this treaty? Why did it get written in first place? The issue defies cynical realpolitik — it is really not clear (except in specific cases like US-Cuba during the Cold War) what kind of political or balance-of-power gains countries can obtain by subscribing to a piece of legislation that says “No Contracting State shall expel or return 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”. These are unfortunate foreigners, plagued by wars in distant countries which most people can’t even pinpoint in a map. Why bother? Who cares? Why should countries accept refugees?

The answer goes very deep within the traditions of the Western world. Opponents of refuge say that granting people this right might endanger their culture and way of life. It seems to me that the opposite is actually true: by refusing to honor and cherish a deep-rooted cultural idea such as this one, Westerners are ourselves devaluing and disregarding our own culture. We are rejecting the very ideas that shaped us into who we are.

One of the earliest elaborations on this idea stems from the Greek word “φύξιμος”, which means “where one can take refuge”, according to Liddell & Scott. Homer uses this word in book 5 of his Odyssey. Ulysses, the resourceful hero, finds himself adrift, clinging to a raft made of wooden planks: something more powerful than himself, Poseidon, does not want him to survive, and is unleashing fury upon him. Odysseus thus talks to himself [1]:

That shore’s too far away — 
I glimpsed it myself — where she says refuge waits.
No, here’s what I’ll do, it’s what seems best to me.
As long as the timbers cling and joints stand fast,
I’ll hold out aboard her and take a whipping — 
once the breakers smash my craft to pieces,
then I’ll swim — no better plan for now.

The image of Ulysses clinging to wooden planks, fighting for his life against all odds on Europe’s open seas, while hoping to reach refuge, is eerily familiar in our own times, and strikes a chord very deeply rooted in our shared cultural stock. This use of the word was still not related to the idea we have today, but underlies its fundaments, back in the Bronze Age.

Later on, Plutarch, on his chronicles of Theseus’ life, uses the same word but in a different context, this one already resembling to the concept of refuge we have today. According to him, the tomb of Theseus in Athens “…is a sanctuary and place of refuge for runaway slaves and all men of low estate who are afraid of men in power, since Theseus was a champion and helper of such during his life, and graciously received the supplications of the poor and needy” [2]. The idea of having a place of refuge to men of low estate who are afraid of men in power is, quite literally, the idea of refuge we have in our own times. Why did Theseus do this? Because it was the right thing to do.

Still in the Bronze Age, in another part of the world, the same idea would independently appear in the culture of a very different people: “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them”. Deuteronomy 23:15–16.

These similar ideas not only survived, but also reappeared and were reinvented in many different forms. In the Early Middle Ages, Europe transitioned from the old, decadent Antiquity into the mélange of rulers and subjects that would be the very beginning of what is Europe today. In 511, Hlodowig (Clovis), the king of the Franks, convened with Catholic bishops in the Council of Orléans, and one of the first things they agreed upon was on the right of sanctuary. That meant that persecuted people of all sorts — even criminals — could find solace from persecution just by entering a church.

Gregory of Tours (538–594) tells us, in his book The History of the Franks, an interesting story of Childebert I, one of Clovis’ sons. After conspirators tried, without success, to assassinate him, they took refuge in a church. Childebert said unto them: “We promise you your life, even if we have found you to be guilty. For we are Christians, and it is not allowed to abduct criminals from the church to punish them” [3]. Clovis was a decisive character in shaping the history of Europe. According to Charles de Gaulle, “For me, the history of France begins with Clovis, elected as king of France by the tribe of the Franks, who gave their name to France”[4]. Clovis’ symbol, the fleur-de-lis, is to this day one of the symbols of France.

There are many other examples; it would be possible to write at length on the many different and sometimes even conflicting manifestations of the idea of asylum in the Antiquity and in the Medieval world [5]. It is thus clear that the idea of asylum is deeply rooted in Western culture, both from the Hellenic and from the Judeo-Christian traditions.

Another very important milestone in the development of the political ideas that provide the fundaments of governments nowadays is the concept ofnatural right — the idea that all women and men are entitled to a given set of rights by the sole virtue of being human. The most famous application of this doctrine is expressed in the very beginning of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a document largely inspired by the Declaration of Independence — brings these radical ideas about a natural set of rights to the Bronze Age concept of asylum. It says very clearly, in its article 14, that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. As discussed in this short essay, this is really nothing new, but a logical consequence of some of the most fundamental ideas in our society about what is a human being and how human beings should be treated.

Given all these points, we thus return to the initial question: Why should countries accept refugees? The answer is clear — It’s part of who we are,and by rejecting it we are rejecting some of the most important ideas of our culture, some of the very ideas that allowed our societies to flourish.

The idea that everyone should be free to pursue her own happiness is hardwired into our most deeply ingrained and cherished cultural traditions. Therefore, when a prominent politician calls for the rejection the idea of asylum outright, he is telling us to reject our own history. By shutting our hearts and minds to those who suffer from the woes of war, in the name of our cultural values, we are taking ourselves the job of undoing those values — with our own hands.


[1]. Od.5.359, translation by R. Fagles.

[2]. Plut. Thes. 36.2, translation by B. Perrin.

[3]. Gregory of Tours. Historia Francorum, book IX, c. 38, translation by myself.

[4]. David Schoenbrun. The Three Lives of Charles de Gaulle, 1965.

[5]. John McClintock and James Strong. “Asylum”, Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, 1880.


*Henrique F. Barbosa holds a Bachelor in International Relations from the  University of Brasília, Brazil, and is currently a Master’s candidate at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego.