Keough School, Berkley Center tackle ethics and refugee crisis

Panelists explored the ethical and religious dimensions of the global refugee crisis at an online panel discussion organized by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Keough School of Global Affairs’ Washington Office.

The event, hosted by the Berkley Center, helped launch Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees, a new book by Berkley Center senior fellow Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J.. 

Hollenbach kicked off the event by giving an overview of his book, describing the important role religion can play in shaping policy and humanitarian action on forced displacement.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff, university professor at the New School for Social Research; Elizabeth Ferris, research professor with Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration; and Clemens Sedmak, professor of social ethics and interim director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the Keough School of Global Affairs, offered responses to Hollenbach’s book. 

The four panelists then discussed challenges and possibilities in refugee policy, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a conversation moderated by Michael Kessler, managing director of the Berkley Center. 


​Humanity in Crisis

Hollenbach started by explaining the ways in which humanity is in crisis, the underlying premise of his book. 

“We are facing a kind of shattering of the common humanity that should bind us together as a human community,” Hollenbach said. “The human family, which reaches across national borders, is building walls to keep people out who are in desperate need.” 

Exclusion of refugees and other vulnerable populations is on the rise during the current pandemic, according to the panel.

“What I think I can observe now with the COVID-19 crisis is a movement inward,” Sedmak said. “So, a new nationalism and this sense of individuals trying to protect their own livelihoods, over and against others.” 

National borders and individual liberties are important, according to Hollenbach, but our shared humanity is even more fundamental to refugee and human rights policy. 

“Our common humanity is the basis for a universal understanding of human rights,” he explained. “That universal understanding of human rights is at the ethical foundation of obligation to those who have no home.” 


​Ethical Policymaking

The panel explored how this ethical obligation to refugees translates into specific policy action. Hollenbach outlined the criteria for aiding displaced people, commenting, 

We have duties that reach across borders when several norms come into play: when someone is in great need, when we have the capability of assisting that person, and when we can assist someone without disproportionate burden to ourselves.

Hollenbach presents a comprehensive ethical framework that calls for the expansion of protections for vulnerable people worldwide, according to the panel. 

“We have seen protection as a way of keeping people safe, not sending them back to countries where their lives are in danger,” Ferris said. “Do we need to think about protecting people from deadly diseases such as COVID-19?”

The panel also considered how climate change will soon become the largest driver of forced migration. Hollenbach explained that ecological and health threats underscore the need for a more expansive response to human suffering. 

“We have to respond not only to those who are displaced by conflict and not only to those who are fleeing persecution but also to anyone fleeing a serious threat to their very fundamental human dignity,” he said. 


Faith in Refugee Response

The work of religious communities and faith-based organizations is central in addressing the global refugee crisis and other humanitarian issues, according to the panel. 

“Religious communities are among the most important respondents to the needs of displaced people in our world today,” Hollenbach said, noting how six of the nine US refugee resettlement agencies are faith-based. 

Aleinikoff also pointed to the importance of religion in addressing the needs of displaced people, reflecting on a conference with faith actors he attended during his time as United Nations deputy high commissioner for refugees. 

“What really came home to me at this meeting was the importance of using the humanitarian system to reach out to people in all aspects of their lives,” he said. “If we’re trying to restore a life, we need to meet them where they are, physically and spiritually.” 

Incorporating faith in refugee response can inspire both refugees and relief workers, according to Hollenbach. 

“One of the reasons why religion is a significant factor in the response to the needs of refugees is that it provides hope to the people who are in situations that could easily lead to despair,” he explained. 


Inspiring Future Action

The conversation ended with questions from the audience. Sarah, a high school student from Illinois, asked Hollenbach how people who remain at home during the pandemic can contribute to action on the global refugee crisis. 

“Turn to your local church, turn to your local faith community, turn to your local politicians and advocate on behalf of those who are in great need,” Hollenbach said. “That can make a real difference.” 

This event was presented by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs Washington Office. It was co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Human Rights Institute, Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, and Institute for the Study of International Migration.

Originally published at on May 19, 2020.

Watch the full discussion here:

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