Max Cherem, philosophy, has contributed a thoughtful reflection to a “Philosophers On” segment focused on the Syrian refugees. Since 2011, more than 10 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, and more 4 million have fled their homeland, seeking refuge from the violence and chaos of the civil war wracking their country. The war has reportedly left between 140,000 and 340,000 dead, including (by some estimates) up to 12,000 children. The situation has been described as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.” Recently, the United States agreed to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter in 2016, but even that modest accommodation was met with political backlash. Two dozen Republican governors announced that their states would no longer accept Syrian refugees. Recent terrorist attacks, no matter how tenuous (or nonexistent) their ties to Syrian refugees, have inflamed political rhetoric, with some politicians suggesting a religious test for refugees.
Max was one of eight philosophers invited to “explore the ways in which philosophers and theorists can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to the public conversation” about the Syrian refugees. His piece, titled “Understanding the Structural Issues,” references the Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee and its signatories’ obligations to provide refugees (as specifically defined) protection from return and new membership (in a state). Those guarantees, Max writes, are gutted by refugee camps (which are nowhere found in the Convention), where the gap between non-return (albeit tenuous) and new membership can stretch to 17 years, and by unilateral extra-territorial migration controls. “Apparently,” writes Max, “political leaders calculate that they can subscribe to the convention in name, defect in practice, and that their publics won’t notice or care. So far, the sloppiness and level of our public discourse hasn’t proven them wrong.” What’s needed, he adds, is a clearer understanding of our responsibilities under the Convention and subsequent informed activism for structural reforms as needed. Both possibilities are obscured by “table-pounding” rhetoric that promulgates a false-dichotomy between compassion and security.
Max is the Marlene Crandell Francis Assistant Professor of Philosophy and one of four persons in the country honored with the prestigious Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellowship for the 2015-16 academic year. The Fellowship has him in research residence at Duke University and working in the Kenan Institute for Ethics.