A Conservative Defence of Refugee Rights

Recently, conservative governments on both sides of the Atlantic have been working hard to make refugee migration more difficult. In the United States, Donald Trump signed an executive order shortly after his inauguration blocking refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. In the United Kingdom, the government has announced that the Dubs programme, a scheme to resettle unaccompanied child refugees, will be closed down. When the ‘Dubs amendment’ to the Immigration Act passed last year, its supporters thought that Britain had committed to taking in 3000 child refugees. By the time the scheme is discontinued this month, Britain will have resettled only 350.

Both moves now face legal action, with some significant progress already made in the American courts. But even as we let the lawyers work to protect civil liberties, it is imperative that conservatives make amends for their recent failure to stand up for refugee rights. Conservatives are supposed to be the political stewards of life, liberty, responsibility, and inheritance. But on the issue of refugee rights, we are failing our characteristically staunch commitment to these values.

Conservatives’ concern for human life leads many of us to hold pro-life and anti-euthanasia stances. But today’s mainstream conservatism does not fully extend this concern to the lives of Syrian refugees. We should make no mistake about this: our resistance to supporting resettlement plans for Syrian refugees is costing lives.

We owe a considerable moral debt to refugees. Time after time, Western nations have failed to step in and prevent problems in Syria from worsening. We allowed a tyrant to ramp up his murderous methods and violate “red lines” with impunity, and we resisted supporting major allies like Turkey. Every time Bashar al-Assad crossed a new line our politicians said “that’s enough” and then let him continue. Small arms fire preceded the mass use of artillery; helicopter gunships were followed by chemical weapons. Conservatives pride themselves on a deep sense of responsibility. We do not absolve ourselves of duty. But we are refusing to deal with a refugee crisis we failed to prevent, and it is our responsibility and duty to make amends for this failure.

British philosopher Roger Scruton famously described conservatism as a “philosophy of inheritance and stewardship; it does not squander resources but strives to enhance them and pass them on.” This might sound like a purely economic statement, but it goes deeper. Our history, our culture, and our values are all precious and cherished resources. When conservatives oppose refugee migration, they harm all three and damage the inheritance of future generations.

Modern British and American history is filled with examples of both nations working to save lives ruined by conflict. America is a nation founded on immigration – first from Britain, then from across the world – and it has consistently reaffirmed its foundations by welcoming those fleeing from tyranny. In 1948, Congress passed refugee legislation that would admit more than 250,000 displaced Europeans, later expanded to allow for the migration of an additional 400,000. In the 1960s, Koreans, Hungarians, Cubans, and Russians fled communist oppression for the freedom of the United States. It was during this period that many private religious organisations assisted the state with refugee migration, showing that American citizens recognised their nation’s role as a beacon of liberty. Since 1975, the United States has resettled over three million refugees, the majority of them from the former Soviet Union.

Britain also has a proud history of refugee resettlement. During the Second World War, 100,000 Jews were welcomed to British shores. In the 1970s, Britain leapt into action to save thousands of Ugandan Asians expelled by the military dictatorship of Idi Amin. In Britain and America, conservatives must reaffirm this legacy – a legacy that provides an inheritance of freedom to people persecuted around the world – for those fleeing war in Syria. By doing this, conservatives will also be stewarding our history of aiding refugees so that future generations may inherit it.

The final and most important conservative value damaged by opposition to refugee migration is liberty. Conservatives usually aim to reduce the state’s influence in our lives. We oppose being lectured on our lifestyle choices, put under blanket surveillance, and excessively taxed. We should extend the same pro-freedom attitude towards the movement of people, especially when that freedom provides a vital opportunity to refugees fleeing tyranny and war.

In response to the arguments made above, conservatives who oppose liberalised refugee migration usually make two objections: that increased refugee migration will surely lead to an overwhelming rate of crime and domestic terrorism, and that the United States and the United Kingdom are already doing their fair share while nations located closer to the crisis should be doing a lot more. Neither objection is persuasive.

Firstly, despite typically relying on honest, empirical analysis when discussing domestic crime-related issues, conservatives have repeatedly fallen for false or overhyped reporting on refugee-related criminality. For example, in Germany – where the conservative, Christian government has promoted a liberal attitude to refugee immigration – there has been little change in criminality or native employment due to mass migration. As this study from the University of Strathclyde reveals, the influx of refugees has not displaced native workers, and any increases in crime have been “very small”. Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute has effectively dealt with the refugee terrorism issue in this study, which I urge all refugee-fearing conservatives to read.

Secondly, it is true that Western nations have, on the whole, been immensely generous in their response to the refugee crisis. America and Britain have both committed to targeted aid spending and have already resettled refugees from the affected areas. It is also true that many Arabian countries have done very little. But it is terribly depressing to listen to conservatives who have written fine books and delivered great speeches on American or British exceptionalism arguing that we should do less because of our geographical position. We are richer than Saudi Arabia. We are more powerful than Saudi Arabia. We are more charitable than Saudi Arabia. Western countries are, in all conceivable methods of measurement, superior to Arabian nations. It is because our countries are superior to Arabian countries that we should be taking in more refugees. Why do anti-refugee conservatives belittle our greatness by arguing that our commitment should be lower due to our distance from the crisis? As I have argued already, we have a moral responsibility to meet and reputations to uphold. It would be shameful if we dismissed both due to a mere lack of geographical proximity.

I have spoken a lot about conservative theory and values, so now it is time for some practical suggestions. In terms of the number of refugees that Britain and the United States should be looking to accommodate, I believe that the best route is ‘more, but not too many’. Indeed, in true conservative spirit, this process should be sensible, measured and secure. Conservatives do not fall for the false promise of utopia, we are aware that the fabric of society relies on integration and mutual respect. With unlimited numbers of refugees, I suspect that both of these things would be damaged.

In regards to the vetting process, conservatives should advocate a simple background check policy that investigates travel history and affiliations to extremist groups. Sadly, British and American authorities have strayed from this rigorous but basic approach. A British Tory MP has argued for dental tests to verify age and American border patrols have inspected the social media accounts of refugees and green card holders in order to scrutinise political views. This is impractical silliness which won’t help secure our countries.

As the refugee crisis worsens, conservatives should be offering practical and moral solutions. We should be promoting a response that saves lives, defends human freedom, acknowledges our responsibilities, and honours our liberal history. If we fail to do so, conservatives will have abandoned their principles when faced with one of the most pressing issues of our time.


Charlie Peters is a philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter @CDP1882

Filed under: Politics


Charlie Peters is a philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh.


  1. Nothing in this article is conservative says

    “We owe a considerable moral debt to refugees.”

    “The final and most important conservative value damaged by opposition to refugee migration is liberty. Conservatives usually aim to reduce the state’s influence in our lives. We oppose being lectured on our lifestyle choices, put under blanket surveillance, and excessively taxed.”

    I’m not sure who “we” refers to in this article, but it doesn’t have anything to do with conservatives or conservative ideals. The very idea that we “owe a moral debt” to anyone outside our communities, to humanity as such, to refugees whom we have supposedly wronged — through the most torturous and conspicuously left-wing reasoning at that — is as non-conservative as it gets.

    Conservatism does mean opposing state interference. It doesn’t mean sacrificing one’s own community, directly by importing hostile outsiders or indirectly by diverting resources in some quest to chase after abstract principles that have nothing to do with conserving anything but an implicit Leftism.

  2. Epson Maverick says

    Show us you have some skin in the game by taking some refugees into your own home.

    Short of that, this is cheap virtue signalling.

  3. Lindsay says

    There are few problems to the thrust of this article. They include;
    1. It presupposes all who claim refugee status are in fact real refugees and not economic opportunists, sleepers for torrorism, or just plain criminals excaping justice.
    2. Host countries are soverign nations and as such are under no obligation to take refugees as do the many muslim nations. UN conventions are not genuine obligations, rather meaningless conventions that only western nations seem to be lectured to uphold.
    3. Host natures are not obligated to destroy themselves in futile efforts to take in and support supposed refugees.

  4. Kurt says

    The author demonstates little uderstanding of what conservatism is and zero inderstanding of What Islam is.

    The author could benefit from quick visit to the West Bank neighborhood of the University of Minn, which has now been completely absorbed by a hostile culture; growing by the day, completely dependent on massive financial subsidies from the rest of the state, and completely ungrateful for the sacrifices of their hosts.

    The children of the Somalis imported by preening do gooders in the 90s have already demonstrated the familiar pattern of redicalization that doesn’t seem to bother their elders a bit.

    There is a large and growing population that is hostile to the individial liberties we can assume author must consider the bedrock of consetvatism. We have an ever growing welfare state that is necessary to support them, since the dont arrive with the skills and values necessary for gainful employment. It’s not exactly an environment where conservative values flourish.

    When (not if) the Mall of America goes boom and the blood of Minnesotans runs (which has already happened on a small scale on St. Cloud), the true fruits of the author’s idiology of phony compassion at the expense of his wiser neighbors will be plain to see. But it will then too late. It’s already is too late.

  5. Ann L says

    The writer’s argument is grounded in philosophical principles and supported by examples. The writer offers practical responses to sorting out “real” refugees from other. A “real” conservative approach — the one that seriously considers its principles before knee-jerking–will wrestle with the impact of a refugee population on existing culture.

    “The very idea that we ‘owe a moral debt’ to anyone outside our communities, to humanity…” You should have stopped here.

  6. I agree with the previous comments. I struggle to see how a conservative point of view, which values personal responsibility, ordains that western nations have responsibility for other countries’ difficulties. We are not obliged to solve them or to regard ourselves as obligated to take migrants if they fail to solve the problems themselves.

    If the US were partly conquered by an army that grew out of a backward Christian extremist sect would it seem reasonable that rather than fighting to take their country back, the young men ran away, leaving women and children behind? Why do we apply different standards to Syrians and Iraqis than we would to ourselves?

    As has been said in the comments above, to assume that all migrants are fleeing war rather than seeking economic benefits is beyond naïve, as is any suggestion that all ‘child’ migrants should be welcomed when it is obvious that many are not children at all.

    It is absurd to deny that there are issues of social dislocation and increased crime with a large influx of Muslim migrants with quite different values from the west. Did the Cologne attacks not happen? Are we pretending that there are not already immense problems with unassimilated Muslim populations in European countries?

    Surely conservatives should wish to protect the values that are part of their own culture and history and not risk them with the importation of a population that we know from experience will contain many who disdain our values and will not seek to accommodate themselves to our culture. Let us by all means continue to aid the refugee camps that aim to keep people in their own region, but conservatism does not demand the sacrifice of the interests of our own people.

    • DJA says

      Charlie M,
      Your second paragraph is in my opinion the most salient comment made.
      Citizens of any country need to protect the country’s values themselves and not sit back and watch an extremist minority slowly build themselves up and take control and then expect ‘outside’ help.
      It won’t always work, but why not opt for risking death fighting for your country’s values rather than risking death bobbing about in some rickety boat in the open sea?

  7. Jeff York says

    Mr. Peters, great article. I’m also a Conservative and my take is somewhat different. After being defeated in Operation Desert Storm Saddam Hussein wanted to punish the Kurds. That didn’t happen and the Kurds didn’t leave northern Iraq. Why not? Because we established a safe-haven in place to include a no-fly zone. (I served with the 431st Civil Affairs Company in northern Iraq in 1991 as part of Operation Provide Comfort).

    By now you’ve heard the factoid that it cost twelve times as much to transport a refugee to the U.S. and provide for them here as it does to protect-them-in-place. Need I say more.

    I read about all this hang-wringing & angst about how we’ve got to accept more refugees and yet I haven’t read or heard one word about a plan to return them once hostilities have ceased. I’m 58 and I’ve noticed that refugees tend to *not* go home. (The Cubans have been here for over fifty years; I’m sure that their repatriation will happen any day now).

    Just this week I was listening to an interview on NPR about the community of 100,000 Somalis (!!!) in Minnesota. Were the good people of Minnesota consulted about this before the fact and asked how they felt about it? No? Why not? I’m sure that you’ve heard about the Islamic enclaves in Michigan. Same questions. (That is *not* going to end well. I served in four Islamic visions of what can only be described as Hell on Earth. Trust me on this one).

    Today’s refugees tend to become tomorrow’s immigrants. The immigration debate, both legal & illegal, is usually expressed in terms of what the two parties want, curse them both, and the alleged economic impact, pro & con. What’s missing from the debate is what the American *people* want–that’s important, isn’t it?–and the very valid question of at what point should the “life-boat” be declared to be full? The issue isn’t just about providing 1800 calories per person per day. There are quality of life issues as well. “But America is *huge*! If China & India can each support over a billion people then surely we can too!” That may be but quite frankly *I* *don’t* *want* the per capita standard-of-living of China or India. That’s not why my g3-grandfather, my great-grandfather, my father and I served in our respective wars so that our descendants could live in a dystopian slum. And new arrivals don’t head to the mostly empty desert & mountain states, they head to the already crowded cities. I’m a native Houstonian and I know of what I speak.

    “But we need ever-more immigrants to pay for Social Security & Medicare.” No, we don’t. That argument is saying, in effect, that we need to be constantly recruiting the next round of suckers into our Ponzi-scheme. “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” –Herbert Stein

  8. Pablo says

    Your article is historically flawed:
    “Every time Bashar al-Assad crossed a new line our politicians said “that’s enough” and then let him continue. Small arms fire preceded the mass use of artillery; helicopter gunships were followed by chemical weapons.”

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