On November 21st, I had the pleasure of attending the last talk in the “Meet the Fellows” Series, given by Trudeau Centre Fellow, Vanier Scholar, and Political Science PhD Candidate Kiran Banerjee.

Kiran’s talk focused on the intersection between citizenship, human rights, statelessness, and refugees. His research is timely; a Google News search for the word “refugees” returned 5.49 million results within 0.34 seconds. In 2013, the United Nations Refugee Agency declared that there were 35,835, 400 persons of concern. Almost 36 million people face insecurities related to the fundamental right to have a permanent place they can call home. For reference, in 2013 Canada had a reported population of 35.16 million people.

Many of these people are fleeing violent conflict or persecution on the basis of religion or ethnicity. Some are economic refugees, hoping to start a new life in a place where they have access to opportunities that do not exist where they come from. Others are fleeing climate change and other environmental factors, where life in their former home has become unsustainable.

But how does all of this intersect with the international law of state sovereignty and citizenship? What do governments do in the face of mass statelessness, of huge numbers of people who suddenly require homes and support? How do we react when a crisis forces large numbers of people to relocate?

Kiran’s talk focused on the institutions of the state and of international human rights law, and how becoming stateless or a refugee undermines one’s access to fundamental human rights because of what he rather eloquently called “the paradox of human rights”. For one to access human rights, one must be part of the state community for them to apply. Once you don’t have a state, you don’t have anyone to give you those human rights that you’re supposed to deserve just by being a citizen of the world. Essentially, when you lose your citizenship, you lose your right to have rights, because you have no government to provide them.

Additionally, the principle of state sovereignty allows states to control who enters their territory, and who becomes a citizen. While we are witnessing an era of globalization in which travel, trade, and information flow more freely across borders than ever, immigration, naturalization and repatriation remain absolutes – the movement of people is controlled more than anything else.

This has manifested as a general unwillingness of well-developed states to accept large numbers of refugees. The number of refugees and asylum claimants accepted to Canada has dropped significantly since previous decades, and the majority of refugees end up in places that often can’t support them. Developing countries host 80% of the world’s refugee population. Because of this, refugees are often stuck in situations meant to be temporary for a long time. We’re now seeing the issue of intergenerational refugees: people who have lived their entire lives in temporary refugee camps, and are now raising children who may do the same thing. It is a side effect of refugee warehousing, in which refugees’ resettlement paths are blocked by state governments. There are 3 million Syrian refugees in camps right now, and Canada has offered to take 1300. In comparison, Sweden has offered to take 30,000. I find it hard to believe that Canada can’t support more than 1300 refugees, especially given our history. 30 years ago, we were able to settle 60,000 boat people in 16 months. It seems hard to believe that we can’t do better.

Kiran’s core argument was that in order to push the conversation towards doing better, we have to reframe the refugee crisis as a question of justice. Now, the focus on refugees is one that emphasizes the need for aid rather than the existence of fundamental inequities as a result of the state system. To change our outlook on the issue all states must be implicated in the refugee crisis, because it is the state system that makes statelessness a condition under which the denial of basic human rights to secure food and shelter have become acceptable, and ignored.

He also suggested that focusing on a need for aid is construed as charity, to which one’s obligation is fluid. A recipient of charity, it is implied, should be grateful for whatever they receive because it is more than nothing. No one is obligated to give charity, as it is seen as a bonus kindness. But to reframe the refugee crisis as a fundamental injustice would imply that those not actively participating in a solution to the problem are party to a criminal act, something our moral imperative will not allow.

However, it would be unfair to acknowledge the other side of the refugee debate. How can we accept more refugees when Canada has a pressing issue with homeless veterans, who do not get the help they dearly need? How can we take on more people that need support when university graduates are struggling to find jobs and pay taxes? Instead of resettling them in Canada, why can’t we help them fix the issues in their home states?

I agree that it is a complicated issue, and there are no easy solutions. But I don’t know that it is a question of thinking we must take care of “our own” before we can take care of others. Canadians are renowned for our spirit, our perseverance, and our willingness to step up. We are sensible, kind, and unceasingly polite. I don’t think it is in our nature to leave those who are less fortunate out in the cold. I believe we can solve our domestic issues while reaching out to participate in solving international ones.

My family is one of immigrants. My grandparents came to Canada with very little, and their decision to leave the land they loved has enabled my parents to give me the privileged upbringing I know I am lucky to have had. I have to ask how we can categorically deny that same dream to people who have been forced to run from their homeland, unable to look back and fearing for their lives. We can, and we must, do better.