Industrialized countries, like the United Kingdom, safeguard the welfare of their people in many ways- protecting their legal rights, educating their children, and providing social security payments and access to medical care. However, this condition is still far from reality for many Eritreans, who are suffering under the dictatorial regime in Eritrea. The deteriorating human rights situation in Eritrea, (which has been witnessed by the so called advocates of democracy and human rights, like the United Kingdom), has resulted in a steady influx of refugees into the neighbouring Sudan. These refugees are hosted by a country emerging from more than two decades of a north-south civil war, and now wrapped up in bitter conflicts in Darfur. So they find themselves at the bottom of the pile, hearing the echo of their own cry only. These refugees are suffering from inadequate food and water supplies, high rate of malnutrition, lack of medical care, and inadequate housing in the camps.
According to the report by Reuters Alert net, Mr Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, after visiting Camp Kilo 26, termed the situation of Eritrean refugees as “a picture of a hidden tragedy” and said, “ they are forgotten people, both the refugees and the hosting community, I think it is important to recognize that the hosting communities have been sharing their very meagre resources In a very generous attitude, and let’s be honest, without much support even from us” In the report, Shaid Ibrahim, one of Eritrean refugees in Kilo 26, said to Mr Guterres, “ Look around you . If all these people are medically tested I swear to God you will not find a single guy who is healthy” As such, in this camp death and suffering is a daily phenomenon. Could it have been prevented? Is it in our power to prevent the death and suffering of these people? Absolutely yes, the suffering and death that is occurring now are not inevitable, not unpreventable. So who to blame for these refugees plight, or are they simply victims of circumstances?
It is not beyond the capacity of the richer nations to give enough assistance to reduce any further suffering to very small proportions. As Peter Singer stated it, “allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone; it would seem that we are all murderers.” (Singer 1993a, p. 222). The whole situation with these refugees is a big shame for the West which left for the poorest and the weakest to cope with all the mess created. This is happening because of the growing reluctance of donor countries to fund protracted refugee assistance programmes. As to Reuters Alertnet report, aid workers said, “donors have been less enthusiastic the decades -old humanitarian operation in eastern Sudan, opting to focus more on areas like Darfur.”
How is it different the plight of these forgotten refugees from that of Darfur? Is it really from a humanitarian point of view that America and the West brought the plight of people in Darfur into the world attention? If it is so, well done! Or is there a hidden agenda, the usual political exercise, as it happened in Iraq, to get rid of the regime in Sudan using Darfur as a smoke screen, as president Ali Beshir is on the cards?. Let us leave the answer for the parties involved; I am here to talk about ethics, not politics. But I am really confused as to how they draw the line between helping the people in Darfur and refugees on the other side of the country. For me 1+1= 2, not 4! Meaning, suffering is suffering, and death is death wherever it happens!
The plight of these refugees could be alleviated, if wealthy countries either give humanitarian aid as much as they can, thereby improving the living conditions in the camps, or be more effective by opening their doors for resettlement.
For this reason, it has been argued whether there is a moral obligation to help strangers or refugees in this case. The response is, as Singer stated it, “ a widely held attitude is that we are under no moral or legal obligation to help or accept refugees at all; if we do accept or help some, it is an indication of our generous and humanitarian character” (Singer 1993b,pp. 252). In other words, it is up to us if we have to help or not; we have no moral obligation to help refugees or strangers.
To escape from their obligation, today the affluent nations are applying a “lifeboat ethics”, as stated in the following metaphor by Garret Hardin in Singer (1993, p236), “We in rich nations are like the occupants of a crowded lifeboat adrift in a sea full of drowning people. If we try to save the drowning by bringing them abroad, our boat will be overloaded and we shall all drown. Since it’s better that some survive than none we should leave the others to drown.” This could be a metaphor for Garret Hardin but for many Eritreans it is what is literally happening to them. The lamentable conditions in the camps and the reluctance of affluent nations in resettling them have compelled many Eritrean refugees in Sudan to travel to Libya by foot across the Sahara desert to reach the Libyan coast in the attempt to reach Europe; many of them have died of thirst in the Sahara dessert and many others drowned in the Mediterranean sea. To no surprise, as stated in the above metaphor, today the affluent nations response to these refugees plight is “our” boat will be overloaded, if “we” try to save you, you will drag “us” down with you, so let you die or drown!
Is it a valid excuse? Will they be dragged down? Or is it just a storm in a tea cup to cover up their failure to uphold their obligation? The widely pronounced claim of those affluent nations for their failure to help refugees is that “helping or taking refugees will cause economic instability, rise in population and social problems”, etc. Can any sane person justify this claim? I don’t think so! Billions of dollars or pounds is being spent in Afghanistan and Iraq war, while only a very small portion of this money could keep these refugees alive ! And ironically, the border is open for millions of Eastern Europeans, while resettlement is almost impossible for the destitute refugees, who are languishing in camps. Why did not the boat sink while we are spending billions in war and admitting millions of people from Eastern Europe?
Is it the end of morality? Or just a matter of double standard? I have heard many leaders of industrialised nations when running presidential campaign talking about moral obligation or moral campus. Once they won the election and sat in the office, they view their moral obligation to the outside world through political interests. However, the moral point of view requires them to look beyond their interests; the prevention of suffering and death must be regarded at least as important as upholding their political interests.
The way affluent nations react to the plight of Eritrean refugees in Sudan is unjustifiable. They have a moral obligation to help these refugees, who are suffering from starvation, inadequate shelter and medical care. As Singer stated, it is our duty to help those who are suffering if we can. His most important premise is that “suffering and death from a lack of food, clothing, inadequate shelter, and medical care are bad” (Singer 1972a, p. 231). This is a fundamental moral principle and Singer believes everyone agrees with this. Based on this, he further elaborates on our obligation, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance , we ought to do it.” (Singer 1972b, pp. 236). Like Singer, Rachels roots his argument in the principle of beneficence -- namely that if we can do some good for another in need without doing any comparable harm to ourselves, then we ought to do it (Rachels 1979). For example, if the Sudanese government is forced to choose between providing food aid either to its starving citizens or to equally starving Eritrean refugees, it is morally justified in giving food to its own citizens because its special obligation to provide for its own people overrides its general obligation. However, this is not the situation most affluent nations find themselves in. Rather, it is usually a question of whether or not to spend on luxuries or on political and social interests; for instance, the London Olympics is expected to cost seven billion pounds, and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq is also costing billions, while a very small portion of this money could keep these refugees alive. Thus, it is in such circumstances, long after our special obligations have long been fulfilled that we are neglecting our general obligation to help those in desperate need.
It might also be argued that the general obligation we have to others is only not to inflict harm or violate their rights. In other words, if we are not the cause of their plight, we don’t have any obligation to help. However, out of supererogation or generosity, we can help but we are not morally or legally required to do so.
Now consider a case in which you come across ten Eritrean refugees dying of thirst in Sahara desert and there are seven life-saving gallons of water in your car, as a tourist and adventurer driving across the Sahara. They feebly beg you to give them a drink. If you give them the five gallons they would survive, and the remaining two gallons of water will be enough for you to make the five day journey without a risk of being in danger, but it might not be enough for you to wash up. Let us say, you did not want to stink and refused to give them a drink, and as a result they all died. Have you not violated a fundamental obligation to help them? Is it justifiable to let ten people die, in order not to stink? This can not be justified in any sense of term, as Singer stated, it is our obligation to prevent suffering and death, as long as we are not sacrificing anything of equally moral important. In a similar example, Singer stated that if a man sees a child drowning, he has to help the child even if in the process he gets all dirty, because the child’s life is much more important.(Singer 1972). These two examples may seem simplistic at the surface level, but once the distance factor is applied to them we can see their relevance to subject matter. Singer pointed out that distance should not be a significant factor to decide whether to help. This is because in this highly developed civilization people are able to travel all over the world, and they can watch worldwide news easily. Hence distance should not be a big difference between saving a drowning neighbour child and a refugee child in a remote camp.
Once it is acknowledged that we have such positive duties to help others, which are not based on voluntary commitment to them, then it is hard to see how we can avoid the conclusion that we have obligations to help refugees. These obligations are part of the requirement of justice, and should not be seen as supererogatory charity. The social sacrifices made by donor or host countries in helping or admitting refugees are relatively small.
As a consequence, like the child’s case, affluent nations have an obligation to rescue Eritrean refugees in Sudan, regardless of the distance, as long as they have the capacity to do so. What makes the countries’ commitment to help refugees a matter of obligation than charity is the fact that the basic interests of these refugees are at stake, as compared to the sacrifices made by the donor or host countries. As a result, I strongly believe the view that if we have the capacity to help without thereby scarifying anything morally significant, we ought to do it.