Chandran Kukathas

Chandran Kukathas is an Australian political theorist whose work explores the topics of liberalism, multiculturalism, and diversity. He examines how states draw up moral distinctions between who can and cannot enter their territories and he asks whether we should see these distinctions as legitimate. Most states, Kukathas claims, create what they see as a ‘moral’ immigration policy by drawing up a system of political ethics which normally gives them full control over the movement of people onto their territory but which also creates humanitarian exceptions to this rule. These are cases where the state must grant entry to people whose reasons for movement are deemed special (including refugees), whether the state wishes to or not. Kukathas shows some ways in which this system, employed by most liberal democratic states, is problematic. Firstly, he claims, this system allows states to draw this line between ‘special’ and ‘ordinary’ groups in ways that may not make much sense morally – they could, for instance, accept a refugee fleeing political persecution but not a migrant fleeing indiscriminate violence even though this migrant’s suffering may be considerable. Drawing ethical lines between different groups, Kukathas says, does not work because ‘suffering is dispersed too erratically for our political concepts to handle’. An even bigger problem, Kukathas claims, is not so much the poor quality of the distinction between deserving refugees and other migrants but the very pursuit of a distinction in the first place. This system of differentiation assumes that states should treat refugees as applicants who must prove their worthiness against other ‘less-worthy’ candidates. This effectively means that the humanitarian imperative to protect an individual is often turned into a deeply political process of assessing refugees’ moral worth – a process that can be twisted to suit the interests of states. The problem lurking at the heart of these debates, Kukathas believes, is the sad reality that institutions which claim to serve the interests of refugees often do the opposite and actually limit refugees’ capacity to move freely. The hidden purpose of distinguishing between refugees and immigrants is not humanitarian – it is to limit and control the movement of people.

Selected Readings and Resources

See Kukathas’ chapter ‘Are Refugees Special?’ in Migration in Political Theory, edited by Sarah Fine and Lea Ypi (pages 249–267).

You can also watch a lecture given by Kukathas on this topic at Darwin College, Cambridge:


Published by Discussing Displacement

Discussing Displacement is a blog dedicated to explaining some of the key ideas and arguments within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

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