An institutional right of refugee return

European Journal of Philosophy 29 (4):948-964 (2021)
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Calls to recognize a right of return are a recurring feature of refugee crises. Particularly when such crises become long-term, advocates of displaced people insist that they be allowed to return to their country of origin. I argue that this right is best understood as the right of refugees to return, not to a prior territory, but to a prior political status. This status is one that sees not just any state, but a refugee's state of origin, take responsibility for safeguarding their welfare. This entitlement I characterize as an institutional right: a right that presupposes, and is a necessary feature of, a particular institution. The institution of which the right of return is an indispensable part is the international political system that sees authority exercised by sovereign states. The institutional argument for a right of refugee return presupposes two basic factual claims about states: they play a central role in safeguarding rights and they pursue exclusionary policies of border control. Importantly, the institutional view presupposes only that states do perform both functions, not that they are justified in doing so. On a purely normative level, the institutional account assumes little more than the moral equality of human beings.
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