Can There be a Right of Return?

Journal of Refugee Studies 33:1-12 (2020)
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During long-term refugee displacements, it is common for the refugees’ country of origin to be called on to recognize a right of return. A long-standing tradition of philosophical theorizing is sceptical of such a right. Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan are contemporary proponents of this view. They argue that, in many cases, it is not feasible for entire refugee populations to return home, and so the notion of a right of return is no right at all. We can call Adelman and Barkan’s view the feasibility objection. Many defenders of rights will deny that empirical facts such as the kind to which Adelman and Barkan appeal are relevant to determining whether a moral entitlement amounts to a right. In contrast, I offer a response to the feasibility objection that does admit the relevance of facts. In my view, considerations of feasibility do matter when determining what rights human beings possess. Nevertheless, the feasibility objection is undone by its failure to acknowledge a distinction between two different kinds of feasibility constraints. ‘Hard’ constraints include logical, nomological and biological considerations. ‘Soft’ constraints include political, cultural and institutional factors. A necessary condition of a moral entitlement achieving the status of a right, I argue, is that it be feasible in the hard sense. Crucially, however, a right need not always be feasible in the soft sense. Refugees can have rights that it is not currently possible to implement politically.

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Andy Lamey
University of California, San Diego


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