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Northeastern philosophy professor calls for ‘moral leadership’ on the refugee crisis

SBTB illoDavid Wilson for The Boston Globe

No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis” is Serena Parekh’s third book but her first aimed at a non-academic audience. “What I really wanted to do was to communicate more broadly,” said Parekh, a professor of philosophy at Northeastern, “to find a more nuanced conversation about how to talk about refugees, because they’re not going anywhere.”

When many Americans think about refugees, Parekh said, they see the desperate journeys undertaken by those who cross oceans or borders seeking asylum. “What we don’t see is what happens to most refugees,” she said, “which is standing still.” Life in refugee camps, where many refugees live for years, lacks “the minimum conditions for human dignity,” she added.


So what can Americans do? Is the solution simply to take in more people? “I do think we should be taking in more refugees, but I think that’s one piece of a larger puzzle of reinterpreting how we respond to refugees around the world,” Parekh said, adding that what’s really needed is “moral leadership,” an attitude “which focuses on autonomy and dignity, and giving refugees a genuine voice in how they’re treated.”

In addition to educating ourselves (especially by listening to refugees’ own voices), “what we’re really going to need is a concerted effort to push back against the xenophobic rhetoric around refugees.”

No matter what religious or philosophical perspective one comes from, she said, there is “a broad consensus about human rights.” What’s important is not to get mired in a debate about resettlement, but to think about the current situation of refugees, the vast majority of whom spend years in allegedly temporary settings. “We should think of the refugee crises as a structural injustice,” she said. “It’s those structures that need to be broken down, changed, made a little bit better.”

Parekh will read 7 p.m. Tuesday in an online event hosted by Brookline Booksmith. www.brooklinebooksmith.com


Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.