A Distinction That Makes a Difference

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The continuing war in Syria and political instability in other parts of the world, has led to an increase in individuals moving from these troubled areas to less troubled countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia.  In the media, these people are alternately referred to as “migrants” or “refugees.”  Often these terms are used interchangeably, although the words are hardly synonyms. Failure to make clear the distinction between migrants in general and a refugee–a particular type of migrant–can lead to misguided governmental policy and increased suffering and gruesome deaths like that of the young Aylan Kurdi  whose photo lying dead on a beach awakened the world to the plight of those fleeing war and brutality in their homelands.

Aylun Kurdi, age three, alive and well before the tragic ordeal that led to his death.

Aylan Kurdi, age three, alive and well before the tragic ordeal that led to his death.

The word migrant is a general term denoting anyone moving from one country to another and has its roots in the Latin verb migrare, “to move from one place to another.” Most of the time this general term is applied to individuals and families who choose to move temporarily or permanently in order to improve their living conditions–typically by finding employment in the new location or living in a country with different political freedom or social  support.  Migration of this sort has gone throughout human history and has, fo the most part, improved the human condition.

A refugee is a particular kind of person moving from one country to another.  In fact, refugees are not simply moving but rather fleeing their homeland to preserve their lives and ensure the safety of their families.  The word refugee has its roots in the Old French refugier, “to take shelter, to protect.”  Refugees are asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are those fleeing to a safe place (from the Greek asylos).

It is probably fair to say that all refugees are migrants but that not all migrants are refugees.  Refugees need protection and a safe place to live. They first and foremost need sanctuary. Migrants who are not refugees simply seek a better life in a new place.  The immediate plight of refugees is a much different thing than the simple migrant’s desire for a better life and demands a more immediate response from any country or person who can help.

While it may not always be possible to tell whether a given individual or family is a migrant in search of a better life or a refugee in desperate need of asylum, when large masses of people start taking dramatic risks to flee domestic situations fraught with war and lawlessness, perhaps the presumption should be that most are in headlong flight not simply moving?

Is the young man (child) standing outside what was his home in Aleppo now a simple migrant or a desperate refugee in need of protection?

Frightened child in Aleppo Syria

Frightened child in Aleppo Syria

Are the former occupants of this street in Homs, Syria simply seeking a better life or might they have something to fear.?

Before and after photo of the same street in Homs, Syria

Before and after photo of the same street in Homs, Syrialife. Or, might they not very well be in desperate flight,  if alive at all?

Refugees from Syria start to walk from Budapest to Germany.

Refugees from Syria start to walk from Budapest to Germany.

Are these people, who are taking the drastic step of trying to walk from Budapest in Hungary to what they hope is safety in Germany, not refugees?

And, what of this mother carrying her child in a manner reminiscent of a Pieta?  Doesn’t the agony on her face tell us that she and others like her are not simple migrants.

Mother and child in flight. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Mother and child in flight. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

There is a distinction between a migrant and a refugee and it is an important one.  Migrants need an orderly process to move from place to place in search of a better life.  Refugees need all of our help right now!

Civil versus Religious Duty

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Rowan County, KY clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples raises a perennial but easily answered question about violating religious conscience as a grounds for refusing to carry out any of the duties of an elected or appointed public official.

When a person accepts the responsibility of performing a public civil function, that person also accepts the duty to society to perform that function in accordance with the law. If a person has a sincere religiously grounded moral objection to a legal requirement of their civil function, they are not free to simply not follow the law on the grounds of their belief.  In the case of Ms Davis, she can either perform the function of county clerk as defined by the law or, if doing so offends her conscience, resign from her public position or delegate the offending aspect of her function to another official in her office.

Religious freedom is a civil right as is the right to marry whom one chooses.  One right does not trump the other.  Ms Davis’ is completely free to believe what she wants.  She can also take whatever position she chooses on moral issues and participate in the public debate of those issues. She is, however, not free to violate the civil rights of others.

The law cannot require Ms. Davis to hold or abandon her religious belief but the law can require the county clerk of Rowan County not to violate the civil rights of its citizens and to provide all of the services of that office.  If Ms Davis cannot perform her function because of her adherence to  belief, it is her belief which ethically precludes her from serving her civil function as county clerk.

Consider Ms Davis’ case in light of  the role of military chaplain.  The role of military chaplain requires that clergy who accept that role be ready and able to provide chaplain services inter-denominationally without attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity or Catholics to some other denomination.  Clergy whose belief structure requires them to proselytize cannot serve as military chaplains because they cannot fulfill all of the requirements of that office.  Consequently, only clergy who can function inter-religiously and respect the belief structures of all service members are admitted to chaplaincy in the military.

Some may object that we make exceptions for conscientious objectors so why not Ms. Davis or any other public office holder.  Individuals who seek exemption from combat roles for religious reasons receive that exemption as individual citizens not public office holders.  Respect for religious conscience and a commitment to religious freedom ensures that citizens are not forced to fill roles in society to which they morally object.  Ms. Davis, the individual citizen, cannot be forced to serve as county clerk because providing all of the services of that office would violate her conscience.  However, Ms Davis, the sitting county clerk of Rowan County, no matter what her personal religious convictions, must respect the civil rights of all.

Her best and most moral course of action, given her beliefs, is to exercise her religious freedom and resign her office rather than claim a specious religious right to selectively violate the civil rights of others.