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In this article I employ the resources of political theory to examine and provide an answer to the question of how liberal democracies should respond to the claims of refugees to enter and reside in their territory. I begin by considering questions of value: I argue that a convincing ethical ideal must strive to balance the competing claims of citizens and refugees. Moving to issues of agency, I show that any standard must also accommodate itself to the difficulties of predicting the consequences of entrance, the responsibilities states currently accept, and the way that politics constrains the efforts of states to assist refugees. I conclude by proposing the principle of humanitarianism as a way of reconciling the demands of value with those of agency. I argue that adherence to this principle would improve the refugee policies of liberal democratic states.

More information


Journal article


American Political Science Association

Publication Date



93 (1)


169 - 181

Total pages