Ethics and Human Migration Part 1: Raising Questions

By Dr Ray Rajai Jureidini, Professor of Migration, Human Rights and Ethics at CILE.


Human beings are inherently mobile. We are physically created for mobility as with other forms of life. In reality, we cannot stop moving, even in our sleep states. As sentient beings, we have also created elaborate technological means to enhance our mobility and we continue to improve them, even as we acknowledge that some of these means are detrimental to our lives, such as the increasing number of cars and the problems of traffic, pollution, accidents, parking, etc.

Movement from one place to another has broader implications the further we travel – to other lands, to other communities of people, to other countries, whether temporarily or permanently. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, observed that, “There is a sort of inborn restlessness in the human spirit and an urge to change one’s abode; for man is endowed with a mind which is changeable and unsettled: nowhere at rest, it darts about and directs its thoughts to all places known and unknown, a wanderer which cannot endure repose and delights chiefly in novelty (Seneca, c. 5 BC–AD 65: 41, in Gamlen, 2015: 307).

Excluding travel for tourism and inquisitiveness for the experience of seeing and meeting people from other parts of the world, we refer to Temporary Migration as a more formal move for employment, usually with a contractual set of arrangements.  Thus, "The term ‘migrant worker’ refers to a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national” (UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families).

Permanent migration (Immigration) can also be for work or income opportunities, but with the view to settling and gaining permanent residency or citizenship status and integration into a new society. People can choose to migrate to improve their life chances, or be forced to migrate because of persecution, war, famine, natural disasters, etc.

Forced Migration usually refers to people who seek asylum as Refugees. The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." Conformity with the conditions of this convention has come under challenge in recent year by a number of countries.

According to Saritoprak (2011) the term for migration in Islam is hijra, with the active participle being muhajir, or muhajirun (plural), but refers to ‘permanent relocation’; while ghurba is either temporary or permanent. On the other hand, hijra may also be viewed as referring exclusively to flight for refuge, or seeking asylum. Indeed, the year 622 AD, with the flight of the Prophet Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar through the Hijra, meaning to abandon [a place of persecution], or to emigrate. While hijra is most often translated to English as “the migration”, it also may be called asylum seeking because of the fleeing from persecution in Mecca. Indeed, hijra has more often been used in relation to leaving a non-Muslim country in order to join a Muslim community elsewhere to ensure the safe practice of the Muslim faith (Abu-Sahlieh, 1996); in other words, for religious reasons. In the Qur’an, for example, there is a kind of sarcastic parable illustrating that there is no excuse for suffering under persecution when there are other places to seek refuge.

When angels take the souls of those who die in sin against their souls, they say: "In what (plight) were ye?" They reply: "Weak and oppressed were we in the earth." They say: "Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to move yourselves away [from evil]?" Such men will find their abode in Hell - What an evil refuge! (4:97)

Communities have always moved in search of maintaining and improving their lives. Most early human settlements have been related to access to water, arable land and safety. But the mixed genetic pools that have provided diversity of origins in all countries around the world have also been the result of wars and imperial conquests, whether tribal, religious or ethnic conflict, or the colonization of lands and people. The latter in the modern period has been a capitalist enterprise to expand production and markets and to exploit the indigenous populations of their labor and natural resources. They were most often accompanied by religious proselytizing to convert non-believers to their religion - to ‘save’ their souls.

Colonial rulers often allowed migration for settlement, providing them with (stolen) land to develop through ethnic cleansing and genocide to clear the way for settlers. Settlers were not always under the control of the colonial governments and not always citizens of the imperial home country, but they remain, even when the colonial rule had ended, such as the USA, Australia and Israel. As the Australian historian Patrick Wolfe put it, “settler colonialism destroys to replace”, and because the replacement is permanent, it is “a structure, not an event” (Wolfe, 2007). And in this sense, the colonialist mentality is reproduced in subsequent generations – against the indigenous populations that are left and newer immigrants over time. Colonialism, as well as trade routes meant that migration movements from one country or region to another had particular historical connections.

Ethical Questions

From an ethical perspective, there are many questions to be asked in relation to migration. Here, the questions will merely be posed for the reader’s reflection but will be addressed in subsequent postings. For example, nation states’ defined borders and passports are modern phenomena. Can you imagine a world with open borders giving free access and exit to all parts of the globe? Would this be a good thing and worth working for? How would we justify this and what would happen?

Should temporary labour migrants who often stay and work in their destination country for many years, be given citizenship rights? If a person is born of migrant parents in another country, should s/he be given automatic citizenship by the country of birth (jus soli), or should it be based on nationality of one or both parents (jus sanguinis)? (see Carens, 2013) Should women be allowed to confer citizenship on their children and foreign husbands?

Is migration necessary for human, social and economic development? Can migration be detrimental for both hosting and migrant communities? In what ways is migration beneficial or detrimental? What are the cost-benefits of migration for countries of origin and destination countries that take into account economics, politics, culture and religion?

Globalization has meant a greater free flow of finance and trade around the world with land, sea and air travel easier and faster than ever before. But has globalization facilitated or discouraged human migration? Indeed, can migration be controlled, and what are the principles by which restrictions of entry can be justified? On what basis should states regulate migration and, at the same time, promote equality and integration?

While integration is usually required of migrant communities, how desirable is it, from the perspectives of the migrant community and the host community? Do migrant communities affect or challenge a country’s sovereignty and national identity?

What are the main principles of Islamic ethics and legislation applicable to promoting integration, equality and protection of migrant communities? Do current legal frameworks that regulate the movement of people and foreign labor in Arab and Muslim-majority countries reflect Islamic ethical principles?

Cultural exchange and ethnic diversity have enriched and characterized Islamic communities for centuries. How can Islamic ethical values and historical developments help policy reform and promote integration in today’s Muslim world? How do different Islamic communities perceive migration? Can migration be exclusively voluntary; or, are conflict and displacement seen as more valid reasons for migration in and from the Muslim world? How does forced migration shape our understanding of refugeehood, asylum seeking and citizenship in the region? Is migration better justified when it is motivated by economic reasons, such as unemployment, poverty or famine?

Is legal reform in Muslim countries sufficient to advance good practices, protect foreigners and promote inclusion of migrant communities? What is the role of Muslim society in promoting the integration of migrant communities?


Our contemporary world is replete with the historical heritage of migration. The narratives abound with contradictory depictions of success and tragedy. The growing literature and studies of migration are testimony to the importance of human movement that in current times is also mixed with demographic concerns, security issues, national identities, political manipulation and economics. Some of these issues will be elaborated upon with examples in subsequent postings.



Abu-Sahlieh, Sami A. Aldeeb (1996) Special Issue: Ethics, Migration, and Global Stewardship, International Migration Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, (Spring, 1996), pp. 37-57.

Carens, Joseph (2013) The Ethics of Immigration, Oxford University Press.

Gamlen, Alan (2015) ‘An inborn restlessness’: Migration and exile in a turbulent world, Migration Studies (2015) 3 (3): 307-314.

Saritoprak, Zeki (2011) The Qur’anic Perspective on Immigrants, The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, Vol. 10, No. 1, August 2011.

Wolfe, Patrick (2007) Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native, Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(4), December: 387–409.

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