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Spotlight: Serena Parekh

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Headshot of Serena Parekh

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Politics, Philosophy and Economics Program Serena Parekh’s new book covers one of the most pressing issues of our world today – the global refugee crisis. No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis asks readers to look at the crisis from an ethical perspective. She combines personal stories about refugees with data and research to create a comprehensive and cohesive narrative for anyone who desires a glimpse into the reality of the refugee crisis.

“I think all people who come from different perspectives will hopefully find different things to engage in. So, if you’re interested in the global refugee crisis and want to really understand how we ought to respond to it, then I think my book will be of interest to you.”

Around the time of the 2016 U.S. election, Parekh published a book on refugees, titled “Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement.” At the time, anti-refugee rhetoric was raging. While doing talks for her book, she noticed a keen interest from non-academics who wanted to be able to think and argue critically about what society owes refugees – an experience that prompted her to write this book.

“This is a trade book. It’s intended to be read widely, not just by specialists in philosophy. I really tried to think about how to make my ideas clear to people who didn’t have a similar academic background that I do.”

PPE program director, philosophy professor, published author: how this book connects the dots

Parekh’s dual interest in philosophy and the refugee crisis prompted her to oppose the strictly academic lens through which the crisis is often viewed.

“It always seemed to me that philosophers understood the refugee crisis in these abstract terms, as if these were just words that were used and not actually people’s lives. One of the things I tried to point out in my book is that this isn’t an academic exercise. For the people who are excluded from the definition of refugee, this can be a matter of life and death. I just want philosophers to take more seriously the lives of the people that they were writing and talking about.”

Parekh always tries to incorporate the refugee crisis into her classes, noting a strong interest from students. As the director of Northeastern’s Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program, she believes the refugee crisis visibly overlaps all three fields, making it an important subject for any PPE scholar to understand.

“If you think of refugees, you can’t answer it without understanding the politics, you absolutely need to understand the economics of development aid and how funding refugee camps works, how resettlement works, what it means to include refugees. But those would be insufficient if there wasn’t also an ethical analysis of what we ought to do, given the political and economic realities that we face. I think it’s a great example of how a PPE degree can lead you to think really robustly about an issue and to see these different conflicting perspectives and to try to analyze a problem in different ways.”

The ethics of the global refugee crisis

A cornerstone of Parekh’s book is the discussion of what constitutes a “moral” response to the refugee crisis. She explains how nations must not only think of what they stand to gain but also what we, as humans, owe to the people in our own community.

“A lot of people argue that it’s [resettling refugees] a foreign policy good that benefits us, we get to look good, we get to have this credit in other countries, and economically it’s a really good investment. And that’s fine, that’s important. But all of those aren’t going to get to the core of the challenge of responding to refugees in the 21st century. So, to ask this moral question, ‘Well, what are we to do, independently of the goods or benefits or harms that may come from doing it,’ is a really important question.”

Parekh still agrees that nations ought to put their people first – but that’s not an excuse.

“I’m actually not opposed to the view that countries can take the interests and needs of their citizens first and foremost, and they ought to do what’s best for their countries. That’s absolutely fair, every country should be doing that. And yet, we still cannot treat refugees the way we treat them. I tried to show that there’s actually no harm that is being done by resettling refugees and allowing asylum seekers to come in. There’s not an economic harm, there’s not a criminal harm, there’s not a political harm.”

The final impact: how the book leaves readers

Parekh knows different people will draw different conclusions from her book. A popular takeaway she has heard is the realization that the refugee crisis is so much worse than imagined; that the descriptions in the book allowed that to really sink in.

“Even people who are really well-informed and interested in current events just have no idea what it means to live in a refugee camp for 17 years, what it means to live without any kind of international aid for generations while your children grow up without any education, what it means to decide to seek asylum and being forced to hire smugglers and risking your life. What they’ve gone through to get there is such a profound tragedy.”

However, if it was up to her, Parekh would want her readers to understand one simple thing: there is hope. There is hope for the future of the refugee crisis, there is hope for reclaiming the dignity of refugee lives, and there is hope for the end of this human disaster.

“There’s a lot we can be doing; there’s no shortage of creative solutions for how to help refugees in the 21st century that would allow them to live lives of dignity, even as they wait for permanent solutions. It’s all within our power. People would like to think that we live in a world where we can respond to people in crisis in meaningful, genuinely helpful ways. I think my book provides at least the hope that this is possible.”

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