In The Origins of Totalitarianism, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed to the years between World War I and World War II as the time when the plight of refugees became a pressing political problem.' If Arendt were still alive (she died in 1975), she would no doubt agree that the problem is at least as pressing in the early twenty-first century as it was sixty or more years ago, when she herself was a refugee from Nazi Germany. Who would not agree? According to a report of the U.N. Population Division, 16 million people were refugees at the end of 2000, most of them to be found in Asia (9 million) and Africa ( 4 million). Obviously the plight of refugees is a pressing problem today. But is it a pressing political problem?

Someone might hold, for instance, that coping with refugees is a logistical nightmare or a matter of grave humanitarian concern but not a political problem. What I hope to show in this chapter is that the refugee problem remains as it was in the years between the world wars, a problem for political thinkers and actors. More than a single problem, it is a set of interrelated problems, three of which I shall focus on here: the conceptual problem, the balancing problem, and the human rights problem.

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Copyright © 2005 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. This chapter first appeared in War and Border Crossings: Ethics when Cultures Clash.

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