“What is Migrant Hospitality?”

by Tara Tarana

Former American President Obama once said, “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger—we were strangers once, too.” He was referring to extending hospitality to immigrants who arrive in the United States of America. 

The term hospitality derives from the Latin word hospitalia or hospitia. It refers to accepting and accommodating guests, visitors, and strangers into a community. To provide hospitality to individuals means to provide a sense of community and legal, political, social or economic support to them. Hospitality is an unofficial right which belongs to all human beings. Philosopher Immanuel Kant has written that hospitality is the “right of an alien not to be treated as an enemy upon arrival in another’s country”. This right, according to Kant, should only be restricted if the aim is to colonize a foreign land. 

When today’s governments in the Global North, however, speak of extending hospitality they often expect reciprocity and imply that migrants — i.e. the recipients of hospitality — owe them more than gratitude. Rather, governments expect to receive something in return — often cheap labour — when they accept migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. These expectations are subverting the original meaning of hospitality. 

When more than one million Syrians arrived at the doorstep of Europe, many European governments, such as Hungary and Denmark, raised the question if the refugees would abuse their generosity and pose a threat to the country’s prosperity. In response to these concerns, these governments opened their borders to only very few refugees and often forced them to “work for their allowance”, as stated by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, if they wanted to stay in that country. Hostility, in many cases, eventually replaced hospitality. When governments are hostile towards refugees and migrants, it reflects the uneven power dynamics between host and guest and dismisses the idea that hospitality belongs to everyone. 

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