Deporting Refugees: An Ethical Consideration

By: Cassidy Henry

Photo by: Mikhail Evstafiev

Taking in refugees after a humanitarian crisis is a moral obligation that many states accept, including the U.S. After the especially horrendous wars in the Balkans, the U.S. began accepting Bosnian refugees.

A refugee is someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. (U.S Department of State definition of refugees)

The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) is the global Refugee Agency which helps oversee international refugees and their re-settlement. The UNHCR reports that less than 1% of all refugees are resettled in third countries. The US welcomes half of these refugees.

In 2008, the US set up the unit to investigate war crimes. It “focused on human rights violations in an effort to prevent the United States from becoming a safe haven to those individuals who engage in the commission of war crimes, genocide, torture and other forms of serious human rights abuses from conflicts around the globe.”


After the wars in Yugoslavia, the U.S. relied upon self-reporting from the applicants to determine if they had served in the military or had other ties to armed groups, which were disqualifying attributes. Of course, this incentivizes non-reporting as does the fact that little fact checking was done in the aftermath of the war. Over 120,000 Bosnians sought U.S. visas in the mid-1990s.

On February 28, The New York Times first reported that the U.S. was seeking to deport at least 150 Bosnians who they believed had concealed involvement in wartime atrocities. Immigration officials claim that more than half of the 300 suspects played a role in Srebrenica. There have been other highly publicized arrests of Bosnians accused of participating in war crimes that have re-settled in the U.S.

But, this time, the lawyers of the accused claim that this is guilt by association. They claim that their clients were in the region, but didn’t participate in Srebrenica. Others claim that they only concealed being a part of the army for fear of not being accepted as a refugee, but claim that they didn’t participate in war crimes.

Ethical Considerations

These people were granted refugee status, thus their admittance to the U.S. In addition, some of them have even been granted U.S. citizenship since arrival.

But now what? Can the U.S. government deport U.S. citizens found to be hiding their service in a foreign army? If what the lawyers say is true- that these men were low level grunt workers who patrolled a compound, but were not responsible for any war crimes- does the U.S. have the right to deport them to a country in which their life is in danger?

Legally, yes. The U.S. can deport anyone who lied on a visa application (which in turn, could be applied to the refugee application). Since they are naturalized U.S. citizens, they can be “denaturalized” and thus subject to removal. But this brings up larger ethical questions, some asked above, but further, what if these refugees had children here?

If these people were hiding their involvement in war crimes, then they need to be held accountable. If they did in fact lie about their service, in what was essentially a militia set up to kill others who weren’t like them, how culpable are they for protecting those who committed war crimes? If they did serve in the army, but did not commit any war crimes themselves, will they be persecuted upon return to Bosnia?

While this case is in its infancy, the ethical questions loom large and need to be answered.

cassidyCassidy Henry is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School studying Diplomacy and National Security. Her focus is on Eastern Europe/Russia, where she has spent 19 months living and studying. Cassidy is currently looking for an entry level career position and can be contacted at

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