Poet Laureate Emeritus, William Douglas, is former SAIS International Development Program Director, and current Adjunct Lecturer of International Relations and Global Theory and History

We classify migrants in three categories.
Each group arrives with their own shocking stories.
The way we should treat each group then depends
On what they’ve been through, and now seek what ends?

Issues re refugees used to be clear: 
When people were fleeing in terror and fear,
From war or oppression, or famine, or drought,
We must let them in; we can’t keep them out.
Now, however, things are confusing;
Rules of ethics we now are perusing,
As we consider whom to admit,
Now that our own fears have increased a bit.

Terrorists surely will be trying to hide
In the refugees’ ranks, if we let them inside.  
Even a few, if heavily armed, 
Can attack in ways so that hundreds are harmed. 
Helping the desperate sustains our moral purity, 
But what if it threatens our own security?
Between duty and prudence, we must strike a balance,
But do we have the judgement and talents
Needed to see where that balance should lie?
If we misjudge, some will suffer and die! 

Asylum seekers hope to flee persecution.
A haven abroad seems like the solution
For dissidents jailed by repressive regimes,
Or forced out by ethnic cleansing schemes.
If their fears of persecution appear well-founded,
And by tyrants or racists they’ve been cruelly hounded,
Then international law says they must be admitted,
Lest to more abuses they might be submitted.

If they come by the hundreds, helping them is easy.
If thousands arrive, some countries feel queasy,
And a million or more can tax the abilities
Of recipient countries’ resettlement facilities.
Should an obligation vary, depending on scale?
Or should basic principles always prevail?
To philosophers, perhaps the answer seems clear.
For policy-makers, complexities appear. 

Economic migrants come looking for work. 
They have duties that they cannot shirk:
Many have children who need to be fed,
And to have a roof overhead.
If labor’s in surplus in the lands they call home,
Then they move where the jobs are: toward rich countries they roam.
But, at times when our unemployment rate soars,
Are we obliged to welcome them all to our shores? 

If our populace exceeds the carrying capacity
Of our environment, then prudent sagacity
Suggests that admitting more people will increase the threat
That environmental disaster is what we shall get. 
So perhaps then we should admit only a few – 
But then, what will the excluded ones do?
Again, we must balance ‘tween conflicting rules,
Hoping we choose like sages, not fools!

Thus all three types dispel the illusion
Of moral clarity, and just leave confusion
So, on prudence we are forced to rely.
As with duty we try to comply.

PHOTO CREDIT: "Winter is Coming: Za'atari Refugee Camp, Jordan" by DFID is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NY-ND/2.0