“The language of generosity is very different from language of rights,” says Michael Ignatieff at a debate on Europe’s refugees and migrants

On the 16th November 207, Centre Maurits Coppieters and Minority Rights Group co-organised an event on the potential contribution of minority rights standards and mechanisms to ensure effective inclusion of Europe’s refugees and migrants. Below you can find the abridged key note speech presented at the event by Michael Ignatieff,President and Rector of Central European University in Hungary.

Michael Ignatieff’s abridged speech:

I wanted to devote my remarks exclusively to the issue of the politics of refugee and migrant protection and raise the question: is the language of rights part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution? How can we sustain popular domestic support for rights regimes and transnational solidarity across borders?

Canada is supposed to be the poster-child for this. We have a longstanding commitment to accept 1% of the national population as immigrants every year. The left, right and centre of our political system strongly support this policy. Rights discourses have to be anchored in a country’s vision of who it is. Canada sees itself a country of immigrants.

A paradox that people usually miss: you can only sustain a politics of generosity provided that you have tough border control and repatriation. Never forget that when you come to Canada, what sustains generosity is firm border control. “No, you can’t come in,” is the condition for saying, “yes, you can”. This political paradox needs to be emphasised, even though it is not what I think is normatively desirable. I am the grandson of refugees and I doubt that my own family would get into Canada today.


American generosity, which used to be part of its political DNA, has collapsed. Why is it happening? One of the reasons is that during the post-war period, globalisation seemed to work for America. Suddenly, the context changed. Generosity became zero-sum. Trump is using fears of globalisation to turn on migrants and refugees in unprecedented ways. It will only be possible to change this if working class Americans don’t feel terrified about the security of their jobs. That’s the political challenge.

Not all stories are the same. Hungary, Poland, France and Germany are all different. The idea that this is part of a global populist revolution is misleading. In Eastern Germany people believe that they never benefited from German reunification and prosperity. They believe that they deserve assistance and attention as German citizens. Everyone else comes afterwards.

In Eastern Europe, you run into another problem. If you have a small language community with a shrinking population like in Hungary, you can see that it is very easy to manipulate fears that its cultural future will threatened with migration. Even though there is a labor shortage in Hungary, there is a broad consensus that accepting refugees and migrants is a bad idea. It can seem crazy to an outsider. But those who dismiss these fears will miss how productive this area can be.

Human rights is an elite legal discourse. There is a conflict between ordinary virtues of generosity, trust,  and forgiveness that you see on the local level and globalising or universalising discourses like human rights.

There was a moment of generosity in 2015, which I will never forget. Two year later, we can’t do any of that. We need to understand this.

The virtue of generosity has been confiscated by the Hungarian regime. To say, “I could take in a foreigner,” has been cast as a betrayal of the nation. You can choose Hungary or the stranger, but you can’t do both.

The language of generosity is very different from the language of rights.

The language of the gift says, “We are a generous country, we are a prosperous country. We can afford to make the gift of our citizenship to strangers we choose”. Canadian citizens don’t think Syrian refugees have a right to be in Canada. What they think is: “We have the privilege of giving you the gift of a passport to a safe country.” It turns out that this is the most beautiful gift of all.

It is a language of discretion. A gift giver chooses to give a gift to you. It’s a non-universalist language, which seems to be deeply problematic to human rights defenders, because we cannot make minority and refugee protection dependent on the discretion of the population. I understand that.

But when you ask people why they want to welcome strangers into their country, the language they speak back to you is the language of generosity, not the language of rights. And we better figure that out.