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Migration has long been considered an issue determined primarily by material interests. But now, in the third decade of the millennium, the issues that dominate migration politics are of a different kind. They are as much moral as they are economic and political. They involve making normative choices and generate conflicts between different conceptions of what is right and wrong.


In particular, the question of how to deal with irregular immigrants poses important moral conflicts. It lies at the heart of controversies over “sanctuary” in Europe and the United States (US). To provide sanctuary means to create a safe space for immigrants where they are beyond reach for immigration law-enforcement. This project addresses three types of sanctuary practices: churches that give shelter to undocumented immigrants and rejected asylum seekers in the hope of preventing their deportation, sanctuary cities and other jurisdictions that refuse bto cooperate with national immigration authorities and do not collect or share information about the legal status of their inhabitants, and humanitarian NGOs that defy governmental guidelines when rescuing immigrants in the Mediterranean or in the desert between Mexico and the US.

All these practices are highly controversial. For example, German politicians have alleged that church asylum “undermin[es] the authority of the state” (Junge Freiheit 2018). President Trump has accused sanctuary cities of “provid[ing] safe harbor to some of the most vicious and violent offenders on Earth” (The White House 2018). And the Italian government has charged humanitarian NGOs active in the Mediterranean of behaving as “accomplices of smugglers” (ANSA.It 2018). But defenders of sanctuary see it as a moral obligation to resist
injustice and protect endangered lives.

Research Gap

It is a central contention of this project that migration has become an object of morality
politics. Just as in classic examples of morality politics such as abortion or the death penalty, migration controversies are often framed in moral terms, reflect fundamental struggles over first-order principles, involve conflicts over or between liberal-democratic principles, and exhibit a specific political pattern that arises out of the underlying normative disagreements and the principled nature of political actors’ preferences.However, the interplay between migration and morality politics has not been in the focus of either the migration studies or the morality politics literature.

Image by Sigmund

Defining Morality Politics


Morality politics as a way of framing

From the perspective of framing, morality politics has been understood either as a way of seeing policy issues through a moral prism (framing as the social construction of reality) or as the strategic invocation of moral norms in the justification of policy positions (framing as a rhetorical tool - strategic framing). In both cases, the idea is that any issue can become a morality issue if it is framed as such.

The project operates with a definition of morality politics as involving sincerely felt moral conflicts. By that we mean that political actors perceive the issue as being about morality, and act upon it based on this belief. Morality politics is therefore a consequence of moral framing


Morality politics as deep moral controversies

Morality politics can be seen as reflecting controversies between irreconcilable moral views. For Mooney, morality politics exists where “at least a significant minority of citizens has a fundamental, first-principled conflict with the values embodied in some aspect of a morality policy” (Mooney 1999, 675).

On the one hand, there is the non-liberal moral impulse of defending culture, religion and tradition, on the other hand, the liberal drive to free the individual from unwanted constraints (see also Smith and Tatalovich 2003). In other words, morality politics exposes a conflict between liberal and non-liberal demands.


Morality politics as moral dilemmas

Morality politics can also reflect moral dilemmas, that is, disagreements that arise between those holding the same overarching moral vision. Lurking behind the controversies is the question of when the principle of freedom of conscience can be deployed to justify exceptions to other liberal principles (Maclure and Taylor 2011).

Moral dilemmas pose a particularly difficult challenge to liberal democracies and to the theory of political liberalism because, whereas
liberal democratic institutions are designed to deal with moral controversies between conflicting moral visions, they are ill-equipped to deal with moral impasses arising within the framework of political liberalism itself.

Empirical Object of Analysis:
The Contentious Politics of Sanctuary

Image by Numendil

In its contemporary variant, church asylum refers to cases where religious congregations harbor undocumented immigrants in order to shield them from law-enforcement authorities.


In the US, the New Sanctuary Movement was launched in 2007.  It currently counts 40 regional sanctuary coalitions and 36 people in public sanctuary throughout the US. In Europe, the official launching event of the New Sanctuary Movement took place in Berlin in 2010. The movement includes active sanctuary alliances in Germany, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, France, the UK, and the Netherlands.

Church Asylum


This project is was funded as the V 743 Richter-Programm (inkl. Richter-PEEK) project of the FWF (Austrian Science Fund). Lifetime of funding: 2019/10/01-2023/09/30. Grants awarded: EUR 375,396.00. Link

Since 2023, the project has been hosted by the Danube University Krems (Department for Migration and Globalization). It got a 3-year extension and additional funding through the University of Krems. Additional grant awarded: EUR 135,000.00.

Ph.D. Projects

In 2023, the project was fortunate to receive an additional grant, allowing us the excellent opportunity to welcome a Ph.D. student into our team. Moreover, we are delighted to share that a promising Ph.D. student has been granted a visiting fellowship, enabling them to diligently prepare their applications for additional funding support.


Ph.D. Candidate // Project Member

photo credits: Daniel Novotny

Theresa Schütze
"Sanctuary in desert borderlands"

Theresa’s PhD project investigates practices and spheres of sanctuary in desert borderlands. It looks at initiatives in the Sahel-region, as well as the Sonoran desert to further our understanding of the territorial preconditions of sanctuary. On the one hand, migration governance of migration in these desert borderlands is characterized by the involvement of a multiplicity of national, international and supranational actors. On the other hand, state’s absence and a form of active neglect shapes often life-risking migratory experiences on these territories. Further the project is interested in the subject-object relations evolving in sanctuary and general migrant support initiatives within post-colonial contexts, and how this is reflected in the normative justifications on which the activities are based.


Ph.D. Candidate // Visiting Fellowship

photo credits: Fernanda Monsalvo

Fernanda Monsalvo
"Generating migrant solidarities: migration and post-secularism in Europe and the Americas"

Fernanda`s PhD research examines the ideological factors that shape migrant solidarity in the civil society. In a context of societal polarisation and post-secularism where migration is a major topic on political agendas, the research focuses on the involvement of religious figures in transnational and interfaith networks and their influence on political discourse and action regarding migration through both pro- and anti-immigration standpoints in Europe and the Americas.

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