Dalai Lama's comment on refugee crisis illuminates what's at the heart of anti-migrant sentiment

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire


The Dalai Lama has the rare distinction of being a religious leader who enjoys the respect of the secular, liberal public, but a recent interview he gave to the BBC has made a dent in his image of serene wisdom transcending conservative worldviews. The Dalai Lama said, among other things, that European countries should take in refugees, shelter them and give them training, but that the refugees should eventually return home. What if they want to stay, the interviewer, Rajini Vaidyanathan, asked? “A limited number is okay, but the whole of Europe eventually become Muslim country, African country — impossible [sic],” he replied.

This was not the first time he was saying this. It has been his consistent position. Last year, in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, after a public speech, he was asked by an audience member to explain this stand of his. He said there was a lot of suffering in those lands that the refugees were escaping from. European countries must provide shelter to these refugees, but eventually the refugees must return home, to rebuild their own countries. He gave the example of Tibet and his own community, the Tibetans, and said, they had always wanted to return. The idea he was operating from seemed to be one directed along the Buddhist ideal of compassion. The Dalai Lama was effectively saying that beyond saving themselves, the refugees have a duty to try and help the suffering people in the lands they had left behind.

Where his statement becomes more controversial is when he says “Whole of Europe become Muslim country, African country – impossible”.

 Dalai Lamas comment on refugee crisis illuminates whats at the heart of anti-migrant sentiment

What the Dalai Lama's comment implies, is that migrants must not change the essential character of the place they move to. REUTERS

This is exactly the fear that all the Right-wings around the world are expressing. Whether it is Donald Trump in America with his great wall, or any of a clutch of Right-wing leaders across Europe from Nigel Farage in England to Victor Orban in Hungary, the idea is the same: migrants must not change the essential character of the place. The same idea is and has long been in operation in India too. Here, the usual bogeyman is the Bangladeshi, and the states of Northeast India have a considerable history of ethnic violence against the minority Bengali communities across the region, Muslim as well as Hindu. The current exercise of drawing up a National Register of Citizens in Assam, from which over four million people find their names missing, is an attempt by the government of India and the Supreme Court to try and weed out anyone who might have come after 1971, close to 50 years ago. There is also a parallel process of detection of migrants by foreigners’ tribunals, by which people are being locked up in detention camps.

Trump, Orban and the rest have a lot of catching up to do to get to where India is at; they are still only talking about preventing further migration, not about finding anyone who might have come illegally in the last 50 years and putting them in “detention camps”. Reducing millions of people, who in actual practice are often discriminated against by ground level staff on the basis of their religious and linguistic identities, to statelessness, or putting them in camps, has been unthinkable in Europe since the Holocaust.

That anti-immigrant ideas are gaining currency around the world again owes something to what people understand by nation-state.

There is a clear notion that it is a land that belongs to a particular people. This is true of countries as different as Israel, Pakistan, Poland, China and increasingly, even the incredibly diverse India. It is also the same idea that the Dalai Lama, who has spent his life as an exile from Tibet seeking return, has advocated all along. If he did not think Tibet rightfully belongs to Tibetans, and had no objection to the Han Chinese taking over the land and turning it into a part of China through a process that includes cultural colonisation, he would not have bothered opposing the Chinese government all his life.

Migration of people in large numbers can and has changed the characters of places in the past. Australia’s aboriginals and New Zealand’s Maoris were completely marginalised by migrant settlers. The same happened to the American Indian tribes in North America. There is certainly a distinction between settler colonialism, where the colonisers have superior firepower, and the migration of destitute refugees fleeing persecution — in some cases caused by the foreign policies of the countries the refugees are fleeing to — but the basic idea that migration in sufficiently large numbers could turn Europe into an African or Muslim land is not as absurd as it initially sounds.

According to a United Nations report titled 'World Population Prospects' which was released in revised and updated form in 2017, the population of Africa is expected to double from 1.25 billion in 2017 to 2.52 billion in 2050. The population of Asia is projected to rise from 4.50 billion to 5.25 billion. Europe’s population is projected to fall from 742 million to 716 million. From 2017 to 2050, the report expected half the world’s population growth to come from just nine countries: India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, US, Uganda and Indonesia. In short, the populations of Africa and Asia are expected to rise by over 2.5 billion, while the population of Europe is expected to decline. Most of the rise will come in countries which are relatively poor compared to Western Europe.

A National Migration Institute (INM) agent tries to calm down a group of migrants rushing to enter the Siglo XXI migration facility in Tapachula, Mexico, in May 2019. REUTERS

A National Migration Institute (INM) agent tries to calm down a group of migrants rushing to enter the Siglo XXI migration facility in Tapachula, Mexico, in May 2019. REUTERS

The conservatives, and this obviously includes even the Dalai Lama, are clear that they see cultures as rooted in certain geographies and carried by certain peoples. They do not want other cultures and peoples to intrude excessively into their homelands. The liberals, globally, have failed to communicate an equally clear vision, because there seems to be lack of clarity about the eventual idea of the world as they would like it. Do they advocate free movement of people? Are they in favour of a world without borders? Or are they only trying to ensure status quo, with basic human rights accorded to those fleeing persecution? If the battle is about ensuring status quo they are not discussing a fundamentally different idea; they share essentially the same idea as the conservatives, just a kinder, gentler version of it.

Also read: Western theories of nationhood don't capture India's complex realities

Movement of people is a fact of life, and the pace and scale of this movement has accelerated like never before in the past 100 years. The process is still gathering momentum, and climate change will add force to it. The idea of the homeland will be at stake.

Without clarity on the idea of what it is about a culture and a people that requires a homeland, thorny questions surrounding migration and identity will continue to trouble the world.

One possible answer may lie in the example of the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama, despite his position on the issue, has actually shown during his lifetime that it is possible for a culture and a people to survive, and indeed, to thrive, despite the absence of a homeland. Other persecuted peoples in the past, notably the Jews and in a smaller way the Parsis, similarly preserved their cultures through centuries of exile. The heart of the exile may always seek return, but more often than not, such return proves impossible.

Increasingly, whether we like it or not, all the world is our home, and is in our homes.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

Updated Date: Jul 05, 2019 10:01:45 IST