Nigel Farage and the Dalai Lama. Not two names that you would expect to hear in the same sentence, especially when it comes to politics.
The latter, himself a refugee, led thousands of his people into exile in India as they fled Chinese persecution. He refers with monastic metaphysical serenity to humanity’s “oneness”, describes Western capitalism as broken, and has called on developed nations to seek harmony with the environment and to close the wealth gap. On the face of it, it sounds like a theologically literate form of John Lennon’s Imagine.
The former is Britain’s most outspoken critic of immigration, a supporter of democratic populism and strong nation states, a former commodities trader, and arguably the most successful politician in modern UK history because of the pressure he applied which led to the 2016 referendum.
Chalk and cheese, right? Well this week the Dalai Lama shattered expectations, raising eyebrows across the West and sewing some delicious (and long-overdue) cognitive dissonance among Europe’s liberal elite.
“Europe belongs to the Europeans,” he said. The phrase could have been uttered by Tommy Robinson or Marine le Pen, yet this seemingly nativist sentiment emerged from the sage leader of the world’s Tibetan Buddhists.
Farage was delighted, expressing his admiration for the Dalai Lama on LBC radio – even calling him “the most impressive man I’ve ever met”. I’m not 100% certain what the religious leader would make of Farage (apparently they met eight years ago), but the coalescence of views from these most dissimilar of figures is remarkable.
So, what did the Dalai Lama actually say? Far from advocating heartlessly closing the door to our fellow man, proclaiming that there is no room left at the inn (to hop religions for a moment), His Holiness urged Europeans to help and educate refugees and migrants. But ultimately, he said, they should be developing their own countries at home. Going even further, in comments that would make Buddhism’s Kensingtonian followers blanche, he said that “Germany cannot become an Arab country”.
The intervention of this deeply spiritual and benevolent faith leader demonstrates a point of great importance – namely, that the correct moral response to the vast population movements being experienced by Europe is far from obvious. This isn’t a straightforward conflict of practicality vs magnanimity, of head vs heart, and the well-intentioned advocates of a no-borders approach may well be doing far more harm than good.
It is now almost universally accepted that the large-scale movements of people from the Middle East and Africa that have triggered the rise of Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), the Sweden Democrats and others, are not purely a fallout from the wars in Syria and Libya. This is more than a refugee crisis. It is a much deeper and more intransigent problem.
As Douglas Murray catalogues in The Strange Death of Europe, political destabilisation in conflict zones is not a sufficient explanation in itself. Rather, in a long-term trend, increasing numbers are raising the capital to make the journey. There exists greater awareness through modern media of the living standards available in the West, and there has been a rise in organised criminal gangs specialising in selling death-trap tickets across the Mediterranean, in many cases dumping migrants in international waters to be rescued by NGOs or the Italian navy.
The incentive to up sticks and seek a new life in the West was further stoked by Angela Merkel’s unconditional amnesty offered in 2015, and the horrors of the processing centres in Greece and Lampedusa are the result. It seems that economic migrants are sometimes briefed by brave but misguided charity workers to claim that they are refugees from the Syrian war (and to make sure they leave all official documents that say otherwise at home), meaning they must be accepted on arrival in Europe. Since the infrastructure and funding doesn’t exist to process them properly they often simply disappear into the continent – making their way to the more prosperous countries in northern Europe (such as Sweden and Germany).
It isn’t at all clear that a policy of unconditional acceptance is moral, let alone sustainable, and the Dalai Lama is right to suggest that Europeans have a basic right to control their own borders. He also makes the pertinent point that migrants from troubled nations should be developing their own countries and supporting their families at home. A disproportionate number of economic migrants are young men, meaning that the most vital section of the population of poorer economies are draining to the West, leaving others behind to languish.
On the face of it, a policy of turning away brave individuals who have made a treacherous journey looks unspeakably callous. But it is the very openness, tolerance and humanitarian instinct of Western nations that is exploited by the traffickers. Australia has pursued the hard-line policy of saying ‘no more’, with the ultimate effect that the gangsters organising the trade no longer bother. This not only staves off a populist backlash at home; more importantly it puts an end to inhumane detention centres and to bodies being found floating in the sea.
The migrant crisis is one of the biggest challenges facing Western Europe for a generation, with severe implications for our domestic politics as well as for humanitarian wellbeing globally. But the answers are far from simple, and the intervention of the Dalai Lama – a man embodying the antithesis of nationalist bigotry – should be a wake-up call to Europe’s leaders. Politicians rightly want to do the right thing. In this case, open borders are not the answer.