The fickle mainstream press has long moved on from the refugee crisis. The famous photo of a dead Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying face down on the shore of the Greek island of Kos shocked the media world into action. But this is not to the media’s credit: it was hand-wringing guilt and a feeling of panic at having lost control of the debate, not genuine spiritual conscience, which forced websites, newspapers, and television channels to cast a more sympathetic eye to these terrified, desperate people who may otherwise have been caricatured or demonized by the very same outlets. In any case, as so often when the glare of the social media and journalistic spotlight moves away, we are lulled from our heightened anxiety and guilt back into a sense of complacency and normality. The truth is that the refugee crisis is just beginning, especially as war in Syria and Iraq intensifies with so many self-interested players.
Russia, the Assad government, and Iran have now positioned themselves as the only effective defenders against ISIS and Islamist fundamentalism. The West’s strategy (both in the Middle East as well as domestically in relation to the refugee question) is in chaos. The Wahhabi Gulf States (with backing from the US and NATO) have been funneling cash and weapons to ISIS and will not tolerate further progress for Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s Quds Force commander and puppeteer of Middle East politics. Worse yet, the political and military implications of the terrorist bombing in Ankara on 10 October that has killed 128 people as of the writing of this editorial—the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkish history—are likely to be extremely serious. Straddling the Continent and the Middle East and the frontline ally of NATO, Turkey will likely see even more refugees crossing its borders and into Europe as mass movements of peoples across Eurasia continue. These factors, and more, will ensure that the refugee problem gets much, much worse before it can (possibly) get any better.
The moral and political questions surrounding the Europe-bound refugees are more pertinent to Buddhist communities than one would expect, notwithstanding the already serious Rohingya issues that flashed across newspapers, websites, and television screens from around May to August this year (little was learned from this crisis, either). After the AGM of the European Buddhist Union (EBU) in Berlin from 24–27 September, the more than 30 organizations represented at the meeting released a statement titled “A compassionate response to the European refugee crisis.” The statement argues that among the highest values in life are fearlessness, generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness, and calls on all European countries to “show compassion and generosity to those displaced through war and seeking refuge in Europe, safe from violence.” The statement recognizes that the people arriving in Europe, whether cast in the media as “refugees,” “asylum-seekers,” or, more disingenuously, “migrants,” are “people like ourselves, desperately seeking relief from suffering and longing for happiness.” This statement represents an excellent Buddhist moral call encapsulated in one word: empathy.
Despite its use of common Buddhist catchphrases and terminology, this statement cannot really be criticized as being overly idealistic or detached from real experiences. In a podcast on the iTunes channel of The Buddhist Centre Online (which is managed by the Triratna Buddhist Community), Martin Schaurhofer of the Austrian Buddhist Society and Žarko Andrićević, a Chan practitioner from Croatia, detailed how the crisis had become a living reality for European Buddhists and why so many Buddhist organizations at the EBU meeting had agreed with the statement’s wording. Compromises must be hammered out between the moral call for refuge and the need to manage the huge numbers of people in a way that will not cripple European communities and infrastructure. Andrićević said that “they [the Croatian government] decided to help as much as they could,” but in a few days the numbers became overwhelming and they had to transport the refugees to Hungary. For Andrićević, it was the refugees who suffered the most, and he rightly insisted that these people were hungry, exhausted, and uncertain of their future, and not simply strangers disturbing the peace.
Schaurhofer recalled that 40,000 people of various ethnicities had crossed the Austro-Hungarian border to Vienna in September, and in response “a movement of civil society” was organized on Facebook and a concerted effort to offer warm food, water, and clothes to the refugees. He gave the example of a Tibetan group in Vienna that invited refugees to the gompa and gave them food and temporary shelter and “helped them to take care of basic needs before taking them back to the station.” These refugees were headed to Germany, and while Austrians do not face the same kind of pressure as their German neighbors, Schaurhofer provided an excellent example of how Europe’s Buddhists are being directly affected by and actively responding to the aftershocks from the conflagrations in Syria and Iraq.
Of course, domestic constraints and geopolitical realities will force governments to adopt measures and policies that are unable to realize fully the Buddhist call of help for all refugees. But policy is not the responsibility of Buddhism. The obligation for Buddhists across Europe who are engaged in this crisis is to ensure that there is adequate reflection and awareness of the prime importance of empathy before the policymaking process. In this respect some governments have done better than others: the example set by Austria and Germany was extraordinary, while that of Britain appeared confused and flailing, in part due to a fierce and divisive debate about immigration. In addition to deep empathy, generosity needs to be applied practically since it is one of the Six Perfections (paramitas) and of equal priority and urgency as loving-kindness or compassion.
What was particularly interesting was Andrićević’s idea that the refugees’ suffering was “our suffering in the past.” Of course, on the mundane level this simply indicates the hardships and tribulations that characterize human migration, whether we are speaking of the hundreds of thousands of Huguenots that fled France in the early 18th century, the Chinese workers and sailors that built America’s infrastructure during the Qing and Republican periods, or the millions of Jews that fled the Nazi regime.
But at a more classically Buddhist level, shared suffering is not simply a moral or historical fact—it is a metaphysical one. In countless past lives, we have suffered the same crushing anxiety that eats away at our hopes for survival or our children’s future. We have seen real terror and despair: family and friends shot, stabbed, maimed, and taken away. We have stared powerlessly at the cold and humiliating sneer of the border officer who threatens to arrest us unless we turn back in the direction from which we have fled. We have all been actual refugees at some point in the cosmic past, and even if we have no memory of such past lives we are all still figurative refugees floating helplessly in the sea of samsara. One way or another, we are all in the same boat and we need the Buddha to guide us to safe and tranquil shores.