As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third month, some five million Ukrainians have been displaced and the world is faced with yet another dire refugee crisis. In an attempt to manage the emergency, the United Kingdom and Denmark have put forth plans to use Rwanda as a site where certain immigrants can be flown and housed while they await refugee status or permanent expulsion. The agreement between the UK and Rwanda has already been signed, while Denmark’s plan is still being negotiated at the time of writing.
The immigrant crisis is hardly different from the previous most recent one, which lasted from 2015–18, largely fueled by the worsening conflict in Syria. In 2014, an immigration crisis was sparked in the United States when people fleeing Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador reached the US-Mexico border in record numbers—many of them as unaccompanied minors.
Throughout Africa, wars and internal conflicts have led to millions of people being displaced. In Asia as well, wars such as the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan have displaced millions of people in recent decades. The military coup in Myanmar—and before it several regional conflicts and the persecution of the Rohingya people—has led to massive displacement. The Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted from 1983–2009, resulted in many Tamils fleeing for countries such as Australia, India, Malaysia, and elsewhere.
Responses have varied widely. Generally, people have great innate compassion for the suffering of others. When we hear of violence or devastation in a nearby street, town, or neighboring country, many of us immediately feel sympathy. We might even seek ways to help immigrants and refugees directly or support government efforts to aid the afflicted.
Humans are wonderful in this way. Explicitly taught in Mahayana Buddhism is the idea that compassion is innate within us all. This innate capacity is our Buddha-nature and it offers us sparks of bodhicitta (or awakening-mind) in which we see the fundamental interconnectedness between ourselves and all others. This is “relative” bodhicitta. It is what turns us firmly on the path of the Dharma, but is by no means the end of the path.
Pema Chödrön wrote in her book No Time to Lose (Shambhala Publications 2005):
At this point, we might ask why bodhicitta has such power. Perhaps the simplest answer is that it lifts us out of self-centeredness and gives us a chance to leave dysfunctional habits behind. Moreover, everything we encounter becomes an opportunity to develop the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart.(7)
Thus, conflict and the resulting suffering becomes a fertile ground for our practice. It is a precious opportunity to cultivate the Buddhist virtues of compassion, selflessness, and generosity. In times such as these, we can look at our possessions, our shelter, our plentiful food, and offer gratitude for all that has made these possible. As Buddhists, we can look at our Dharma texts and recount the teachings and great teachers we have encountered and give thanks for these as well.
Many Buddhist practices, in fact, begin with giving thanks. This practice alone helps break us of self-centeredness as we ponder the many ancestors who toiled to assure our existence; the countless workers around the world who have provided us with food, clothing, electronics, and more; and the care and dedication of so many directly in our lives to nurture and teach us over many years.
And yet, we know well that our collective moments of virtue have their limits. Our minds might slip back into selfish patterns of thought, concerned about our own well-being at the expense of others. This may happen with members of our own family, and all the more so with immigrants and refugees from a foreign country many miles away.
This may well be what has happened in the UK and Denmark. It is not necessarily outright cruelty—although a group of 160 UK charities has described the policy as “cruel,” according to the BBC—but rather a coldly calculated response that puts the comfort of the people already in the country ahead of those suffering individuals who have fled their homes in search of comfort, freedom, and opportunity.
The UK plan, which seeks to “offshore” part of its immigration system to Rwanda, has modeled its approach in part after Australia’s system, which housed asylum seekers thousands of miles off shore. The Australian system has been called a “deliberate abuse of cruelty” and a “nightmare” for asylum seekers, who have suffered alleged physical abuse, sexual assault, and insufficient medical care. “Harsh detention policies have some populist appeal, particularly around election time,” said Graham Thom, a refugee advocate with Amnesty International Australia. (Politico)
Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby offered an Easter sermon questioning the UK policy, saying: “It cannot carry the weight of our national responsibility as a country formed by Christian values; because sub-contracting out our responsibilities, even to a country that seeks to do well, like Rwanda, is the opposite of the nature of God who himself took responsibility for our failures.” (BBC News)
A similar argument might be made for countries that aspire to the Buddhist values outlined above. Compassion, selflessness, and generosity would not lead us to outsource or “offshore” such an urgent and clear need as the shelter, health, and well-being of immigrants and refugees. Of the Danish proposal, the Danish Refugee Council, an NGO, said in a statement that sending asylum seekers abroad for processing is “both irresponsible and lacking in solidarity.” (Reuters)
Nonetheless, human compassion may triumph in the end, as British civil servants responsible for enacting the new rule have opposed the policy as “utterly inhumane.” (The Guardian)
As we reflect on the history of humanity, we know it is one of migration, sometimes out of a desire to discover or conquer or explore, and sometimes out of dire necessity borne of deprivation, loss, and fear. Buddhists historically are among those who have traveled far and wide for both of these reasons. And Buddhists have historically been among the kind and openhearted people welcoming those in need to their countries, cities, and homes.
As we see this collective crisis unfolding, we might think of our national, religious, ancestral, and other connections to migration. How did moments of kindness, small or large, help sustain those connections? How might we as individuals and citizens foster new moments of kindness, for this crisis and future ones? In a world fraught with division, the question of immigration offers an opportunity for us to find commonality and to practice our deepest values. And as we seek to help others now, we know that it could be us, our friends, our students, or our decedents, who in turn will rely upon the compassion and generosity of others in some other part of the world.
Chödrön, Pema. 2005. No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Denmark in talks with Rwanda on transfer of asylum-seekers (Reuters)
Doubts rise over Australia’s offshore handling of refugees (Politico)
UK’s Rwanda asylum plan the ‘opposite of nature of God’ – Welby (BBC News)
Priti Patel could face Home Office mutiny over Rwanda asylum plan (The Guardian)
Buddhists in the American West (The Pluralism Project)
Bangladeshi Buddhists to give up festivity for Rohingya refugees (UCA news)
An in-depth discussion about immigration and ‘Dreamers’ highlights symposium (University of Miami News)
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