“From a moral point of view, I believe that these refugees should stay only on a temporary basis. The goal should be for them to return and help rebuild their own countries.”
These are the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom many prominent western media outlets have recently accused of perpetuating anti-refugee, xenophobic rhetoric. The portion of this exchange that the press took grossly out of context has now been spreading like wildfire to paint His Holiness as some sort of Trump-like force against refugee resettlement policies and efforts around the world.
As a result, a poorly translated joke (the original exchange being in German) has led many to believe that His Holiness was painting the prospect of the current Syrian humanitarian crisis as a sort of ‘clash of civilizations.’ Sadly, this is not the first time His Holiness’ words have been grossly distorted to paint him as a bigoted, backwards figure (something the Chinese state media has made a career out of).
I was, thus, shocked by the level of ignorance I saw when all these otherwise respectable media outlets put out sensationalist headlines and poorly-written think-pieces bashing the Nobel Prize winning refugee and global icon of peace, of all people, for supposedly perpetuating anti-refugee sentiment. Only on very rare occasions do you have both conservative and liberal media outlets agreeing on something. The desperate, half-assed attempt at clickbait stories simply to generate ratings and web hits for these so-called “news” organizations have, indeed, left a bitter taste in the mouths of those, like myself, who have actually lived the refugee experience.
Let me make this perfectly clear: His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not saying that Europe has accepted ‘too many’ refugees in a xenophobic way. What he was attempting to say was that the global refugee crisis has gotten worse in recent years and that simply accepting these groups fleeing persecution without making any attempt to resolve the roots of the crisis of statelessness would be unwise and unethical.
It is crucial to note that the goal of return lies at the heart of the refugee experience. Even those who were born refugees, like myself, who can be considered well-adapted and fully-integrated into western society are always engaging in efforts to rebuild and advocate for those fleeing their homes and attempting to make their way back home. Westerners who grow up with white privilege and little to no awareness of what it means to be stateless — something I have described in the past as a kind of ‘exile limbo’ — need to take a step back and stop speaking over us and our lived realities.
I urge you to recall that His Holiness himself is, indeed, a refugee before reacting to sensationalist news headlines. He knows the struggle better than anyone else and carries the burden of an entire nation in exile waiting to return home. When you have the privilege of saying and doing whatever you want without any repercussions for your community back home and in exile, it is simply irresponsible and unfair to aggravate the plight of stateless peoples like the Tibetan diaspora.
The irony of condescending white commentators (that apparently can’t make the critical distinction, that carries significant legal ramifications, between the ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ that they claim to care so much about) with no prior knowledge or experience working with Tibetan refugees attacking His Holiness for lacking compassion is truly what is ‘shocking’ and racist here. Caricatures of the brown man as the ‘Noble Savage’ by European colonizers immediately come to mind.
I can already imagine the Chinese state media’s headlines in response to this latest controversy over the Dalai Lama — someone whom the ruling communist regime has labeled ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ seeking ‘splittest’ goals for Tibet. So, unless you’re a member of the Chinese state media, ethical standards matter in journalism. We don’t need manipulative western media outlets constantly exploiting the cause and words of non-Native English speakers to generate quick and dirty web hits. It would be wise to focus on those in power perpetuating the status quo and deflecting accountability for actual human rights violations.
To equate His Holiness’ words and advocacy with Donald Trump and his outrageous brand of Nativist policies and racist political rhetoric in a particularly tense election year is beyond ridiculous. The cruel irony of the western press ignoring the plight of over 100 Tibetans who have burned themselves to death in protest of Chinese communist rule and calling for the return of His Holiness to Tibet while penning insulting headlines about His Holiness’ alleged lack of compassion for refugees is astounding. In a case of mass historic amnesia, the media seems to have conveniently forgotten that His Holiness is the one who bravely condemned the lack of international support for the Rohingya refugees — a growing humanitarian crisis.
Facts matter. Context matters. And if the press is simply too lazy to research the history of an individual who has dedicated his entire life to advocating on behalf of refugees, perhaps you’ll heed these words:
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
Tenzin Pelkyi, is writer, law student, editor of tibetanfeministcollective.org