His hope for refugees everywhere.

Photographer: Shyam Sharma

Dalai Lama's Pipe Dream for Europe's Refugees

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The Dalai Lama is one of the most admired people in the world; he is also the world's most famous refugee. That makes his recent comments to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung -- that Germany has too many Muslim refugees -- both surprising and controversial; perhaps more so than they should be.

Taken out of context, the Dalai Lama's words in the interview with the German daily seem to fit right in with messages from the anti-immigrant  Alternative fuer Deutschland party. "There are now too many," he said. "Europe, for example Germany, cannot be an Arab land. Germany is Germany."

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

It's as important, though, that he said two other things. One essentially signifies approval of Chancellor Angela Merkel's initial urge to accept the escapees from the Syrian war: "If we look into the face of each individual refugee, especially the children and the women, we will feel their suffering. A person who is doing somewhat better has the responsibility to help them."

The other remark is in line with Merkel's statement in January: The refugees's status in Germany is temporary and they are expected to go back to Syria and Iraq when the war is over. The Dalai Lama considers that morally right: "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."

The Dalai Lama, who doesn't have a passport from any country, is clearly applying his own situation to the Syrian refugees. He wants to return to Tibet and develop it as part of China, but with "a high degree of self-rule" that would allow Tibetans to take care of their culture, spirituality and environment. Most of the roughly 100,000 Tibetans who had followed him to India, and many of the roughly 30,000 who live in Bhutan and Nepal (often facing discrimination because China exerts pressure on Nepal's  weak government), would probably follow him back. 

The Dalai Lama lives in hope of return, as did many of the White Russian emigres for decades after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917; but like them too, he isn't likely to get a chance to come back. He will then have to be "reborn" in exile.

Many Syrian refugees in Germany also say they'd like to return, if not home then at least to the Muslim world. To them, integration in Germany means watering down their faith and identity. In practice, though, bringing back people who fled chaos and violence is often difficult.

Even when the UN helps them to come back, and the international community pressures the local authorities to make them welcome, things often don't work out as planned. In 1999, when bringing back about 40,000 Cambodian refugees from Thailand, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees miscalculated the availability of land in the areas where they were being channeled; many repatriates ended up homeless in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

In Bosnia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, local authorities, under international pressure, agreed to the restitution of land and buildings to former owners. Hundreds of thousands came back but many didn't: There were no more massacres in the towns and villages they had fled, but the tension was still there. So the refugees took  legal possession of their homes but sold them or rented them out, choosing to remain where they were.

In Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the occupation authorities and the weak local government initially discouraged refugees from returning. There was nowhere for them to live, government services were non-existent, and in some areas such as Kirkuk in the north, the refugees increased ethnic tensions. These flared up in earnest years later, after the Islamic State emerged and Kurdish military strength grew. 

Today, the biggest refugee repatriation effort is taking place in Afghanistan, just as that country's natives file tens of thousands of new asylum claims in Germany. A 2015 report from the UNHCR said:

The deteriorating security situation and withdrawal of international security forces, high levels of unemployment, landlessness, limited access to basic services (particularly in areas of high return) and disputes over property rights will continue to present impediments to return and reintegration.

The United Nations considers the return of refugees to formerly war-torn countries "a fundamental objective of state rebuilding." Apart from providing human capital for development, returnees are a test for fragile postwar governments. "The state cannot achieve legitimacy when a significant proportion of its population remains outside the territory it controls," wrote Sara Petrin in a working paper for the UNHCR. "Repatriation signifies that the population has confidence in the state’s ability to reconstruct order."

People will often try to come home, even into ugly, hopeless and potentially violent situations, as the Afghan refugees do today. They also face pressure in host countries to get out. Yet returning a significant proportion of the more than 1 million people who came to Europe last year would be an operation far exceeding the scale of the effort in Afghanistan -- or, for that matter, anywhere in recent memory. Add to that the almost 4 million displaced Syrians who hadn't made it to Europe, and the scale becomes overwhelming.

Processing and settling the newcomers has overwhelmed even efficient government systems in Germany and Sweden so it's hard to imagine what a fragile post-war Syrian government will be able to do with them if even a quarter of them come back. Homes and infrastructure are destroyed and state bureaucracy will need to be rebuilt from scratch.

There is a heartening ecumenical consensus between the Buddhist leader and the German Chancellor, who leads the Christian Democrats, about both welcoming refugees and expecting them to go home. Yet in practical terms, getting the Muslim refugees to rebuild Syria would be an operation that nobody in the world has the logistical expertise and resources to execute. It's more realistic to work hard to give refugees an opportunity to integrate where they are than to expect them to get out at some point.

Those who remain in Europe will still help rebuild their home countries by remitting money home. And an aging Europe could use these newcomers to keep its economies growing. There is no getting all of the toothpaste back into the tube.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net