François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, is urging the west to adopt a global humanitarian plan to resettle refugees and regulate migrant mobility. He spoke to Guardian Australia’s Gabrielle Jackson over Skype from Montreal – where he is a professor of law at McGill University – about the recent deaths at sea in the Mediterranean, Australia’s hardline approach to asylum-seeker policy and how the world should respond.
Gabrielle Jackson : We have just seen one of Europe’s biggest maritime disasters outside of war time. How should the EU respond? François Crépeau : The moral imperative is to save lives, so that’s the first thing to do. Einstein has defined madness as repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. If we continue what we’ve done – especially in Europe – it’s not going to get better. This is only the start of the summer season, so if we’ve had over a thousand deaths in the past week, we’re probably going to see that over the coming weeks as well.
So what do we do that’s different? If repression and detention doesn’t work, then we need to consider why this migration happens.
There are two categories of people we’re talking about. There are clearly refugees – the Syrians, Eritreans, Somalis, Afghanis. If we take the Syrians and Eritreans who are mostly based in the Middle East at present – in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt for the Eritreans – we know they’re stuck, we know there’s no future for them where they are. These countries are not allowing them to settle, get permanent residence, citizenship and then become active citizens. They’re stuck in a place where there’s no future for themselves or their children. We know a great number of Syrians in particular are going to leave these countries and if we don’t provide any official mechanism for them to do so, they will resort to smugglers. The inaction of Europe is actually what creates the market for smugglers.
We should do for the Syrians what we did 30 years ago for the Indochinese, and that’s a comprehensive plan of action where all global north countries – and that includes Europe, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand and probably other countries – offer a great number of Syrians an option so that they would line up in Istanbul, Amman and Beirut for a meaningful chance to resettle, instead of paying thousands of euros only to die with their children in the Mediterranean.
We could collectively offer to resettle one million Syrians over the next five years. For a country like the UK, this would probably be around 14,000 Syrians a year for five years. For Canada, it would mean less than 9,000 a year for five years – a drop in the bucket. For Australia, it would probably be less than 5,000 per year for five years. We can manage that. (I’ve only used population as a distribution key, a more sophisticated key could be used, factoring in GDP for example.)
You could expand that and announce a bigger number for seven years or expand the number of nationalities covered, so include Eritreans, for example, who have been crossing the Mediterranean as well. This is going to be a long-term commitment and we should go at it together. It’s a much better system for everyone – you reduce the number of deaths, you reduce the smuggling business model, and you reduce the cost of asylum claims.
So that’s the first group of migrants. Who are the second group? The second group of people we have to address are the economic migrants, mainly it’s sub-Saharan Africans going to Europe, who may also have protection issues – what UNHCR [the UN’s refugee agency] calls “mixed flows”. You also have people who may not be in need of protection but are desperate for a future because there’s no job for them anywhere near their country. They do the crossing of the Sahara desert, they are swindled, they are often being ransomed, it’s an incredibly violent trek to get to Libya and then cross into Europe.
They come to Europe because they know there are jobs there. Countries in Europe say “We don’t have any jobs for our own citizens, we can’t welcome all these people” but that’s not true. There are jobs. There are very poorly paid jobs in agriculture, in construction, in hospitality or in the care of the elderly or care of young people. We know this. We refuse to acknowledge our underground labour market because we like the price of tomatoes in June ; we like our cleaning lady to be that cheap. These people know there are jobs.
This is a huge pull factor.
Migrants are not stupid, they would not go to places where there are no jobs. As long as we fail to acknowledge that, people will continue to come. We have to clean up our own labour market – we have to fight the mafias who control the agriculture in southern Italy. We have to have labour inspections that have teeth, that can go to places where there are exploitative employers, then punish the employer and close down the businesses, which usually MPs don’t like to do because that costs taxes and jobs. At the same time, if this is the price to have much cleaner labour markets, to reduce the pull factor of underground jobs and to ensure the protection of the irregular migrants who come, this will play a big role.
In the meantime, since we need these people to pick tomatoes and clean dishes, we should create a system of migration at all skill levels. All countries are eager to get high-skilled migrants but we also need people at a low wage level for all sorts of activities that have not been mechanised yet. And we need them now. Unless we offer these avenues people will come by their own means because employers are calling for them.
Unless we open up both these avenues – for refugees and for low-wage migrants – people will come because mobility is part of globalisation.
Is there any precedent for this kind of plan? We’ve done it for the Indochinese. As for the economic migrants, this was the rule in the 50s and 60s in Europe. Millions of north Africans, sub-Saharan Africans and Turks came to Europe between 1950 and 1975 and no one died and there was no smuggling. Why ? Because they took the ferry … for 50 francs and they disembarked in Marseille, took the train to Germany or Belgium or wherever else. Everyone was recorded, everyone was controlled, but they could come. And if they came with a tourist visa and they found a job, they could easily transform the tourist visa into a work permit. And when they lost their job, which happened, they could go home with ease of mind because they knew they could come back. Mobility was the name of the game.
As mobility is increasing with globalisation, instead of resisting it, we should organise it. That means opening legal channels for people to be able to come and look for work. If you create mechanisms that incentivise people, you would not have underground immigration to such an extent that you have now.
For example, we create a visa to come and look for work which is available as a multiple-entry visa for, say, four months per year for five years. So you come for four months the first time and towards the end of your four months you say to yourself, “OK should I stay irregularly or should I go home and come back next year ?” If you stay irregularly you’re forfeiting four more chances of coming back regularly. If you go back home and you have eight months to prepare yourself for the second round, well maybe you’ll learn a bit better English or maybe you’ll do some training of some kind. In order to do this, you have to incentivise them to go to you, the border guard, instead of the smuggler. At present, we’re doing nothing of the kind.
What’s the problem? Why are politicians so hesitant? We live in electoral democracies and we can’t criticise electoral democracies too much because it’s the best system we’ve ever invented to govern ourselves. However, electoral democracies function only according to one principle, which is electoral incentive. As soon as women got the right to vote and to be elected, they started pressuring parties to put women’s issues on their programme, and then they started advocating for more protection for women in the labour market, fighting stereotypes, fighting prejudices against women. It was much fun 50 years ago to say that women couldn’t drive. Well, women have fought that and today if a politician makes a sexist joke publicly, that can kill his career …
Except in Australia… … OK, well at least damage a political career. Women have been able to access the political stage to speak up against those stupid things that men were saying. That’s not going to happen for migrants because they are not going to access the political stage, they’re not speaking up because they’re not part of the electorate. They can’t promise votes to politicians. Politicians have nothing to gain to promise anything to migrants. On the contrary, considering people like this lady whose name I keep forgetting …
Katie Hopkins [columnist with the Sun newspaper] … yes, Katie Hopkins, politicians are actually winning votes by migrant-bashing.
We have a system at present that doesn’t incentivise politicians to do anything about migrants, so you see stereotypes like “migrants take jobs”, “migrants are terrorists”, “migrants are security risks”, “they are criminals”, “they bring illnesses”, all these stereotypes that have been demonstrated to be false by social science simply continue to be in the public discourse because no one is speaking up against them, neither the migrants nor we citizens.
It seems to me in Australia, and maybe this will happen in Europe, that one of ways the government was successful in selling its policies on asylum seekers coming by boats was to sell it as a moral policy. They effectively said, “We have to do whatever it takes to stop the terrible tragedy of people dying at sea.” And people bought it because it was sold to them as moral, no matter how harsh the policies have turned out to be. Saving lives should be the objective. Now how has the Australian government, both right and left, gone about doing this ? It’s the Pacific Solution version one, two or three. I’m going to Australia on an official mission in October so I can confirm then, but we have had very dire reports of what is happening in Nauru and what is happening in Papua New Guinea on Manus Island.
It seems like the Australian authorities have decided to treat extremely harshly migrants who made it on boats to Australian waters in order to deter other people from coming. To me, this is morally, legally and politically unacceptable.
If we go back to the moral foundation of the whole of the human rights framework we have today, it’s Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant said over 200 years ago “never treat the other only as a mean but always also as an end”. And this is what human rights are all about.
The analogy I’m using to determine this is : would we find acceptable that our sons and daughters be treated the same way if they were in the same circumstances? If we answer no, then we have the answer to our moral dilemma.
So what is the challenge to that moral solution? If it isn’t saving lives at sea by deterring them to come, what is it? Let’s regulate mobility: that’s what I’m advocating for Europe and that’s what I’d advocate for any place in the world, including for the American/Mexican border. Let’s not be afraid of mobility. Mobility is exactly what we need and we can’t acknowledge it because of this nationalist populist stance against all these foreigners who will change our lives, change our culture.
Changes are constant, and when migrants come to our societies they make very small changes and most of them are positive. The role of migrants is largely positive on the job market, especially when they are mobile, because when there is a downturn they often leave the country.
If we take the UK, between 2005 with the first enlargement of the EU and 2009 in the crisis, the UK welcomed 1.5 million central Europeans and at least two-thirds of them left after 2009. This is exactly the flexibility of the labour market that we’re looking for.
If we develop, regulate, organise mobility we will have, in the long run, much better results. But for that we need political leadership to happen. We need people who are able to say to that Sun journalist, “You’re wrong and you should know that.”
Some British politicians have talked about rescuing people at sea as a “pull factor”. Do you see search and rescue operations as a “pull factor”? It’s exactly like saying that the social safety net encourages idleness. This is an age-old argument. To me it is a ridiculous argument, it is a lethal argument. I published a press release after [British home secretary] Theresa May said that and the title of the press release was “Let them die” because that’s exactly what she was saying in substance. She advocated to let them die so that it would deter other people to come, it would send out the message, “If you try to come, you will die.”
The next step is the gun boats that we heard of [in Hopkins’s Sun article]. Gun boats shooting at those boats. This is a very slippery slope. Once you talk about guns, then everyone is thinking, “Why don’t they torpedo these boats ? That would be an incentive not to do it.” You can’t do this. It’s Kant’s categorical imperative – you cannot use any person as only a means to have another person do what you want. We all are individual and we all are worthy of dignity.
Can you put the world’s current refugee problem into historical perspective. Is this a particularly bad time for refugees? Yes and no. Generally, the world is more at peace today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The issue is that the mobility of people has increased and the expectations of people have increased.
When you have seen the global north on TV for 25 years, all your life, kids everywhere in the world tell themselves, “If this is hell, well there’s a place I know I can go to”, which was not necessarily the case 30, 40 years ago. The world is more global because the north has wanted it to be global for the movement of goods, services and capital. And we are so surprised that suddenly people want to move as well ? We shouldn’t be.
The refugee issue today is more important than it was 10 years ago because people know they can find protection and we should provide it. We should provide it because they need it but we should also provide it for our own sake because people will come. Period. Either we control it or we let underground intermediaries, called smugglers, do the job.
I was in Djibouti a few years back with an official who works at the International Organisation for Migration [IOM] and we were looking across to Yemen. This strait between Djibouti and Yemen is called the Bab-el-Mandeb and 100,000 people go through it every year. About 10% die in the strait, they drown. We were on the beach and I told her, “But why doesn’t IOM fund a ferry service ? No one would die, the smuggling industry would be dead, you would get to register everyone. Maybe you could ask for 200 euros per person, they’re paying more to smugglers anyway, that would pay for the ferries and you would be able to inform them of the situation, you would be able to detect protection needs, people who are being trafficked, minors who shouldn’t be there, people who have health issues. You would be able to do so much work and this would pay for itself. What’s the problem ?” And the answer was a little smile, and then : “I don’t think the member states of IOM would approve of such a plan.”
Well that’s a depressing note to end on. What is not depressing is the grit, the endurance of the migrants themselves. They do it in many cases out of idealism – they hope there is a place for them somewhere else. And they do it out of love because they want to do the right thing for their kids. Most of the migrants who succeed in getting to Europe succeed in establishing themselves. And you know what ? They’ve made the right choice. Like the people who came irregularly fleeing Nazi Germany or fleeing fascist Italy or Francoist Spain, people who came irregularly made the right choice for themselves and their kids and their kids will be proud of what they’ve done. That’s grit and that’s endurance and that’s courage. We may not have the same courage were we in their shoes, and that’s very encouraging.