What we need to learn from the tragedy in the Mediterranean

The Migrationist talks one-on-one with the UN's independent expert on the human rights of migrants
29 April, 2015

In his day job, François Crépeau is a teacher and researcher. As the Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Professor in Public International Law at the Faculty of Law of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, he researches and writes about migration control mechanisms, the rights of foreigners, the conceptualization of security as it applies to migrants, and the Rule of Law in the face of globalization.

But since 2011 Crépeau has also been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants – a role he embraces with refreshing candour, cheerfully calling out the “utter bullshit” he sees in some anti-migrant arguments. His latest report, on the crisis in the Mediterranean, will be made public in May.

I reached Crépeau by Skype at his home in Montreal just as the European Union was holding an emergency meeting in the wake of hundreds of migrant deaths in just a few days in the waters between Europe and North Africa. Today, we’re posting the first half of the interview, in which Crépeau discusses how the deaths are tied to our failure to accept the essentially mobile nature of humankind, and frames migration as the defining feature of our time. In the second half of the interview, to be posted Friday, Crépeau covers Mare Nostrum, migration mechanisms and the price of strawberries. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Q. What does it mean to be the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants?

I have a mandate as an independent expert. I’m not on the payroll of the UN, I don’t speak for the UN. They pay my costs but I do this work pro bono. My mandate comes from the member states of the UN Human Rights Council, who appointed me to do reports on how the states are doing on particular issues. They don’t want me to be the voice of the UN and the UN can contradict me tomorrow and call me a loose cannon, if they want to.

I do thematic reports and country visits. The rule of thumb is that we do two country visits and two thematic reports a year. That’s a lot, considering I have a day job. I have done country visits to Albania, Tunisia, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Malta and the EU. I went to Italy twice and to the EU twice. My next visit is to Australia in October. The thematic reports have been on the detention of migrants, climate change and migration, the global governance of migration, protection of the human rights of migrants and the borders of the EU. I’ll be submitting one in June at the request of the Human Rights Council as a result of what’s happening in the Mediterranean. In the fall, I’ll submit a report on the recruitment practices of temporary migrant workers.

I had another report in the fall of 2013 on the inclusion of migration and human rights in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Everyone has started thinking about the SDG and how to get their own thing into it – including me. There are 17 goals right now – probably too many – and in 8 of the 17 goals, it’s written that the goal applies “for all.” To me, that is key. That doesn’t mean “for all except migrants”. For all means for all. That means they’ve included migration in a subtle way. That’s the work I do – work on two words for weeks on end!

Q. What are you trying to achieve with your work?

Change the world (laughs). I teach, I try to shape minds, to bring people to understand the world at least in part the way I understand it. I took this mandate because I felt that if I could push that a little further and there was an opportunity to have an impact at the UN level on migration issues, it would be a good thing. There’s an opportunity for me to talk to states, make visits, tell them “Your detention centre sucks, you need to change that” and some of that will be picked up and have an impact.

Q. What’s your own personal experience with migration?

That’s where it comes from, probably. My mother was French but born and raised in Brussels. They fled to the south of France during the war. Later she met a Canadian doctoral student and married him. That is my father, who is French Canadian on his father’s side. My paternal great-grandfather was third-generation farmer in St Paul, Minnesota. My parents met in the Casbah in Jericho where they were both on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Q. What’s the most misunderstood thing about the crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean?

Mobility. We consider ourselves settled creatures but we are fundamentally mobile. We haven’t grasped that politically or culturally yet. The nomadic culture of a couple of millennia ago is really more than skin deep. I often start my presentations by asking how many people live in the city of birth of their four grandparents. It’s usually less than five per cent and often not a single hand is raised.

So we’re going against history when we try to stop migration. We’re all in favour of the mobility of capital, goods and services under globalization but we haven’t embraced the mobility of persons. We don’t understand the mobility of others and we certainly don’t accept it when they come to us. At the same time, we are used to going anywhere we want. We would be extremely surprised when buying tickets for Thailand for two weeks in a resort if the authorities said ‘We don’t like your face, you can’t come in’. We don’t understand that the people in the south don’t understand why they don’t enjoy the same mobility we do. They have cell phones, they read the Guardian. They know who we are and how it works and they figure it out. Why should they be prevented from moving when we can go wherever we want, at any time?

I believe mobility is the defining feature of our time and we ought to respond to it by mechanisms that do not try to prevent it, but regulate it. The analogy I make is with the Prohibition period of the 1920s and 30s in North America and more recently, the war on drugs. The Americans tried to prevent people from buying, consuming and importing alcohol. That made some Canadian families very rich. But after 10 years, the Americans realized prohibition was creating Al Capones and other gangsters and essentially killing people. Much better to organize, regulate and tax. These are mechanisms that work. Don’t try to prevent a behavior that’s going to happen anyway. Similarly, 40 years into the war on drugs, and the cartels are as deadly as ever, rich as ever, tech savvy as ever and there’s no end in sight. California and Uruguay have started to legalize and regulate and tax the drug trade. They’re starting slowly.

I think it’s the same with migration. We’re going to have to legalize, regulate and tax. We have to create avenues for people to be able to move, while having papers, so we have to have exit controls like Australia has. States want to control – which to me is okay as long as they don’t prohibit. And then there’s tax. Why should the smugglers make all the money? Some of that money could go to states. That money in the smuggling industry funds other criminal activities, so we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. That’s what we don’t get.

This is not new (the idea these flows can be legal, regulated and taxed). If you think about the 1950s and 60s, millions of Africans came to Europe. Everyone took a ferry for 50 francs in Algiers or Turkey and came to Europe. There were border controls, people had visas and came to look for work. When they found work, they would transform their tourist visa into a work permit. It was control with facilitation.

Our obsession with security took over somewhere in the mid-80s in Europe. It went from there, and 9/11 sure didn’t help. During the economic crisis of the 1970s, governments wanted to send all the migrants back. They didn’t want to go because they had lives now in Europe. Those reasons create fear. Then security reasons came to the fore in the 1980s and 90s. In the Schengen Agreement there’s a block on international criminality, including terrorism, mafia, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and irregular migration. In one sweep, the fact that someone crossed the border without the right papers became equated with drug trafficking and terrorism.

The welfare state came under attack at the same time. States lost the legitimacy of social protection. Everything became securitized because suddenly the state could not provide everything they did in the 1950s and 60s. States reverted to using security to justify what they were doing, leading to a securitization of the public space in the 1980s, early 90s. That’s why you see now water security, environmental security, agricultural security, and migration security. We have gone in a spiral of securitizing everything and seeing threats everywhere in order to justify the role of government.

This went well with the nationalist populist bent in politics in most of our countries in the past 10 or 20 years. Part of this is that sovereignty means controlling your own border, controlling means being able to seal the border. So if people come in irregularly, it means you aren’t doing a good job. People haven’t realized yet that borders are porous, or if they have realized it they can’t say it. It’s not utterable on the political stage. The fact is that people are coming and going al the time – we just don’t like to admit it.

States are always equated with homes – close the front door, we don’t want them coming in the back door. We should instead compare states to cities – anyone can come in, not everyone can stay because they might not afford it. I can’t stay in Beverly Hills but I can drive there, and if I find a rat hole I can afford, maybe I can settle there. You cannot seal the borders of Beverly Hills but it’s tough to settle there. People can cross through it and go home. There was a time Mexicans went back and forth across the US border easily – they came for jobs, went home when the job market dropped, came back when there were jobs again. Britain and Ireland were the only member states that did not impose a transition period after the enlargement of the EU in 2005. The UK and Ireland received 1.5 million Central Europeans in 2005. I remember going to Dublin around that time and your Guinness would be served with a Latvian accent. When the crisis hit at the end of 2009, two thirds of them left. But they left with skills. They spoke English perfectly now. They probably had very good careers after that. In Britain, this was good for the economy when they worked there and for the unemployment rates when they left.

That’s what we want – people who can’t find a job in Atlantic Canada go to Calgary. Now Calgary is having a difficult time, we want them to move to Vancouver, where there are jobs. We want people to move to where they can use their skills. We should be open to that in a regulated way with taxation to fund the controls. Facilitate, liberalize, regulate and tax.

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