‘If we want people to come the legal way, we have to clean up our act’: Part II of The Migrationist’s one-on-one with the UN’s independent expert on the human rights of migrants

A boatload of refugees rescued 20 miles north of Libya by the Italian Navy during Operation Mare Nostrum in 2014. Massimo Sestini's stunning photograph took second prize in this year's World Press Photo competition.

A boatload of refugees rescued 20 miles north of Libya by the Italian Navy during Operation Mare Nostrum in 2014. Massimo Sestini’s stunning photograph took second prize in this year’s World Press Photo competition.

Earlier this week we posted Part I of our interview with François Crépeau, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. Crépeau is also the Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Professor in Public International Law at the Faculty of Law of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where his research focus includes migration control mechanisms and the rights of foreigners.

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 the Mediterranean. In Part 1, Crépeau outlined his belief in the essentially mobile nature of humans and his enthusiasm for a mandate that lets him speak his mind. In Part II, Crépeau assesses current European Union policy on asylum seekers, argues that democracies worldwide fail migrants and draws a direct line between consumer expectations to the exploitation of migrant labour.

Q. You returned to the Mediterranean last fall and are presenting your report to the Council in June. Who did you talk to and what did you find?

I went to Italy and Malta and Brussels. I talked to migrants in detention centres and shelters in Malta. I had done that extensively in Italy in 2012.

I found a different frame of mind after the introduction of Operation Mare Nostrum (the Italian naval initiative to improve humanitarian operations and maritime security in the Mediterranean in 2013 and 2014). In Italy, Mare Nostrum was considered a huge success, a badge of honour. The fact that they hadn’t respected the Dublin regulation was not officially acknowledged. They hadn’t registered and fingerprinted most of the migrants because they couldn’t. The migrants didn’t want to. How do you force a family with kids to give their fingerprints if they don’t want to, and you have 900 people waiting in the courtyard? They didn’t want to acknowledge not respecting Dublin because it’s mandatory, but we know they hadn’t fingerprinted everyone. This means that they can’t be sent back to Italy from other countries.

The Dublin regulation has a domino logic: a migrant enters at one place, and is considered that place’s problem. Everyone else can push the problem back to you. That is unsustainable for countries like Greece and Italy. They are transit countries. Migrants don’t want to stay in Italy and Greece, they want to go to Northern Europe and find a job. Italy and Greece don’t want to keep these people who don’t want to be in their country, so why should you punish the person and the country when it would be much better to let people go where they want? Support the country where the asylum claim has been made and send them money to help them bear the cost of a collective problem. Don’t tell people to make an asylum claim in Italy when that’s not where they want to be and Italy doesn’t want them. That’s mobility again. Let people go where they want.

Q. Do the Mediterranean crossings represent a security threat for Europe?

As if terrorists would take the risk of drowning. There are much better ways to get to Europe. Most of the terrorists we know of are citizens or had visas. They are not taking the risks these people take. This is the kind of fantasy/myth/stereotype being carried by this nationalist, populist discourse. Most of them have been debunked by social science but no one has any interest in saying anything positive about migrants because they pay for it at the polls.

That’s what women and gays and lesbians have learned. They started making their case and politicians started to listen because they’re a sizable chunk of the electorate. Suddenly politicians listened. This is not going to happen for migrants. There are no votes to be gained by catering to migrants, but there are points to be scored by demonizing them. Democracy only functions for those who are represented. Human rights are mostly – unfortunately – the rights of citizens: they only can actually claim their rights and no one really cares about the rights of foreigners. When rights are violated, citizens and foreigners can go to court. Courts are telling states, based on constitutional grounds, that they can’t do this or that to foreigners on a regular basis. But foreigners rarely go to court for their rights. Without the vote you have no political clout and you risk being expelled at any time. That’s why I think we will have to rethink who votes, and base it on residency, not citizenship. In a mobile world, residence matters – it’s where you live and pay taxes, and you should have a say in those laws and taxes. No taxation without representation!

UN photo

Photo courtesy UN

Q. Many commentators are picking up on the demographics of the people boarding the smugglers’ boats in the Mediterranean, noting that the majority are not refugees fleeing persecution or conflict. Is this distinction between refugees and economic migrants relevant, or important?

I think the categories are important. Refugees should certainly not be on those boats. We should have a comprehensive plan of action for Syrians and probably Eritreans as well, who are the majority in the boats. We should resettle them. There’s 4 million now in the Middle East who are stuck and don’t see any future coming to them and we haven’t offered them anything, so they are taking their future into their own hands and paying smugglers instead of states. Some may have blood on their hands and that’s something to be analyzed and discussed when selecting them – as we did for Cambodians in the 1980s. People won’t go to the smugglers and risk the lives of their children if we offer a meaningful chance of resettlement.

For the economic migrants, we have to be realistic. Migrants come for a reason: there are jobs for them, usually at exploitative wages, in sometimes very unpleasant conditions, in sectors like agriculture, construction hospitality, caregiving. I’ve talked to migrants and it’s clear they know there are jobs. So we’re attracting people, we need them, our employers are clamouring for them, but we don’t talk about it because it’s unregulated. We have allowed underground labour markets to flourish in our countries because we didn’t accept that the prices for a number of the things would go up if we implemented good labour inspection mechanisms. When you get good strawberries at the market in June for only a few dollars, it doesn’t make sense. It’s a very difficult job. You have to start at 4 a.m., you’re on all fours for 16 hours, these are hot days, and it’s bug season in the boondocks. Ask any of my students – even those who need jobs – how much they would be paid to do that and they would ask for $20 to $25 an hour. The strawberry pickers are often undocumented and they’re getting $3 and $4 dollars an hour. It’s the same in Spain, Italy and Greece.

We have allowed these markets to flourish. It’s underground and states do not want good sociological studies and statistics on it. I’m told that half the construction boom in Toronto is built by undocumented workers. I can’t rely on those figures because we don’t know, and states are happy to not know, because if there are numbers they can be called to account.

If we want these people to come the legal way, we have to clean up our act on underground labour markets, which means fighting exploitative employers with a labour inspection system that works. Not just arresting the illegal migrants but protecting the workers, including going after the employers where necessary and make it too costly to run their businesses underground. I’m told that in Australia there’s very little irregular migration and underground markets because they have a good labour inspection system. If someone is going to employ you, you know it’s going to be above board, legitimate and worth doing. Then the question is, how do you fund all those farms that will go belly up if they’re suddenly asked to pay their workers a fair wage?

Most of our countries are saying we need highly-skilled migrants, we don’t need low-skilled. That’s not true. We still need people to pick up trash, care for the elderly, pick fruit. Most of the elderly in Britain are on a daily basis cared for by foreigners and that’s not going to change. That’s something else that politicians cannot say.

Citizens don’t mobilize for migrants and migrants don’t mobilize, organize, protest, or contest at all. The strategy for migrants is to move on. If you haven’t been paid for six weeks, you move on. You don’t go after the employer. You don’t want to be detected, detained and deported. Migration is a project, a collective project. This means debts. People have chipped in. They have incurred debts, often to loan sharks, so they owe money and have family to support. Your migration project is something key to the future not just of yourself but to many others, so if you do anything to get noticed by the authorities, the whole project is in peril. The strategy is not to stick your neck out. Be as invisible as possible, find something else.

That is why we need firewalls between public services and immigration enforcement. We need enforcement, but it should not enlist all the other public services to work for them. In the US, many local police forces have asked the municipality to prohibit them from checking immigration papers. ‘Serve and protect’ is only possible if you work with the whole community. If the police make public that they will never check immigration papers, they build trust with the community. The recent Arizona and Alabama laws wanted to prevent this, to prohibit cities from prohibiting police from checking immigration papers. Such firewalls should also exist in schools, in hospitals, in social work. Labour inspectors should be protecting the workers, whatever their status, not arresting them. Free all public services from any obligation to tell anyone. Migrants will be able to talk to the teachers at their child’s school, at the hospital, because they’re not in danger of being detected and detained.

We need to clean up our own act, and we need mobility mechanisms to allow people to come and look for work. I’d like to be able to tell migrants you don’t need to duck, you don’t need to stay in the shadows. Come and work and if you’re not paid, go to the police. That will free up the migrants’ voice.

Crépeau’s next report, on the crisis in the Mediterranean, will be made public in May.

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