Interview with François Crépeau, U.N. Special Rapporteur

Professor François Crépeau holds the Hans and Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law at the Faculty of Law of McGill University. In 2011, he was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. The focus of his current research includes migration control mechanisms, the rights of foreigners, the interface between security and migration, and the interface between the Rule of Law and globalisation. In the wake of the Lampedusa tragedy on October 3, where over 300 African migrants drowned off the Italian island, Professor Crépeau spoke to Vaiju Naravane. Excerpts.

What lessons are we taking away from the Lampedusa tragedy?

Who is ‘we’? I’m not sure politicians are taking away the same thing that I’m taking away.

What I’m taking away is that most European migration policies in great part are blind to the reality, and that more tragedies like that will happen unless they change tack quite dramatically. That will require political courage because they will have to explain uncomfortable truths to their nations, and with the Extreme Right and the anti-immigration movements that are flaring up everywhere, this is going to be difficult. But it’s unavoidable.

So what is the situation now?

We have a confluence of two movements. One, states want to reaffirm their state sovereignty, their territorial sovereignty, because they’ve been losing it. There’s no national industrial policy; there’s no national energy policy; no national research policy. Because all this is now globalised and they no longer have any control over it. Even social policy is threatened because the tax base is not there and there is fiscal competition between states trying to attract businesses with tax-breaks. Instead, to exercise sovereignty they now over-invest in the border, not wanting to recognise publicly that again this is the wrong way of affirming sovereignty because it doesn’t work. Sealing the border is a fantasy. Every immigration minister says he or she will do it during his or her mandate.

Immigrants globally contribute to the economies to which they go, and they get absorbed in the host economy, so there are jobs. How does one square that with 40 per cent youth unemployment in Spain, or 13 per cent overall unemployment in France?

Migrants don’t come to countries where there is no employment. Migrants want jobs because then they can send money home, which is what they want to do most. They don’t come to beg, they don’t come to get welfare — those claims are ridiculous, and the EU just published a report showing that what is called “welfare tourism” is a fantasy. There’s a small percentage of migrants who are on welfare, but it’s much smaller than the percentage of the national population on welfare. Migrants come because there are employers ready to employ them. The example I always give is that of picking strawberries in Quebec in June. It’s hard, painful, back-breaking work and the pay is very little because the margins are low. The full minimum wage is not a cost that the employers can bear. The whole of agriculture, in construction or the back-room jobs in the hospitality industry — the dish washers, the room cleaners, these workers do not earn more than €3 an hour — way below the minimum salary. In these sectors of industry you have lots of exploitation. At $2 or $3 an hour you are exploiting someone. That’s how you can have four million unemployed and four million immigrants who are all working.

Are you suggesting that the illegal migrants or even legal ones who are perforce accepting these highly exploitative jobs are subsidising an army of unemployed people living on the dole?

I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say they are subsidising industries that have low profit margins. Societies have decided to protect these industries by turning a blind eye to such exploitation. If we had effective labour inspections, most exploitation would not occur. We are accepting a situation where migrants are subsidising whole sectors of our economies, and we do this because if we start asking these industries to pay fair wages they will no longer be competitive. So the question that I’m asking as part of a social dialogue is: how do we make these industries competitive without doing so on the backs of migrants? Couldn’t we say that low-margin industries should be subsidised through taxes? And then we don’t need the irregular migrants and you reduce the pool of irregular jobs available. You clamp down on irregular employers. You subsidise industries like agriculture, hospitality or construction so they do not suffer from the fact that you improve wages and working conditions. Could we not have such a conversation? At present, we cannot.

Why is that?

That’s because typically of any vulnerable part of society, migrants don’t vote; so politically they don’t count and they don’t complain or protest, except occasionally. The salary must be raised until you find the takers. Like on oil rigs where the work is dirty, the risks are high but the pay is good because the margins are high. The second part of the discussion we must have is that we need migrants. We need 150 million people by 2050. This is an accepted report that has not been challenged. But this part of the story has not been included in the conversation. Politicians are still not up to the task of telling their populations that we need migrants — doctors and engineers, but we also need low-skilled or unskilled migrants. Germany and the U.K. have started to look at these issues. But it is not happening in France or Italy or other parts of Europe because then it becomes a quarrel over national identity. We should have a discussion on diversity policies — on who we are and how we see ourselves in 50 or a hundred years.

India is in a peculiar situation because it is both an exporting and importing country in terms of migration, but otherwise countries of the South say we want free exchange not only in goods and services but for the labour market as well. Is that dialogue blocked? Where can it take place? Is the World Trade Organisation (WTO) outside it?

Globalisation is often presented as a major threat to identity instead of being presented as a major opportunity for boosting cultural exchange and increasing our connections to the world and our creativity. At present, because of the nationalist reflex on territorial sovereignty, states have said yes to the free exchange of goods, services and capital but no to movement of people. I think we need much more fluidity in the movement of people. I don’t think the WTO is ready to embark on that path. The WTO likes technical agreements like TRIPS that do not stir political controversy. On migration, because of the big cultural issue on identity, I’m not sure trade negotiators are ready or willing to tackle that.

All these are long-term solutions. What can be done in the short term to avoid tragedies like Lampedusa?

There is no short-term policy solution that the politicians will like. If you want to stop people dying in the sea like this, you have to open up a lot more channels for regular migration; you have to stop trying to intercept ships at sea and you have to stop trying to empower neighbouring states to intercept people on their territory. Because all this is creating, entrenching and empowering smuggling rings to get around barriers. You create a barrier, and if you have a push-pull factor with a barrier in between you create a market for a smuggling ring. This was the case with prohibition. This is the case with the war on drugs. We should understand that the war on migration will not be won because it can’t be. Open up the channels for legal migrations so that people will not try to use smuggling rings. If you don’t want people to die, more border controls will not help; they will inevitably result in more tragedy.