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Why nothing will stop people from migrating

François Crépeau, a McGill University law professor, has just completed a six-year term as the United Nations' leading investigator on the human rights of migrants. He says sealed borders are fantasy, and that governments should focus on regulating migration rather than trying to stop it.
François Crépeau, who just completed a six-year term as the United Nations' leading investigator on the human rights of migrants, says sealed borders are fantasy. (ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2015, there were 244 million international migrants — nearly seven times the population of Canada. 

The total includes the more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution. It is the highest number on record, surpassing even the years following WWII.

It also includes people whose homelands have cracked apart in earthquakes, withered in droughts or suffered through famines.

Some migrants are pushed from their homes by poverty and drawn to countries in the global north by the promise of a better life. Others cross borders to join their families or pursue an education.

The numbers are going to keep growing. Researchers predict there could be 1 billion climate refugees by the middle of this century, and 2 billion by its end.

For the last six years, Canadian lawyer François Crépeau has served as the United Nations' leading investigator and expert on the human rights of migrants. His post put him on the frontlines of an international crisis, during some of the most challenging years in recent memory.

François Crépeau, who has just stepped down from his 6-year term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)
François Crépeau is professor of law at McGill University, where he holds the Hans and Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law. He is also the director of McGill's Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.

He spoke to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright about his time as UN special rapporteur and about why he believes resisting migration is an impossible goal.

François Crépeau: I should start by saying that migration is part of humankind, of who we are. We were born as a species 250,000 years ago in Africa. We came out of Africa around 70,000 years ago, arrived in Australia 60,000 years ago when there was a land bridge, entered Europe 40,000 years ago when the ice retreated, and entered North America between 20 and 25,000 years ago.

Since then, we've moved around all the time. We are a migrating animal species. The numbers are high today, but they represent on average 3 per cent of the world population. We're told by anthropologists and sociologists that this was the proportion 50 years ago, and this was the proportion 100 years ago. [Migration] is the constant of who we are.

The problem we're facing today, what we call a crisis, is because we invented — about 400 to 500 years ago — borders. We implemented borders in the second half of the 19th century when we invented the passport. So for the past 200 years, we've had this idea that we should stop people at borders, but 200 years is very little as compared to 250,000 years.

Michael Enright: This is the whole idea of the sovereign state — that sovereignty allows nation states to control their borders and keep people out.

It's been said to be one of the attributes of state sovereignty, but it's never happened. All borders are porous and democratic borders are more porous than others. Even the Soviet Union had porous borders. At that time, the people we called the smugglers and we present as terrible criminals today were actually helping people getting out of USSR, and we called them heroes.

Migrants walk north of Idomeni, Greece, attempting to reach Macedonia on a route that would bypass the border fence, March 14, 2016.
I think states have to accept that borders are not meant to stop everyone they would like to stop. Borders may mean knowing who enters and stays in the country. In order to get that knowledge, you have to have people come to border guards so that they can be identified, numbered, etc. In order to do that you have to provide them with papers. If you try to stop everyone you don't like, the only thing you do is you create underground markets for smugglers.

A question of terminology here: what's the difference between a refugee and migrant?

'Refugee' is defined in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. It's someone who is outside his or her country of origin and fears persecution for five reasons: race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group, and political opinions.

Refugees are a kind of migrant. But there are many other people who do not fear persecution or who fear many other things: people who are fleeing drought, tsunamis, poverty. These are good reasons to try to move somewhere else. This is a social stress, and migration has always been a human answer to social stress. It's going to continue, and we have to adapt to that rather than try to refuse it.

In the last six years, in your position with the UN, you've travelled around the world. You've visited detention centres, camps, places where people try to cross borders. What stands out in your mind now from those visits?

I was expecting this to be very grim. And what stood out from day one, when visiting detention centres or camps, was the sheer determination, the grit, the courage of those people — the fact that even if they were detained, in their mind they were already somewhere else. They were already in the next step of their journey. They might be sent back home, but they would come back.

The northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, March 2016. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
They are going to come whether we like it or not, because this is what humankind has always done. They are going to try to find a place where they can thrive, flourish, feed their kids and educate their kids. They don't do it, often, because they like it. They do it because that's where the future lies for themselves and their families.

Is there anyone you met that you really can't forget?

A 15 year old Afghani boy in Patras in western Greece. From what he said, he had left Afghanistan when he was 13, sent by his family who paid some amount of money to help him start the journey. But it took him a year to get to Greece, through Iran and Turkey. He had tried, three times, to cross with a ferry to Italy. Three times he'd been caught, put back in the ferry, locked into the toilets and sent back to Patras.

He was living in a tent under a highway overpass next to a little river, which when it was raining could transform itself to a torrent and take away the tent. He was scavenging, trying to find information, trying not to be beaten by the police, and trying to find another ferry to go to Italy. And the way he was telling his story was all about hope and success. He was going to make money to send to his family in Afghanistan. That was his objective.

After I had left Greece, about a month and a half later I received news that he had arrived in Germany. He was with his cousin and he would start to work very soon. To me, this was a success story.

Nothing was going to stop him.

Death. Death would. We know, for example, that Germany sends back people to Afghanistan. But usually when that happens, they are back on the road within weeks or months.

We cannot forget that these people are often doing this by a sense of duty filial, familial duty and by a sense of love — because they want their sisters and brothers be educated, to be able to buy books and go to school instead of being obliged to work to get the family properly fed. This objective in life of doing the right thing is actually admirable.

"We cannot forget that these people are often doing this by a sense of duty -- filial, familial duty, and by a sense of love," Crépeau says. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)
They are heroes for their families, and this is what is going to stay in the family lore — just like for many Canadians, the story of their grandparents or great-grandparents coming by boat, escaping camps in Europe, etc. has been part of the family lore. They are heroes. Only us see them as criminals.

Some countries have responded to this influx of refugees and migrants into Europe by trying to close their borders. You say there's no such thing as a fully sealed border.

I mean, you can seal a border that deflects migration to other weak points along the border, but borders are very long. I suppose you could put a soldier every 10 meters with orders to shoot on sight. Democracies don't do that, really.

If you try to stop [migration], the only thing you're creating is an underground market for criminals. That's what's happened with the prohibition era between Canada and the U.S. We made the fortune of several Montreal families. That's what's happening with 40 years of the war on drugs. The cartels are not cowed, and are deadlier than ever.

You've argued in the past that the so-called war on migration cannot be won.

Cannot. Just like the war on drugs and prohibition. You cannot win, simply because in the end, they have the moral high ground. Not us.

A group of refugee claimants arrive by taxi to cross the border from New York into Canada, March 2, 2017. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
But do nations have a moral responsibility to take in migrants?

I don't think it's a question of moral responsibility. It's a question of facing the facts. Migrants are going to come.

Migrations occur because of push and pull factors. We very often discuss the push factors — environmental catastrophes, violence, war, economic deprivation. We never talk about the pull factors.

The main pull factor for countries in the global north is that we have huge labour markets that need those migrants. The undocumented migrants we have in Canada and Europe and the U.S., they all work. They all perform economic functions and there are millions of employers ready to employ them.

That runs counter to the argument put forward by governments and politicians from time to time that we have no jobs in our country for these people, that when they come in they're simply going to drive up unemployment.

A Mexican migrant worker harvests tomatoes in Leamington, Ont. on May 30, 2002. (Jason Kryk/The Canadian Press)
Well, the sentence should be completed. Canadians don't want to do those jobs at the labour conditions offered to those migrants — the conditions [in which] undocumented migrants are picking fruits and vegetables in California, in Ontario or are working in construction sites. They are paid, in California, two to three dollars an hour.

So, for sure, the Italian tomato, the Quebec strawberry, or the California orange will be cheap. We're turning a blind eye to exploitation, because if we were to require the employers to follow labour law, to pay these people proper salaries and to provide them social security — the cost of all those products would go up considerably.

This is the problem we've had ever since we have had globalization. We have delocalized to the south everything that could be delocalized. When we cannot delocalize, such as in agriculture and construction and health care and hospitality or fisheries or extraction, we've delocalized the working conditions from the south to the north, by creating those underground labour markets or by creating temporary migrant worker programs that are so precarious, because the migrants are at the mercy of one employer who can decide from one day to the next that they will be sent back to their country.

Fruit pickers harvest strawberries at a farm in San Quintin in Baja California state, Mexico. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
What about the suggestion that migrants coming into my country will somehow change or subvert the common culture?

That's often heard. It's not supported by social science. The biggest changes in our culture are linked to generational changes.. For my grandparents, divorce was unthinkable. My parents' generation did that. For my parents' generation, gay marriage was unthinkable. My generation did that. For my generation, more open borders is probably unthinkable. The next generation will do that.

Changes in values are much more important because of the passage of time — because we react to what our parents did — than by people coming in. We haven't seen a change in democratic values because we had millions of people coming from undemocratic countries.

Isn't there an argument to be put forward that countries like France or Sweden have found it very difficult to integrate migrants into the common culture?

No one ever said that welcoming migrants was easy. It's always been difficult. There are ways of making it easier — putting people in language courses very early on, training, trying to have mechanisms so that the skills and experience they have can be translated into Canadian experience and skills.

A migrant climbs a security fence of a Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles near Calais, northern France, in July 2015. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty)
Countries like France have had migrants for generations. But in the post-war period they have turned a complete blind eye to integration, because all those migrant workers of the 50s, 60s and 70s were supposed to go back home, and France never realised that they would stay. So integration was not part of the process.

You have a marginalized community if you don't have proper integration policies. Now, that is true for migrants. But that is true for Roma people in in Europe. That is true for Aboriginal people in Canada. That is true for poor people in most of our cities. It's true for older people. Integration is not simply an immigration problem; it's a social problem that we collectively have for several communities who are excluded from from the mainstream.

What about the argument of politicians and people who say, well, embedded in the intake of migrants, there may be terrorists who pose a threat to my individual and national security?

That's true. There are bad apples in every community. There are bad apples in our communities who have been here for several centuries, and there are bad people in Aboriginal communities, and there are bad people in immigrant communities. That exists. It's true. So, we could exclude everyone, try to prevent everyone from coming.

The issue is, if you talk to anti-terrorism people, they are not interested in migration policies, and they will tell you as much. Migration policy, stopping everyone at the border, it doesn't give [them] any information on the precise person who poses a danger. To identify a person who poses danger, this is intelligence, and intelligence means groundwork with communities. Most terrorist attacks in the global north have been done by people who were either born or integrated in those countries.

Migrants make their way across a fence near near train tracks as they attempt to access the Channel Tunnel crossing to Britain from Calais, France. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)
Migration and terrorism — there may be a tiny connection, just like there's a tiny connection between Canadians of Italian origin and the mafia. You know, you can't generalize and say that every Italian Canadian is a member of the mafia. That would be ridiculous, but yet we seem to do the equation for migrants.

Preventing everyone from coming is certainly not the solution. It's a waste of money and it's probably useless, because if terrorists are determined to come to Canada, they will come with proper papers, like they did for 9/11.

This year, for fourth year in a row, more than 3000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe. How how do you deal with that situation? Is there is there some way, for example, to set up ferries or offer some kind of an alternative to the smugglers with these crappy little boats?

Two separate examples. In the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, millions of Africans and Turks entered Europe. No one died. There was very little smuggling, because everyone could buy a ferry ticket, and you could enter Europe with either a visa that you could obtain at the consulate or without visa. People came, looked for a job, got a job, and then went to the préfecture in France, asked for a work permit, obtained it within 24 hours and started working. It was a very simple system which was governed by the Department of Labour.

Second example — In 2012, I was in Djibouti. The 30 nautical miles between Djibouti and Yemen is called Bab-el-Mandeb and it's a passageway from eastern Africa to the Middle East. It was estimated at the time that approximately 100,000 people were crossing every year irregularly into Yemen, and then going essentially to Saudi Arabia to become undocumented gardeners, maids, waitresses, etc.

100,000 people crossed every year, and it was estimated that about 10 percent died. We don't have proper statistics - the Mediterranean, everyone knows, because since it's European it's [considered] global.

A Syrian refugee holds onto his children as he struggles to walk off a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos, September 24, 2015. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)
I was on that beach next to someone who was working for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). I suggested that maybe they could buy ferries from Norway and operate a ferry service with two or three ferries per day going back and forth. The response by the IOM person was, "I don't think the member countries of IOM would approve of such a plan."

I'm not blaming her at all. I'm just saying that states — and I'll say bluntly: states are ready to accept that their policies will kill a number of people in order to prevent others from attempting [to come]. The problem I see with that is, first of all, the human cost — but also the fact that it doesn't prevent or deter anyone. You still have thousands and thousands of people trying their luck.

In 2014, Britain stopped taking part in rescue missions in the Mediterranean, and the argument was saving refugees from drowning just encourages people. At the time you characterized Britain's position as a 'let them die' policy.

Yes. [laughs] I got a lot of flak for that.

A quarter of all migrants worldwide are children. We all remember the body of the little boy, Alan Kurdi, on the beach. What is life like for the child migrants that you've met?

A large majority of children I've met are migrating alone.

How young would they be, the ones that are alone?

Most of them are between 13 and 18. You have a very small minority who are younger, sometimes 9, 10, 11. They are often not those who are found on boats, because they simply don't have the social capital to be able to negotiate that. But they will be found, for example, trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico.

The older ones, 13 to 18 — this is an age where you become an adult in many societies. So we consider them as children, and they are in terms of their development, but certainly they don't take the responsibilities of children. They take the responsibilities of adults. In countries like Afghanistan, where often the men have disappeared due to conflict, the oldest boy at 14 or 15 becomes the man of the family and does what it takes.

But we don't treat them as children, do we? Many countries, including Canada, take some [child] migrants and put them in detention centres. The University of Toronto last year did a survey and said that some of these facilities resemble medium security prisons.

We detain migrants like we detain no one else in our societies. We have reduced the detention levels of citizens, of persons with mental illness, but we still detain migrants as if they were all suspected of terrorism.

An immigrant holding centre in Laval, Quebec. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)
We find very few judges who are ready to say, "Well, tell me exactly why you want to detain that person. What shred of evidence do you have that this person is either a danger or will flee?" Because these are the two reasons why you could detain, or do preventive detention for a citizen.

For children in particular, it can be devastating — being locked up at a development stage where you still need your mother, your father, your family. And I've seen children in detention in each and every one of the countries I have visited, north and south.

You even have — and this was the case in Canada until recently — the euphemism that when you detain families, you're not detaining the children, you're only detaining the parents. And the parents have the choice of keeping their children with them in the facility — in which case, the children will be "hosted" by that detention facility — or to release them to social services. This is the kind of euphemism which is absolutely ridiculous in theory, and devastating in practice for the mental health of parents and children.

How much of the resistance to migration, to migrants, to refugees, is simple old-fashioned bigotry or racism? When you hear David Cameron, the former British prime minister, talking about migrants as a "swarm" and then his foreign secretary calls them "marauding" and, of course, we know what the current president of the United States thinks — how much of that is just pure racism?

I think racism and bigotry is a great percentage of the populist nationalist discourse on migration, and we have to understand why it's possible.

We've had bigotry, racism and discrimination against all marginalized groups in society forever. The Jews, the Roma, women, Aboriginals. I mean, you name them. Slowly these people started fighting back, claiming their rights as equal citizens. Industrial workers fought back, and women fought back, and Indigenous people fought back. Gays and lesbians fought back.

"To me, the most important thing is that the stories of migrants are very often extraordinary. We have to make sure that these stories are heard," François Crépeau says. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
It's only when they started coming out and saying publicly, "we're not going to take it anymore," that politicians started changing their tune and stopping doing sexist jokes — well, they still do sexist jokes, but in much less quantity than when I was young.

This is not going to happen anytime soon for migrants. They don't vote. They have no influence on politicians whatsoever, and they don't participate in the public debates. Normally you would make policies with the people concerned. Try to imagine policies about women made by committees of men, as it was done 100 years ago. Today it would sound ludicrous. Well, migration policies are made by people who are not migrants and have no idea what migration means in most countries.

You're suggesting that politicians have no incentive to make migrants an issue.

We have to understand that in the best system we've ever concocted to govern ourselves — electoral democracy — politicians are driven by electoral incentive. If there is an electoral incentive to do something about women, they will. If there's no incentive to do anything good about migrants, they won't. And if there's an incentive to do something bad about migrants like bad-mouthing them, many of them will, because they want to win the election. That's the game they're in.

We have good politicians who don't want to compromise their principles but don't want to lose the elections, and you will notice that a number of our good politicians, those with a moral compass, stay mum on the migration issue.

How do we come up with a system that will make us view migrants as human beings with human rights, instead of faceless threats?

First of all, the media. Just this interview that we're having now, it would not have happened five or 10 years ago the way it is happening now. We would not have talked about migration the way we were talking about it now. We have been all educated by the various crises, and so the media speak about migration in a much more sophisticated way today than 10 years ago.

A man holds a placard reading 'I am Aylan' as he takes part in a demonstration to show solidarity and support for refugees on September 12, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
School teachers are aware that there are undocumented migrants around. We hear about a lot of school directors looking the other way come registration time. Even though they were not authorized to register these kids, they actually do. We see a lot of health care providers providing services for free — simply not registering the presence of the person, but treating the illness and treating the kid. Lawyers, faith-based organizations, NGOs are working their heads off to try to help these people, and it's paying. Artists. Look at the number of novels and films about migration, about mobility — starting 40 years ago with Star Trek. Star Trek was all about mobility and diversity. When you look at the literary prizes being given, one book out of two is about diversity or mobility.

To me the most important thing is that the stories of migrants are very often extraordinary. We have to make sure that these stories are heard — just like we have started to hear, 10 or 15 years ago, the stories of the residential schools. These are stories of violence and demeaning behaviour, but also stories of survival, of courage, of testifying, of wanting [to make sure] that this not happen again.

After six years doing this work, how has it changed you? How is François Crépeau different today than ten years ago?

It's humbling. You realize the magnitude of the issues, and you realise the odds that these people are facing, and you are looking at the comfort of your life. I went to about 80 detention centres in six years. You go to these detention centres and you come out. You go home. You go for an hour, two, three. You talk with them, you sit down, you listen to stories, you take notes. Then you leave, and you leave with a handshake with the director of the detention centre.

It's also very uplifting to see that they are part of the future of our societies, and they are a much bigger part than their numbers are. It's the Chinese dépanneur here in Montreal who works from 7:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night, seven days a week, to pay for the school of their kids. It's a taxi driver who was a professor in his or her country and is now driving a taxi in our cities. They do it for their loved ones, and they will leave their kids with a legacy of courage. As soon as we can hear the stories, they will be part of why we're here and why we're successful as a democracy.

I think it's absolutely fascinating and gratifying that you can come away from what you've seen feeling so optimistic about that future.

At the same time, many people will lose their lives and will be maimed. So being optimistic and being realistic have to be put together.

François Crépeau's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.