The Sunday Magazine

The backlash against migration in the 2010s and bold ideas for the future

McGill University law professor François Crépeau served as the UN's Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants from 2011-2017. Crépeau looks back on a decade of mass migration and its political and social repercussions, and he outlines a new vision for the decades to come.
Refugees and migrants arrive on the Greek Lesbos island after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on November 7, 2015. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

There are now 272 million people living outside the countries where they were born — an increase of 51 million since the beginning of the decade. 

There are also more than 70 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. It is the highest number in recorded history — eclipsing even the aftermath of the Second World War. 

In the 2010s, migration became one of the defining issues of our time. The decade was also defined by a backlash against immigration and the rise of nationalist and populist parties around the world. 

"What happened in the last decade is that people have realized that migration was an important human phenomenon and that it would not stop. Migration is not a tap that you can turn on and turn off. Migration is something that happens, that has always happened and that will continue to happen. Migration is a normal reaction to political, social, economic stress," François Crépeau told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

François Crépeau served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants from 2011 to 2017 — six crucial years in the history of this decade. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

"In the past decade this realization, with maybe the fear that comes with it, has sunk in, in the consciousness of many populations. I would say it's comparable to another phenomenon that has come to be realized during the same decade, which is climate change."

Crépeau served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants from 2011 to 2017 —  six crucial years in the history of this decade. 

He is also the Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law at McGill University, as well as the Director of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.

Here are three solutions Crépeau proposes to govern migration in the coming decades. His comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Long-term planning

If you want preparedness, what you have to do is strategic planning. We do that for energy security, food security, water security, forestry, infrastructure and healthcare. We calculate how many highways we need to build in the next 30 to 50 years; how many hospitals, schools, suburbs, etc. The migration policy is really the only policy where we don't do that at all. We are very reactive. Canada is a bit better than most countries because we have a three-year plan in terms of migration. So we plan for three years instead of planning for 30 to 50 years. 

That's what we need to do and we need to do it realizing that whether we like it or not, people will come. People will come here and, as our economies will need it, they will come with papers if we provide them. They will come without papers if we don't. So the idea of how to govern migration is precisely to think through these questions and plan for the long term.

For example, if Europe had gotten their act together and had offered 100,000 places in Europe in 2012, 200,000 places in 2013, so on and so forth, gradually responding to the needs of getting this organized and governed, people would have come scattered week after week instead of coming all at once. They would not have arrived on the beach. They would have arrived in the airport, with plane tickets, with papers, with visas to stay. NGOs, churches, lawyers and everyone we need would have been mobilized. They would have found apartments because those would have been planned, as well etc.

If you want to, you can do it. We know how to do it. It's about planning. Now, if you plan, you're telling your population that people are going to come. And if you tell your population that people are going to come, you might lose the next election. That's the conundrum.

Regional mobility

One of the avenues that I see is regional mobility. Europe has had this freedom of movement on the territory of the European Union for decades now. So we need to slowly create the conditions for regional freedom of movement. This is what Africa is doing in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In eastern Africa, there are projects at different stages of completion for freedom of movement — common passports.

Also, the southern cone of South America already has freedom of movement, with access to social services and schooling and everything. We need to do that. I thought it was a lost opportunity, a missed opportunity not to include a freedom of movement progression in NAFTA or whatever it's called nowadays. We should have added to NAFTA a chapter on freedom of movement and expanded progressively as companies and individuals get used to this migration, to this mobility. We should have done that with Mexico, with the U.S., and we need to do that progressively so that people are not in shock. One million people over a few months in 2015 is not the future. If you govern it properly. It might be one million over 10 years which is 100,000 per year. Well Canada receives half-a-million people every year if you count the temporary migrant workers. So receiving 50,000 here 100,000 there is not a big deal.

Universal suffrage for migrants after one year of residency

When we gave the right to vote to women, or maybe I should say that women wrestled the right to vote out of our (men's) hands, suddenly their voice was heard. Their voice mattered. And we see 70 or 80 years later, the MeToo movement is still necessary, but the voice matters. And we've learned not to say two stupid things about women  as compared to what we were saying 50 years ago. So there is a learning curve thanks to universal suffrage.

Now migrants don't vote. Migration policies are made by non-migrants for non-migrants, the politicians for the electorate. And that means that those migration policies are based on myths and stereotypes and all sorts of fantasies — like the time when policies about women were made by committees of men. 

I think we should have universal suffrage including migrants after one year of residence. Many cities are already doing this in Europe. European Union citizens who are in another state of the European Union often have the right to vote at local elections. We will need to do that at national elections at one point. 

Let's say someone has been here for a year, taken a one-year residency test, is following the law and paying taxes. I don't see why they shouldn't have their say in how the taxes are levied and spent. "No taxation without representation" is a very old saying of the American Revolution. Migrants are paying taxes like any one of us and they should have a say. And when we do that, suddenly we'll have migrants who can speak up and who will deflate many of the fantasies that are spewed by the nationalist populists.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.