Statement by François Crépeau

(former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants)

“Changing our Mindset and Understanding the Complexity of Migration”: A statement delivered by Prof. François Crépeau, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, in response to Ayelet Shachar‘s opening question at the Second Annual Goethe-Göttingen Critical Exchange Roundtable Discussion. Shahar’s opening question was: “What in your opinion, are the biggest challenges we currently face in the context of migration? How are legal institutions and other social actors – local, national, regional, transnational, or international – helping to understand and address them?”

The roundtable was chaired and moderated by Prof. Ayelet Shachar and the event was co-organized with Prof. Rainer Forst of the Normative Orders Cluster of Excellence at Goethe University Frankfurt/Main.

1. Changing our mindset: overcoming stereotypes

The biggest challenge is to change our mindset regarding migration, to change how we represent migrants.

Our most common assumptions regarding migration are too often based on stereotypes, myths and fantasies regarding the "radical difference" of the migrants.

This is most visible when we talk about "our people" migrating:  we call them "expats" or "tourists" or "executives" or "retirees". We very rarely describe mobile people from the Global North – or even the elite 1% of the Global South – as "migrants".

Fear of the "mobile other" seems a common thread of all settled societies throughout history, including the invention of the despised "asylum seeker" around 1982, in order to distinguish them from the good refugees who waited patiently in camps to be picked and chosen, or not.

Because of this fear, we need to remember the former kinds of migrants when we speak about migrants in a precarious situation: asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and temporary migrant workers.

Migration is in our DNA. It is a normal human behaviour. We are almost all migrants or immediate descendants of migrants. Settlement is often only generational.

It is hard to find someone who lives today in the city of birth of their four grand-parents.

We are a migrating animal species, born in Eastern Africa, and mobility has always been a normal reaction to political, economic, environmental or social stress. A few centuries of territorial sovereignty theory will not change that. A few millennia of agricultural and urban settlement will not either.

Demographers are saying that migrants represent a constant of around 3% of the human population, at any time. Around 250 million persons now.

States have never really controlled migration. Migration was socially controlled, as many communities were fearful of outsiders. But, until recently, most migrants could cross borders relatively easily. Only war or dictatorship would reduce open possibilities and spur underground smuggling markets.

States can regulate mobility and facilitate it, not stop or divert it for any long period of time. Apart from geographical considerations, migration is determined by push and pull factors that we are mostly not addressing, and it is facilitated by technological changes.

Refugees and migrants will come, no matter what--whether authorised or not, whether theorised or not.

Spending such indecent amounts of money on trying to stop migration, with such limited results and with such tragic human rights consequences, as those of EU policies in Libya, should tell us that “something is rotten in the kingdom of Denmark.”

If we want to "control" migration, the goal should be to provide migrants with appropriate tools so that most of them will use official mobility channels, a situation which would provide States with the level of information they need, allow timely security checks and reduce criminality.

2. Migrants are voiceless

Migrants in a precarious situation are voiceless in any host society, North and South, be they undocumented, or temporary migrant workers with restrictive visas, or asylum seekers.

Migrants constantly exercise agency, often have considerable underground support networks and make life-altering decisions on a regular basis, but they have no access to the political stage, as they do not vote.

Migrants rarely openly protest, contest, organise, unionise. Sticking their neck out may mean being detected by the authorities as undocumented, or identified by their employer as a troublemaker, the consequence of which may be detention and deportation. Repression creates fear, which is part of the strategy.

Young migrants, their families and communities have most often invested beyond their means in the migration project, in time, energy, money and physical or mental health.

Migrants often undertake this migration project guided by a sense of duty or simply by love for their family: they have the moral high ground of any survival strategy and this is why stopping migration will fail. The migration project is central to their life and they cannot go back empty-handed.

Anything that threatens the migration project is dangerous. Speaking up, protesting, fighting for your rights is dangerous. “Moving on” is most often the preferred strategy.

Two structural issues prevent migrants, even with their enormous agency, from securing better opportunities.

3. Structural limitations of electoral democracy

The best political system we have ever invented to govern ourselves is based on electoral incentive. Migrants provide none and politicians are able to ignore them, when approaching migration policy from their perspective might trigger a negative electoral reaction.

Policies on migration are mostly made by non-migrants, for the benefit of non-migrants, and without consultation of migrants. The absence of such migrants from public policy debates means such debates are not informed by the experience of those most affected, and they are therefore based on stereotypes, threats and fantasies, as was the case when committees of men made policies about women or committees of straight people make rules governing homosexuality.

Anti-migration nationalist populist rhetoric is thriving because it goes mainly uncontradicted at the political level. It construed a dangerous migrant, who would steal jobs, bring illnesses, export the violence and poverty of their home country, change "our values", and destroy "our" democratic ideals and practices.

Most such assertions are contradicted or relativised by social science. Changes brought by the passing of generations are much more important than changes brought by migration. Think about divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage.

Such stereotypes and fantasies fuel the nationalist populist agenda and discourse, reinforcing negative public perceptions of migrants and increasing the pressure in favour of ever more repressive policies, in a very vicious downward spiral. Most mainstream politicians do not risk their political career trying to contradict such stereotypes. The best ones will stay silent.

One example is the systematic use of the comparison between territory and private property: dining club, front door / back door. The comparison is never with cities, which embrace mobility and diversity without the need of “securitising” their own borders, while still policing their territory.

Historically, marginalised groups – women, indigenous peoples, gays and lesbians, persons with disabilities, detainees – have had to wrestle their rights from the hands of the self-righteous majority through political mobilisation and legal challenges based on "equal citizenship". Many have been fighting long battles to push back on the stereotypes. See the recent #MeToo movement.

Unless and until migrants gain some electoral traction, most politicians are not going to pay much attention.

We shall have to think about providing voting rights to all residents, all those who obey the law and pay taxes, and not only to nationals. This is not for tomorrow.

4. Structural addiction to cheap labour

While globalization has enhanced the delocalisation of production to developing countries where labour is cheap and workers’ protection standards low, such delocalisation is not possible for large sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, construction, hospitality, care giving, domestic work, fisheries or extraction.

Destination countries have thus constructed or tolerated, on their own territory, production conditions similar to those in developing countries, with a view to subsidising these sectors through the reduction in labour costs.

Temporary low-wage workers with a very precarious status (single-employer sponsorship or kafala system) and undocumented migrants form a pliable workforce for these sectors of the economy, which would not be profitable in an open and regulated labour market in which citizens would request much better conditions for the same tasks. I met undocumented sub-Saharan agricultural workers in Italy working 10 hours a day for a total sum of 20 euros, without any benefit.

The repression of undocumented migration increases the precariousness of both categories, by enhancing the fear factor and thus silencing them.

5. Mass repression only compounds the problem

Repressing irregular migrants and not repressing exploitative employers only creates more underground labour markets.

In the 50s and 60s, millions of North Africans and Turks migrated to Europe: there was little smuggling and very few people died in the Mediterranean, because anyone could buy a ferry ticket and come to find work, with the ability of changing quickly their immigration status when they found a job.

Migrants are preyed upon by unethical recruiters, migrant smugglers, exploitative employers, corrupt authorities, greedy landlords, etc. One can understand that they fear speaking up and defending their rights.

By placing a barrier between push and pull factors without addressing any of them, we are actually empowering and subsidising smuggling rings, repeating the errors of the past. This is not heeding the lessons of the Prohibition era, of the war on drugs, or of the repression of prostitutes. The more you repress the little people, the more you empower powerful operators. Legalising, regulating and taxing works much better than prohibiting.

Those who are undocumented in countries of destination are also immobilised, since they will not go home unless they have a guarantee of being able to come back. Historically, most Mexican migrants to the US went back and forth between home and jobs in the US, depending on the vagaries of the US labour market. Only when the border thickened, did they stay undocumented in such large numbers.

6. Acknowledging our real labour needs

We are not able to start a social conversation on such exploitation, as most citizens (consumers, employers, local authorities, tax authorities…) are happy with the results and migrants do not complain, protest or mobilise. If no one complains, where is the problem?

We are thus incapable of acknowledging that, apart from the push factors (violence and poverty in countries of origin), such underground and precarious labour markets constitute an enormous pull factor, for which we are responsible. Migrants are not stupid and go to where there are jobs: millions of employers offer such jobs, but only in the margins.

Host states need to start dismantling precarious temporary migrant worker statuses and repressing exploitative employers. Only then will migrants be empowered to claim their rights and fight for them, on an equal footing with all other workers.

7. Beyond the Global Compact

In the Global Compact on Migration, states will probably not go beyond small technical fixes to their present perceived problems. This will already be an improvement as there is nothing at present in terms of global governance. However, it will only be a first baby step in building a much more elaborate framework for human mobility.

Responding to the complexity of human mobility, States will need to develop a long-term strategic vision of how their mobility policies will look like in a generation from now, with precise timelines and accountability benchmarks.

States do such strategic planning for policies on energy, the environment, food security, public transit, infrastructures or industries, in order to determine the investments needed to achieve the objectives. Why aren’t we doing it for mobility and migration policies, for which the policy time line always seems to be now: “stopping migration now”, “sending back migrants now”, “bringing in technicians now”?

My proposal for the Global Compact was that it should initiate a fifteen-year “agenda”, parallel to the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, which would include successive benchmarks and accountability mechanisms.

It would implement Target 10.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (“facilitate orderly, safe and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies”), where “facilitating” means “making easier” as well as “making more effective”.

We see labour mobility within countries or within the EU as an asset. Why should it be different internationally, if employers and migrants can meet in an open labour market, and individuals can find a place to strive?

Facilitating mobility does not mean diminishing border controls. On the contrary, it is to increase them and make them more effective by offering most foreigners much easier access to appropriate travel documents, such as refugee resettlement visa, visitor visa, family reunification visa, work visa, resident visa or student visa.

Implementing visa liberalisation and visa facilitation agreements, and electronic travel authorisation schemes, over a long period, would allow for states to focus security and other controls where they are most useful.

Facilitating mobility would mean banking on the agency of each migrant, thus benefiting from this enormous pool of courage, grit and determination. It would also mean banking on their mobility, in and out.

Moreover, it would take into account the fact that migration stories are life stories, i.e. individual stories. Tackling them by general mechanisms that distinguish little between individual cases does not respond to their needs, nor to the needs of their employers, their neighbours, their friends, or to the interests of the country of destination. We should treat migration issues with case management mechanisms, taking into account all individual circumstances, just as we do for social services. We are dealing with people, not boxes.

This will mean investing in the integration of migrants, in the much broader framework of social integration generally, for the youth, the elderly, the person with disability, the poor. In a time of rising social inequalities, social integration is a collective objective, and migrants represent only a small part of the issue.

This facilitation of mobility is not a utopian solution. I would argue that the utopian (or, more probably, dystopian) mindset is on the side of those who claim that migration can be stopped, or that we can continue to live peacefully with millions of disenfranchised migrant youths, or that we can deport millions of migrants while respecting human rights, or that we can “seal” the borders in a context of growing global inequalities.

8. Silver linings

Although the indications regarding the intentions of States during this negotiation of the Global Compact are not favourable to enlarging mobility, some silver linings show the change in the narrative is already underway:

  • Artists and writers, as always, have anticipated our mobility and diversity dilemma and they help us to process the changes. See Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my mind, or the popular television series “Star Trek.” See also, contra, all the post-apocalyptic novels and films that have been produced in recent years.
  • Journalists in good media outlets are much better educated on migration than even six years ago. Their stories help a new narrative emerge.
  • NGOs, faith-based organisations, lawyers are everywhere doing a great job in trying to protect individual migrants and alter public perceptions.
  • Unions are starting to perceive migrant workers, not simply as competition for their members, but as a pool of future due-paying members. They are seeing that migrant workers are in the same marginal position as the industrial workers of the 19th century, whom they were created to empower.
  • The business community knows that mobility and diversity are huge factors for innovation and productivity. They are starting to speak up.
  • Courts, tribunals, national human rights institutions, and ombudspersons are often coming down on the side of migrants, reminding everyone that migrants are equal rights-holders and should benefit from the Rule of Law.
  • Cities around the world have absorbed millions of migrants from the countryside or from abroad without erecting barriers (except recently Beijing). They have even often established firewalls between their services and immigration enforcement.
  • Hundreds of thousands of citizens have come forward to help individual migrants and families, in Europe, in Canada and elsewhere. Mobilising them around practical projects that they can embrace, such as private sponsorship mechanisms, should be a priority.
  • At least in cities, the youth are often – not always – much more diverse and mobile than we were at their age, and they share social integration challenges whatever their background. I hope that, when their generation will take charge in a quarter century, diversity and mobility policies will come to them more naturally than for my generation.
  • The migrants themselves show an agency, a resilience, and a creativity, which are already influencing many citizens in host societies as they encounter one another in everyday life. Their stories embody the narrative we need to make sense of what we witness.

Despite states’ attitudes, all this tells me that the present reticence of many politicians is a rear-guard battle and that mobility and diversity will be increasingly recognised and celebrated as central features of all contemporary societies.

For sure, the nationalist populist narrative is dominating at present and violent outbursts can be expected. I hope that we can see beyond their fantasies and threats, and prepare a different, peaceful, more productive narrative.

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