François Crépeau is a Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Professor in Public International Law, Faculty of Law, McGill University, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. Idil Atak is Assistant Professor, Department of Criminology, President of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (CARFMS).
The world has witnessed the suffering of countless men, women and children, all survival migrants fleeing war-torn countries or sheer poverty on rickety boats, exploited by smugglers and suffering many traumas en route. And we are turning a blind eye.
Since January, more than 36,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, at least half of them asylum-seekers fleeing conflicts in Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. Nearly 1800 migrants are feared to have drowned over the past few months. The European Union has acknowledged that the situation in the Mediterranean is a tragedy.
However, while increasing the budgets for patrolling the Mediterranean, the European Union adopted a 10-point action plan in April that gives top priority to policing and border security. These developments come amid several countries arguing that search-and-rescue operations act as a "pull" factor, which encourages more migrants. Such views are fuelled by negative nationalist-populist discourses. British columnist Katie Hopkins wrote in the British tabloid The Sun that migrants were like "cockroaches" and "feral humans" and suggested gunships be dispatched to prevent further arrivals. In contrast to that position, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently sent two naval ships to rescue migrants from dying in the Mediterranean Sea.
Europe's mostly defensive approach to forced migration reflects an increasing criminalization of migrants, including those who are in need of protection. Similar to European and other destination countries, Canada has resorted to criminal law measures to deter and punish forced migrants, including criminal-style penalties for entering or staying, using false documents, or unauthorized employment.
Following the widely-publicized arrivals of two boats carrying Tamil asylum-seekers on Canadian shores in 2009 and 2010, Canada has tightened its asylum policy considerably. Detention has not only become increasingly common but pervasive. Migrants and asylum seekers – who haven't committed any crime – are portrayed as criminals or accomplices of smuggling rings. The guarantee of their rights has deteriorated.
"Sealing" the borders is impossible and attempts to do so contribute to driving forced migration more deeply underground, entrenching the role of smuggling rings, disempowering migrants, and enhancing the possibility of human rights violations. This results in rising levels of discrimination and xenophobia, and hampers integration and settlement policies. It also discourages migrants from denouncing human trafficking, sexual violence, labour exploitation and other abuse, and from claiming protection.
Stricter border controls and detention are not the solution for containing irregular migration. They are costly and mostly ineffective, as they rarely deter anyone in the long term. These measures taint all migration policies with an air of illegitimacy. Europe's bid to use the military against smugglers' boats will put innocent lives even more at risk.
In order to address these problems, we need to consider why this migration happens. In many countries, legal migration opportunities remain quite limited, especially in low-wage sectors. The existence of huge underground labour markets for exploitable labour in almost all Global North countries is actually a pull factor for irregular migration and constitutes a major incentive for criminal rings to offer their services to circumvent border controls.
Moreover, Canada and other developed countries show a lack of solidarity and responsibility sharing when it comes to the resettlement of refugees. The number of resettled international protection beneficiaries remains alarmingly low, especially in view of the unprecedented number of forced migrants. The days of the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action that completed the resettlement of 2.5-million Indochinese refugees worldwide seem definitely past, but should serve as an example.
In order to respond effectively to the refugee crisis, Global North countries (representing 850-million inhabitants) could collectively offer to resettle one-million Syrians and Eritreans over the next five years. If we take only the population as a distribution key, it would mean, for the United Kingdom, around 14,000 people a year for five years, and for Canada, less than 9000 each year for five years. This is an entirely manageable drop in the bucket.
The challenge for countries is to develop an effective common policy response to the migration push and pull factors, beyond security-related agendas. Migration policies should emphasize mobility rather than closure, creating opportunities for legal migration options that can nimbly respond to the needs of the migrants and assist them to use legal channels: legalization, regulation, facilitation and taxation.
Mobility is increasing with globalization: instead of resisting it, we should organise it, and reclaim the control of the borders from the smugglers. This means opening various legal channels for people to be able to come and either look for work or seek protection. If we create mechanisms that bring people to use legal channels available to them, they will not go underground.
There is an urgent need for such migration opportunities to be set in a shared human rights framework that would legitimize mobility policies and practices, acknowledge the importance of the protection of individual rights for all, and facilitate access to justice for migrants.
François Crépeau will deliver a public lecture at the eighth annual conference of the CARFMS on 'Advancing Protection and Fostering Belonging in a Global Era of the Criminalization of Migration,' which is hosted by Ryerson's Department of Criminology, in collaboration with the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement Toronto, from May 13 to 15.