François Crépeau is professor in Public International Law at the Faculty of Law of McGill University (Canada), specializing in migration, asylum and the rights of foreigners. In July 2011, he was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. One of the main issues he intends to focus on during his three-years mandate is the ’toxic discourse’ on migrants.
“How come they have rights? I thought they were illegal?!”. This question about migrants by a journalist from a major Canadian broadcasting news channel clearly illustrates, according to François Crépeau, the huge work to be done in this field. “This is when I realized my job was probably going to be tougher than I thought”, he admits with a smile. His job? Since July 2011, François Crépeau, a Canadian public law professor, has been United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.
As such, his main tasks are to collect information, write country and thematic reports and formulate recommendations. One of the issues François Crépeau wants to focus on during his mandate is what he calls the “toxic discourse” that prevails on migrants “not only in Europe, but all over the world”. “First, he argues, politicians should stop speaking about sealing the borders. It’s a fantasy. Sealing borders would mean a level of violence such that we no longer would be in democracy. It simply is not possible”.
Second, he explains, “the hate discourse is structurally produced. Our democracies function through the mobilization of constituencies. But migrants don’t vote; they generally don’t complain and they don’t mobilize. They are not a constituency. This means that politicians have difficulties in talking about, let alone defend, the rights of migrants: if they do, they are likely to lose”.
On the other hand, he adds, “there is no counter-discourse created within the political realm i.e. by the opposition because once you stock up the fear, it’s difficult to get out of it. So in the end, you get trapped in your own fear discourse. Nor is there a counter-discourse produced by mobilization, like, for example, what happened for women, aboriginals or gays: they all gained and extended their rights because they mobilized and fought for them. Migrants, they don’t mobilize”.
The real question though lies elsewhere: what makes it that anti-migrants discourse works so well with voters? What makes it that politicians who dare defend migrant rights are necessarily bound to lose? According to François Crépeau, the reason is simple: “Whenever there is uncertainty, or a difficult context prevailing, politicians find a convenient scapegoat. And then, there is that lack of production of an anti-discourse”.
The answer to that, according to François Crépeau, is straightforward: “Education! Educate people; Work in schools; Teach multiculturalism, intercultural dialogue in schools. Although I know it’s not easy and the word itself sometimes raises questions. What I mean is that we should teach openness towards others”. As it happens, children seem to have a natural tendency to overlook differences; the ‘me’ and ‘them’ discourse starts later, as they grow up and are confronted with adults discourse. This might mean that the ones to be educated are not the children. What about targeting politicians instead?
“We should also educate journalists”, François Crépeau goes on. “You know, I always take time to talk to them, to explain things, because there clearly is a lot of simplification and a lack of knowledge from the media”. Additionally, “the anti-migration discourse is collective. What we hear and read is: ’there are too many migrants’. ‘Migrants are dangerous’. But media does not say anything about Farid or Nadia or Amer. When you speak about Farid though, he becomes a human being. You individualize him. And when you individualize, perspective changes. Suddenly, things are different. So journalists should tell more stories about individual migrants… But you know where you find the most depressing comments against migrants? On pro-migrants’ rights blogs. Comments range from ‘Why should they have rights?’ to ‘Why not just send them back?’ And this, I am afraid, is going to be a major challenge”.
And of course, as a lawyer, François Crépeau cannot fail to underline the important role of the judiciary, as the ultimate line of defence, where the executive and the legislative have failed. “They tell States what they cannot do with migrants. And they don’t have an electoral agenda. Some argue that they lack legitimacy because they are unelected. But they have a legitimacy to develop a coherent legal framework and as such, their legitimacy is a valid as that of elected politicians. We need both, majorities and courts”.
“The issue here is not about preventing migrants from entering: it’s about how you do it”, François Crépeau concludes. “We should treat them with humanity and provide them with means to defend themselves. Not only because it’s required by Human Rights Conventions, Conventions that, by the way, we all have ratified, but also for sheer moral reasons. Because it is a treatment we hope and expect for ourselves. So why should we treat them differently? Migration is mostly a dignity-seeking event: migrants want to be able to feed their family, to earn a decent living. We would do exactly the same in their situation!”.