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Updated: Fri, 07/12/2024 - 12:16

McGill Alert. The downtown campus will remain partially closed through the evening of Monday, July 15. See the Campus Safety site for details.

Alerte de McGill. Le campus du centre-ville restera partiellement fermé jusqu’au lundi 15 juillet, en soirée. Complément d’information : Direction de la protection et de la prévention

Human Mobility Needs Strategic Planning: Moving Beyond Populist and Exploitative Immigration Policies

François Crépeau critiques the current model of repressive migration policies, leading to the “constructed precarity” of migrants. Another policy framework is possible, Crépeau argues, and calls on the international community to come back together to plan and implement the objectives laid out in the 2018 Global Compact for Migration.

Migration is part of humanity's DNA. We humans are constantly on the move, for all sorts of reasons. All countries are lands of mobility, being at the same time, in various proportions, countries of emigration, transit and immigration. 

Blocking low-wage labour migration when millions of employers are willing to hire them creates, sustains and subsidizes exploitative labour markets where these migrants are victims at the hands of many actors: employers, recruiters, smugglers, landlords, moneylenders... 

Clandestinity and marginality generate criminal exploitation. If the state does not take charge of the mobility market, other actors will. This was the case of alcohol and tobacco smuggling and is still mostly the case for drug smuggling.In this sense, migrant smuggling is entirely policy induced. The prohibition policies of the receiving states – which command obscene amounts of money – are largely responsible for the violence and criminality that develops in this underground mobility business.  

The combination of repressive migration policies and a lack of enforcement of labour rights for migrant workers (either undocumented or with temporary status) has led to precarity for these workers, based on the fear of being sent back empty-handed to the country of origin. Despite all the agency they demonstrate to survive and support their families, the fear of dismissal and deportation prevents most of them from mobilizing, publicly protesting, suing in complaint mechanisms or the courts, or unionizing. 

This ‘constructed precarity’ has allowed a considerable reduction in the cost of labour in these sectors. An indirect subsidy. This precarity is today structural and constitutes a conscious strategy of reduction of labour costs, in most countries, North and South.  

Migrants do not have the right to vote and therefore do not count in the public debate. Unlike citizens, they can neither reward nor punish politicians. Migration policies are made by non-migrants – the politicians – for non-migrants – their electorate –. Just as policies towards women have long been made by committees of men. That is, they do not know – or want to know – what they are talking about, and migration policies are reduced to an electoral issue, being too often based on prejudices, myths, fantasies and fears that are conveyed in the public debate, without contradiction, for lack of opposition. And in particular the security fantasy. 

Yet another policy framework is possible. The 2018 Global Compact for Migration outlines it. 

This Pact is the first truly universal instrument on migration. It was negotiated by states: 152 states signed it. A soft law instrument, it creates a conceptual framework, a long-term game plan, for the coming decades. We should not expect major results in the short term. Especially since it often suggests the opposite of what most states are doing today. 

Its central recommendation is to "facilitate" mobility. In the negotiated English version, this term appears 62 times! This will be the greatest challenge in the years to come. 

The Compact proposes twenty-three objectives, the majority of which aim at integrating migrants, decriminalizing their activities and respecting their rights. Here are a few: 

  • Enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration  

  • Facilitate family reunification 

  • Facilitate fair and ethical recruitment and safeguard conditions that ensure decent work 

  • Facilitate changes of employer and modification of conditions or length of stay, without unnecessary red tape, and without fear of arbitrary deportation 

  • Facilitate regularization of status 

  • Include migrants in crisis preparedness, emergency response, and exit measures 

  • Save lives 

  • Use immigration detention only as a measure of last resort and work towards alternatives 

  • Provide access to basic services for migrants, regardless of their migration status, including by instituting "firewalls” 

  • Empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion 

  • Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration  

We must therefore aim for a normally regulated labour market that allows migrants to come and look for work, provides equal protection for the rights of all workers, regardless of their migration status, and gives them a voice in negotiating their working conditions.  

However, these goals cannot be achieved overnight. Forty years of cheap labour practices in non-delocalisable sectors cannot be erased overnight, or else entire economic sectors will collapse due to increased labour costs. These sectors will require a longer transition, with investments to support them during this modernization process. As has been done for other industries. 

Unfortunately, there is no long-term strategic planning for human mobility in any country. Contrary to all areas of governance (infrastructure, urban development, transport, energy, food security, health, education, environment…) where strategic planning occurs, migration policies are almost always reactive, depending on the mood of the electorate.  

We need to plan and govern human mobility in the long term. This means asking ourselves collectively some difficult questions. This kind of debate requires the participation of all, not only security agencies. In particular, we need to hear from migrants themselves – whatever their status – to bring their lived experience to the debate, as a reality check.  

From this concern to hear the 'voice' of migrants, we will have to develop a strategic plan over one or more decades, with precise benchmarks, and foresee the necessary investments to reach them: progressively apply labour laws to migrants in all sectors; strengthen the mission of labour inspectorates; sanction exploitative employers; offer more and more work permits to foreigners who request them; not discourage unionization; regularize most undocumented workers; reform the temporary worker recruitment industry; combat stereotypes; facilitate access to permanent residence and nationality... 

A thoughtful collective approach will achieve several goals: meet the demographic needs of our countries; gradually increase the economic and social contribution of migrants; reduce pressure on asylum systems by facilitating refugees' access to immigration mechanisms; reduce the power of criminal networks by reducing precarity; increase border control capacity; and reduce anti-migrant stereotypes and fantasies. 

Growing inequality and environmental challenges will increase human mobility. Closing borders would be a costly and ineffective response. ‘Facilitating mobility’ means making it simpler, safer, faster and cheaper, for both migrants and host societies. 


François Crépeau is a Full Professor and the Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law at the Faculty of Law of McGill University. He was the Director of the CHRLP from 2015 to 2020, and he was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants from 2011 to 2017.

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