Foreword by François Crépeau
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants (2011-2017)
Oppenheimer Professor in Public International Law, McGill University
Director, McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism

Blaming the patient for the illness or the victim for the crime is a common response in our societies: we need to identify a culprit for our social ills. Especially in the current populist atmosphere, scapegoating is a temptation for the authorities, as they try to deflect blame and want to fuel the mistaken assumptions of their electorate. The poor are responsible for their unemployment and cutting unemployment benefits will force them to start working... Reducing the number of sick leave days will combat fake illnesses and reduce absenteeism: it is time we squeeze out the scroungers... We have all heard such arguments.

Especially on migration issues, stereotypes and fantasies too often dominate the public discourse with impunity. Undocumented migrants are responsible for, at the same time, “stealing” jobs for low wages and syphoning off the social budgets. They should be rounded up, detained, and collectively expelled. Foreigners want to “change our values” and impose their radical religious order. “Our civilisation” will soon disappear, submerged by hordes of malignant extremists.

The recent attack by some Italian authorities on the civil society organisations which rescue migrants at sea is of the same ilk, unfortunately. Italy has been at the forefront of the movement towards the de-escalation of migration control. It had reduced migration detention to a maximum of three months in 2015. It had initiated the Mare Nostrum operation in 2014, despite open criticism from other European countries: Theresa May, then UK Home Secretary, publicly stated that migrants at sea should not be rescued as this created an incentive for the smuggling operations.

Yet, after the summer of 2015, Europe has hardened, Italy included, and the European Union has adopted a much more restrictionist stance, yielding to the most reactionary voices within its Council. “Fighting the smugglers” has become the current motto: demonising the smugglers is much easier than considering the push and pull factors that determine migration movements. In particular, one should examine European labour needs created by underground labour markets in which hundreds of thousands European employers are calling for exploitable undocumented cheap labour. One should also remember that, in the not so distant past (the 50s and 60s), millions of Africans came to Europe and no one died in the Mediterranean: migrants had access to travel documents and could obtain a work permit if they found a job. There was no smuggling industry and migrants had their papers checked at all national borders. The conclusion is easily reached that when mobility is facilitated and regulated, there is little need for repression.

European humanitarian NGOs have been performing superbly, counter-balancing the failure of some States and the EU to provide enough resources to save the lives of most migrants stranded at sea and trying to educate the European public to this policy-driven tragedy. Without them, the annual body count would be higher. Instead of thanking them as they deserve and coordinating the actions of all stakeholders, we now see politicians escalating the populist agenda. We are witnessing a repeat of the time when Italian fishermen who rescued migrants at sea and brought them to port were accused of smuggling, arrested, detained and their vessels impounded. In that sense, Theresa May’s argument seems to have found another target.

Contacts between NGOs and the smuggling operators may happen in order to ensure the exact location of the migrants to be rescued. Humanitarian operations to save lives should not be characterised as assisting the smugglers. Just like the Red Cross is not accused of assisting the enemy when discussing with all parties to a conflict in order to identify prisoners of war, assist injured soldiers or reunite family members from whichever side.

What is the purpose of such an attack on NGOs now? Cynics would argue that this type of accusation aims at reducing the action of NGOs, thus increasing the number of deaths at sea, in order to justify the toughest deterrence and repressive measures against undocumented migration, for example the cooperation initiated with some factions in Libya through which migrants are stopped and detained on Libyan territory – in horrible conditions – in exchange for development funds and “capacity building”. Whether or not a strategy lies behind the current attack on NGOs, it is easy to see that it risks contributing to such outcomes.

European countries need a much more principled approach to human mobility and migration, an approach that treats migrants, not as packages to be dispatched, but as human beings, each worthy of individualised assessments and solutions according to their needs. Only then will Europe be able to lift the air of illegitimacy which clouds a good part of its action on migration policies. Only then will Europe be able to see that regular, safe, accessible and affordable mobility solutions for most migrants is the only way to ensure regulated mobility at borders and considerably reduce the need for rescue at sea.