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U.N. Representative Blames Syria's Civil War For Massive Migration Crisis


Every year, thousands of migrants attempt the hazardous journey by boat from North Africa to Europe. Many don't make it. The tragedy over the weekend where up to 900 people drowned trying to make that crossing is contributing to the growing call to confront the migration crisis. Our colleague Renee Montagne spoke with the U.N.'s special rapporteur, or independent expert, on the human rights crisis.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: And that man, Francois Crepeau, blames Syria's four-years long civil war for fueling much of the migration that's led to disasters at sea. For many, this exhausting journey begins not at sea but far inland.

FRANCOIS CREPEAU: We have witnessed almost four million Syrians getting out of the country and being warehoused now in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan, and we haven't offered anything to these people. There's no future for them in those countries, which are not able to offer them permanent residence, citizenship and integration. And we are sort of expecting them to stay there quietly and wait out. Well, these people have plans for the future. These people have children, and they are not going to wait. If we don't offer mobility services, they will go to the smugglers. And that's what they've been doing, and they are doing it more and more.

MONTAGNE: Now they are actually going to Libya to then launch across the Mediterranean to get into Europe that way. Describe what's happening there for us.

CREPEAU: Libya, being practically a lawless place, that's where the smugglers can use boats and launch them to go to Italy. And so you can leave - thanks to smugglers, you can leave Istanbul, take a plane to Algiers, go through the desert to Libya and then be put in a boat and go to Italy. This is all organized because we collectively don't do anything for the Syrians.

Remember the Indochinese crisis in the '70s and the '80s? At that time, we did a comprehensive plan of action. When all these refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong were full, we welcomed almost 3 million people over a number of years who now are good citizens, and their kids are in our universities.

MONTAGNE: We meaning exactly who, Europe and Canada and America?

CREPEAU: Exactly. I mean, the Global North - North America, Europe and Australia and New Zealand. We should do for the Syrians what we did for the Indochinese.

MONTAGNE: Break that down for us. What would be the better way?

CREPEAU: A better way would be an agreement across the countries of the Global North that each country will take a proportion of those migrants over a number of years. So I've offered the number of 1 million people being resettled over five years. And I've calculated that for a country like Canada - my country - with 36 million inhabitants, this would amount to a bit more than 8,000 people per year for five years; for the U.K., probably around 15,000; for the U.S., probably 70,000.

These are numbers that are perfectly manageable, and I think this is something which requires a collective effort. But it would do many things at the same time. It would, first, give hope to the people who are at present stuck, and they would not go to the smugglers because they would want to wait in line. They would not want to risk the lives of their kids, and we would have a lot less casualties. The market that we are creating for smugglers by doing nothing would be dried up. My message is that we have to bank on mobility, but we have to control and regulate that mobility. As long as we don't offer solutions to these people, we will not control their mobility.

MONTAGNE: Europe is in the grip right now of what appears to be an increasingly xenophobic moment. The U.S. certainly is not happy about migrants coming across the border. There's a lot of political resistance to that. So politically, is what you're describing feasible?

CREPEAU: At present, I doubt it. I hope for it, but I doubt it. I think there will be a reality check. Mobility is part of globalization. Everyone has embraced globalization but wants to restrict it to the movement of goods, services and capital. Well, it doesn't work like that. People will want to move as well.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

CREPEAU: My pleasure.

GREENE: That's Renee Montagne speaking with Francois Crepeau. He's the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.