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UN migration agency pivots back to the US

Migrants queue to cross Mexican border into the United States
Migrants of various nationalities line up to enter the United States through the Chaparral checkpoint, in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, on September 22. The Covid pandemic caused a new wave of migration in the region. Keystone / Joebeth Terriquez

Five years after the International Organization for Migration (IOM) broke its single country governance streak by electing the Portuguese António Vitorino to its helm, a US national is back in its driver's seat. How will Amy Pope lead the UN agency as migration rises on many donor countries’ political agendas?

Beaming as she entered the United Nations press room with her communications team for her first official task as the new director general of the International Organization for Migration, Pope told journalists on Monday that the number one goal of the agency was “to harness benefits and the promise of migration”.

Pope, the first woman to lead the organisation, said it was “hard work” to engage with communities and governments to “find opportunities for people rather than just treating them as a problem to be solved”. She stressed that amid the current record flows of migrants, it was important that the private sector recognise the benefits of migration, as well as become part of the solution.

A former migration adviser to President Joe Biden and IOM deputy director, Pope assumes her new role after an aggressive election campaign against her former boss at the organisation, the former Portuguese politician and lawyer António Vitorino. “Competition […] is not only healthy, but it is something we need more of within the UN system to make sure that the UN continues to evolve and reflects the viewpoints of its member states and constituents,” she told journalists.

Her replacement of Vitorino brings the UN agency back within the realm of US historic leadership, interrupted when in 2018 a candidate promoted by former US President Donald Trump was rejected by member states. 

Politics, money and rising needs

With US presidential elections looming next year, Trump – whose policies on migration were strongly condemned by rights groups – continues to cast a shadow over the future of the international organisation, as polls have him holding strong within the country’s electorate.

Elsewhere, in both developed and transit countries, governments have pushed policies to curb migration, including deportations, processing of asylum-seekers in third countries and denying timely assistance to overcrowded and unsuited boats at high seas.

A rise in migrationExternal link and displacement globally, where IOM provides support to migrants on the move, has put a strain on resources at the organisation. The US is the single largest contributor to the agency, whose budget has risen from $2 billion (CHF1.8 billion) to $3 billion over the past four years. Funding to the organisation is voluntary, with nearly all of that being earmarked for specific programmes.

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Pope’s five-year mandate comes as the rise in irregular migration is being driven by conflict, the impacts of climate change, gang and gender-based violence and incremental poverty following the Covid-19 pandemic and global inflation.

One of the regions with the sharpest increases in irregular migration has been Central America, where record numbers of people coming from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and other regional countries, and as far away as Africa and Afghanistan, have made the dangerous trek through the Darién Gap, a jungle region separating Colombia and Panama. In recent years, many of the migrants headed to the United States have faced deportation or being taken into custody, with young children being separated from their families.

Responding to a question from SWI about how she would work with the United States on the migrant situation at its southern border with Mexico, Pope said the IOM needed to work with member states “to build more regular pathways, including labour pathways, humanitarian or family reunification pathways”.

Noting that most migrants are drawn by job opportunities, she said the IOM could help connect migrants to employers, including for low-skilled workers. 

“[Additionally] we need to recognise what is fuelling the migration in the first place and continue the assistance that is targeted at stabilising communities that would otherwise be on the move. It has to be a combination,” she added, using terms and concepts that had been previously used by the current US administration.

Pope, who had also worked on migration under President Barack Obama, told SWI that she planned to visit Latin American countries soon to discuss ways of tackling the humanitarian situations that have emerged along those routes. “We are working on dates,” she said.


Finding solutions

Her first trip, however, will be to Ethiopia, where she will meet African Union officials, followed by a meeting in Brussels with European Union officials.

She stressed that in addition to migration from developing countries towards destinations in Europe and North America, it was also important to work with communities wherever migrants may be headed to, including in Gulf nations, to ensure better protection of them. Labour conditions in Qatar ahead of the 2022 football World Cup highlighted the existence of migrant worker abuses.

Doris Meissner, director of the US immigration policy programme at the Migration Policy Institute, told SWI she expected Pope to “bring energy and a new generation into IOM leadership”.

The international organisation, founded in 1951 to respond to migration from Western Europe following the Second World War, was integrated into the UN system in 2016. It now has 175 member states, and assists tens of millions of people. In 2022External link, this included over 31 million through its crisis response, 6.3 million helped with information on how to access regular migration pathways.

Bringing new energy to an organisation at the crossroads of humanitarian response as donor states struggle with anti-immigrant political movements will be testing. 

“We need to start conversations where people are coming from, making them more humane,” Pope told journalists.

Since the 2018 adoption of UN’s Global Compact on Migration – whose negotiations the Trump presidency pulled out of and which the Biden administration only endorsed the “vision” of – few of the pathways facilitating the “safe, orderly and regular migration” it aimed to promote have opened up.

Migrants are often left with only the option to apply for asylum to be able to enter a country legally. However, national laws and jurisprudence as well as international conventions have proved to be somewhat limiting regarding refugee definitions.  

“It is quite clear that countries that have taken leadership over the years in establishing and maintaining those principles are really struggling,” Meissner, also a former head of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), said. She projected that if Trump were re-elected next year, “there will be a sharp turn on the road on issues relating to how migration is handled globally as well as in the United States, how immigration is treated”.

“Much of the pressures today can’t really be answered by the tools that are currently in the humanitarian protection toolbox, including massive climate change, failed states and cartel-type criminal elements that require whole-of-government and international cooperation and burden-sharing answers,” Meissner said. “That is where the discussion needs to go. We should be building on and broadening humanitarian and protection measures, rather than dismantling them.”


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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR