A new director isn't enough to rid the IOM of its shady past
It’s a tale as old as time: the deputy usurps their senior. Amy Pope, former Deputy Director General for Management and Reform of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN migration agency, has beaten her boss António Vitorino for the top job of Director General.
It was somewhat inevitable the campaign would turn sour; since 1961, all Director Generals of the IOM have been afforded two terms before a challenge to their leadership.
Nevertheless, Pope’s campaign reflects a return to the US-centric status quo: the position of Director General at IOM has historically been held by an American, with the notable exception of Portuguese incumbent Vitorino, who defeated the Trump administration’s Islamophobic candidate Ken Isaacs in 2018.
Pope’s campaign has been a rare insight into how the upper echelons of IOM regard themselves. Her complaints of Vitorino centre on his age, alleged lack of energy and unwillingness to travel, and his failure to adequately address allegations that IOM has become known for ‘whatever the donor will pay for’.
"There's a clear conflict of interest when the UN body responsible for dignified and humane migration policy also receives donations from governments trying to keep migrants out"
On that last point, she isn’t wrong. IOM has long been one of the UN’s most controversial bodies. Its Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) scheme has been likened to a deportation ring, targeting asylum seekers in countries such as Greece where the conditions are so woeful a choice to return could hardly be framed as voluntary. Its ‘technical advice’ to detention centres in Indonesia has similarly affected its credibility amongst human rights activists.
There’s a clear conflict of interest when the UN body responsible for dignified and humane migration policy also receives donations from governments trying to keep migrants out. One such example is IOM’s alleged complicity in grave human rights violations against migrants in detention centres in Libya, purportedly to ‘safeguard’ funding from the EU that turns a blind eye to Libyan detention centres to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.
IOM’s track record as a subcontractor of state migration policy dates back to its conception. It was established in 1951 to manage the logistics of post-war refugee resettlement in Europe, and therefore has often assumed a logistics role, distinguishing it from the refugee rights and protection function of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Unlike other UN bodies such as the International Labour Organization or the Food and Agriculture Organization, IOM has no ‘assessed’ contributions, or payments that UN member states are required to make on an annual basis.
"It's unsurprising to find significant differences between local perceptions & international narratives of human smuggling & trafficking in Libya."— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 1, 2023
Lubna Yousef & Tim Eaton on the dual face of migrant smuggling in Libya ⬇ https://t.co/3ia9amgl1e
This means that all its work is funded through voluntary contributions, affording it little independence and placing it at the behest of its largest donors, namely, governments. These intrinsic flaws certainly undermine Pope’s arguments that she could reform the body to become anything other than ‘whatever the donor will pay for’.
Those that have studied and working with it have long argued that the strategic ambiguity of IOM’s mandate – its constitution does not define the populations it works with, and it has no mandate to protect the rights of migrants – is precisely what’s behind its meteoric growth to an agency with a $2.5 billion annual budget.
In any case, the personal endorsement Pope has received from Joe Biden and the importance his administration has seen in her campaign imply that IOM continues to be seen as a tool of soft power, foreign affairs, and border management.
Moreover, Pope’s comments since her election seem to imply that her tenure will be business as usual. In an interview with US broadcaster NPR, she argued that interventions at the US-Mexico border come ‘too late’, by which point migrants have already been left much more vulnerable by the perilous journey, and that aid should be given to communities likely to migrate whilst they are still in their country of origin.
This is logical: it’s common sense that forcibly displaced persons would prefer that conditions would improve in their country of origin. Furthermore, an approach that delivers aid before displacement ensures that the most vulnerable, who are often unable to flee due to their age, disability, or lack of resources, also receive support.
However, it’s possible to read Pope’s comments much more cynically: working further upstream allows IOM to position itself for billions of dollars in aid that would otherwise be seen as falling out of its migration-focused scope.
Furthermore, it’s an approach that conveniently stops short of addressing the typically woeful response of the host country, in this case the US. If Pope can lobby for humane state policy towards migrants who are already at the border at the same time as addressing the root causes of migration that lead to potentially fatal journeys, then her ‘comprehensive’ approach to migration will be vindicated.
However, given that IOM’s major donors are the states that routinely practise pushbacks, arbitrary detention, and deportations, it will be challenging for the organisation to bite the hand that feeds it.
Her comments that ‘about ten interventions that could have happened along the way’ have been ‘missed’ by the time migrants drown in the Mediterranean imply she is unlikely to address human rights violations sponsored by the European Union, which has been implicated in leaving migrants to drown.
There is some limited scope for optimism, however. Activists have pointed to IOM’s ‘Janus-faced’ image that on the one hand espouses the language of human rights but on the other projects itself as a ‘reliable partner’ of governments.
This is in part reflective of IOM’s sprawling nature, with over 180 country offices whose respective leadership influences whether the work in that country espouses a rights-based or state-centric approach to migration.
Furthermore, IOM’s increasing interest in migrant rights points to its financial incentive in encroaching upon UNHCR’s mandate – and budget – that focuses on refugee rights. Scepticism aside, within this expansive portfolio and undefined mandate lies an opportunity for Pope to determine whether IOM will define its role in migration from the perspective of the migrant or from the perspective of the state.
"Given that IOM’s major donors are the states that routinely practise pushbacks, arbitrary detention, and deportations, it will be challenging for the organisation to bite the hand that feeds it"
Early indicators will be whether IOM’s response to the US-Mexico border will challenge the US government’s historic disregard for international standards on the right to asylum, and how Pope will define her relationship with the EU, whose bankrolling of AVR and the controversial Trust Fund for Africa the IOM has been large beneficiaries of.
Unfortunately, the success of Director Generals is often measured by their ability to increase the bottom line on the balance sheet: whether Pope can break out of the golden handcuffs placed by states with unsavoury motives will be her most important challenge.
Tiara Sahar Ataii has worked in humanitarian response for the UN and major NGOs in 11 countries. She founded SolidariTee, which fights for refugee rights. She is also part of the 2022 'Forbes 30 under 30'.
Follow her on Twitter: @tiara_sahar
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