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‘People need migration’: A Q&A with IOM’s new director general

‘The evidence is pretty overwhelming that, when you do this well, the outcomes are extremely positive.’

This is a photo of Amy Pope, the new director general of the International Organization for Migration. She is pictured smiling and in the background is a wall with a large UN logo on it. Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Amy Pope, the new director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) attends a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland 2 October 2023.

Around the world, growing numbers of people are being displaced and migrating because of conflicts, political dysfunction, natural disasters made worse by the effects of the climate crisis, and economic frustrations and desperation.

At the same time, many countries – especially in the Global North – are implementing harsh policies to try to stop irregular migration, ignoring human rights obligations in their treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, and even questioning the foundations of the global refugee protection system. 

Despite all the anti-migration political rhetoric, “the reality on the ground is that people need migration,” Amy Pope, the new director general of the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), told The New Humanitarian in an interview before her five-year term began on 1 October.

For Pope, migration is a potential solution for challenges facing societies, rather than another problem. “The evidence is pretty overwhelming that, when you do this well, the outcomes are extremely positive,” she said. 

“For me, it’s not a question of whether people move; it’s a question of how they move and whether we, as international actors, can build out ways for them to move so they are not exploited,” she added. 

Pope is a US diplomat who previously served as IOM’s Deputy Director General for Management and Reform. She won a rare contested election in May, beating out her boss at the time, Portuguese politician António Vitorino, for the organisation’s top position. She is also the first woman to hold IOM’s top post in the organisation’s 72-year history. 

Two of Pope’s main priorities are solidifying IOM’s leadership on climate-induced migration and increasing legal and regular migration pathways for people compelled to move.

Both topics are pressing but also politically fraught. There’s growing awareness of the impacts of the climate crisis on displacement and migration, but little consensus or political will on how to address it. And advocacy organisations have been calling for years, to little avail, for more legal options for people to move as a way to lessen deaths along migration routes and reduce their reliance on smugglers.

In addition to speaking about her priorities, The New Humanitarian asked Pope whether the 1951 Refugee Convention needs to be updated, how IOM’s activities should change to respond to climate migration, and whether the agency’s support for controversial projects – such as rehabilitating Libyan detention centres and helping member states increase their border security and surveillance – will continue under her tenure. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The New Humanitarian: Could you briefly outline your three top priorities for your term as director general?

Amy Pope: I am starting with climate. We know already that there are millions of people displaced each year as a result of climate impacts, and we know that hundreds of millions more live in extremely climate vulnerable communities. My goal is to ensure that we, as an organisation, are well positioned to not only respond to climate disasters but to start to anticipate and work with communities to adapt to what is coming. That is an underdeveloped line of work, but it will be increasingly important when we look at what factors are displacing communities. 

The second for me, which I hope in many cases will be one way of adapting to climate change, but is applicable more broadly, is how to build out more regular pathways for people. 

We know that post World War Two we set up a mechanism through the 1951 Refugee Convention to enable protection for people fleeing persecution who were targeted because of their nationality, their race, their background, etcetera. But today, the number of people who are on the move for a variety of other reasons – whether it’s extreme poverty or lack of governance, whether it’s violence in their communities or, increasingly, climate change – it’s just not addressed in terms of protection pathways or other regular pathways. 

My goal is to work with member states to increase the available legal pathways for people who would otherwise be displaced or have no opportunities at home. 

The final piece, which is required to do both priorities one and two well, is around partnerships, particularly with the private sector. We at IOM do not have a great track record of working with the private sector. It happens occasionally, but in terms of overall private sector engagement, it’s very minimal. 

When you think about how much the private sector benefits when migration is well managed, and then when you layer on the fact that we will see significant demographic shifts over the next generation, migration will be a way for the private sector to continue to innovate, to continue to spur economic development, whether it’s in the countries where companies are operating or where migrants are coming from. Building those partnerships is ultimately key to success.

The New Humanitarian: Can you elaborate on the point you made about the international protection system being built to respond to the needs of refugees but not to those of people pushed to migrate because of poverty and climate change? Do you think that the current protection framework, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, needs to be updated to better address the realities of modern-day displacement and migration?

Pope: Regardless of which instrument we use, the bottom line is that as international communities who care about vulnerable people, we need to come up with better solutions. It’s not sufficient to say that just because someone does not meet the 1951 Convention definition then there is no hope or no option for them. A person who is starving, or whose children are starving, and cannot find opportunities at home, is suffering just as much as somebody who is displaced for any other host of reasons: It ultimately becomes a matter of life and death. For me, this is a question about how do we save more lives, and how do we create more opportunities for people. 

There are a lot of different ways to go about doing that, and I think that’s where IOM can come in, because we can work with communities to build out better options for people, and especially when there is no way to stay at home, enable them to travel safely and not force them to rely on smuggling networks.

The New Humanitarian: There is growing awareness about the impact of the climate crisis on displacement and migration, but little consensus or, seemingly, political will, to proactively address the issue. How can IOM help build that consensus and political will? 

Pope: This is a major priority. We’ve already started the work. You might be familiar with what’s known as the Kampala Declaration on Migration, Environment, and Climate Change. We recently worked with the African Union to expand that declaration to more member states. Effectively, it acknowledges the impact of climate change on human displacement. The first step is admitting you have the problem. 

We also see similar awareness and acknowledgement at the political level in the Pacific Islands and, increasingly, in the Caribbean and Latin America. 

Our goal is, first and foremost, to build the global consensus of what we see on the ground. I spoke with some member states when I was in Nairobi for the Africa Climate Summit, and they said, “Isn’t it obvious? We see it every day in our communities.” But I don’t think that it is obvious to everybody. 

Because we do the work, we speak to the people on the move, we know that they are moving because of drought or storms or desertification. For us, it’s important to be telling their stories, bringing them into the conversation, and then focusing on very pragmatic, concrete abilities to help them adapt to what’s happening. 

The New Humanitarian: Is IOM’s role in addressing the needs of people displaced or migrating because of the climate crisis different – or does it need to be different – than what IOM is currently doing? 

Pope: In some ways it does need to be different. We have good examples of where it works, but it’s not being done systematically. This is where I think we can use technology and use both existing data and collect additional data to better inform our response.

We have been in conversations with other UN partners and the private sector about mapping out communities most at risk as a result of climate displacement and then building interventions to improve their ability to, no pun intended, weather the storm. In some cases, building out better mobility options for them will be one of their few options. In other cases, it’s enabling the skill-building so that they can do a job that’s not as climate-dependent.

When I was in Kenya a couple weeks ago, I went to Dadaab, where 100,000 Somalis had crossed the border over the past two years because they had been displaced by drought. My hope and my intent is that, collectively, the international community can start to engage before those people are displaced, before they are leaving home. 

Some of it is really simple. Some of it is better water management. Some of it is drilling bore holes. Some of it is providing effective assistance before they hit an acute crisis. Some of it is much more complicated. 

The New Humanitarian: Why is increasing opportunities for people to move regularly so important, and what opportunities do states and the international community need to be focusing on? 

Pope: The bottom line is that humans are going to move. That is part of human nature, and it is the most basic, fundamental human adaptation strategy. For me, it’s not a question of whether people move; it’s a question of how they move and whether we, as international actors, can build out ways for them to move so they are not exploited, so that they have the potential to reach their human development, but also so that they can contribute most effectively to the communities where they ultimately end up. 

The more you can create a match between the people and the opportunities, the better economic, social, and cultural outcomes [there will be]. The World Bank released this fantastic development report in March this year focusing entirely on how migration enables better development outcomes. The evidence is pretty overwhelming that, when you do this well, the outcomes are extremely positive, set aside the political rhetoric.

The other thing, as I said, is that the demographics are really going to push, I think, all governments to explore migration as a way to respond to their own individual challenges. So whether you’re a country who has a boom in young people but not enough opportunities at home, or you’re a country with an ageing population who can no longer sustain its economy, there are going to be interests that begin to align. I think our job is to help make sure they do so well. 

The New Humanitarian: Are there specific mobility opportunities – whether it is labour migration pathways or guest worker programmes or refugee resettlement – that you think should be prioritised in terms of scaling up? 

Pope: I just got back from Washington where I was at a meeting convened by the US White House with a number of Latin American member states and the private sector. There’s tremendous opportunity across the Americas where people are just looking for people to take jobs. I had a meeting with just one state in Europe where they said, “We have been hearing from our companies here that they are just looking for a sustainable workforce.” I’ve heard this same message from countries in the Caribbean, in the Pacific, across Asia. 

There’s a growing awareness that migration has to be one of the tools that countries very mindfully, deliberately adopt in order to continue innovation. 

The second one, which is something I’m excited about, is more in the resettlement space, where you’re seeing, increasingly, an awareness of the importance of community sponsors for resettlement of vulnerable populations. The value of that is that you bring the community into building a solution. It not only creates buy-in but it tends to lead to better outcomes for the persons who are being resettled. 

There’s a lot of promising work out there at the moment. The key is to make sure that we’re helping facilitate the best practices that we’re seeing. 

The New Humanitarian: There has been a lot of positive reporting on community resettlement programmes but also some concerns that they should be a complement to traditional government refugee resettlement programmes, not a replacement. Is that a sentiment that you would share? 

Pope: Absolutely. Firstly and foremost, [refugee resettlement] is the responsibility of governments. With UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency), we encourage governments to not only resettle communities but ensure that they have appropriate mechanisms in place to assess protection needs of people on the move. 

For me, the issue is more about recognising how many people are on the move today, how much need there is. I’m not sure if we ever did, but we certainly don’t now have proportionate resources to connect to the need. So it means that we have to be creative, we have to be innovative, we need to involve non-traditional partners in building out the solutions, and we can’t be afraid to try out new things and adjust as we go. 

That is not to say that governments can walk away from their responsibilities. But government responsibility is just not enough any more, and there is a lot more that we need to do to galvanise other actors into action and support. 

The New Humanitarian: You’ve spoken about the benefits of migration, but then there’s also the politics of migration. Western media outlets and politicians tend to focus on migration from the Global South to the Global North, and oftentimes it’s depicted as a problem. But a lot more people migrate or are displaced within the countries and regions they are from. How important is it to change the narrative around migration and why?

Pope: It’s important, but I think the facts are going to speak for themselves. The bottom line is that, no matter the anti-migrant political rhetoric, the reality on the ground is that people need migration. My goal is not to wade into the culture wars on the issue but to work with the willing partners. 

The New Humanitarian: IOM straddles the line between a humanitarian organisation dedicated to human rights principles and an intergovernmental organisation serving the interests of its member states. Those things sometimes come in tension when it comes to migration. Does IOM’s mandate needs to be more clearly defined, and which side of the line do you think should be prioritised?

Pope: IOM joined the UN as an affiliated agency in 2016. At that point, the organisation not only had to embrace but put basic principles enshrined in the UN Charter at the centre of the work we do. We are guided by the Sustainable Development Goals. We do have at our core the importance of safeguarding human lives. 

For me, one of the key questions for us to define is what does it mean when we talk about protection and migration. It’s very clearly defined to talk about protection and refugees, but just because you do not fall into the definition of the 1951 Convention [does not] mean that you are leaving your human rights at the door.

My goal is to make sure that we as an organisation are meeting the obligations that all member states have agreed to to make sure that, ultimately, human life, human dignity is at the centre of all the things we do.

The New Humanitarian: IOM has faced criticism for playing a role in EU efforts to limit migration from the Middle East and Africa to Europe by: refurbishing Libyan detention centres; running “voluntary” return programmes that don’t meet international human rights standards; participating in projects to increase border controls and surveillance; and conducting awareness-raising campaigns on the risks of irregular migration. These activities seem to be in tension with your vision for increasing options for mobility. Will they continue under your mandate, and if so, how do they fit with your agenda?

Pope: The goal here is to make sure that migration works for communities, whether it means it’s working for the migrant him or herself, whether it’s working for the transit communities, whether it’s working for the host communities. That certainly doesn’t translate into not respecting the sovereignty of individual member states or the borders of individual member states. 

There can be tension there, but ultimately our goal, again, is to remind people that human beings are at the centre of what we do and to work with member states to come up with policies and practices that respect human life and human dignity. 

We can advise, and we can provide best practices about what works, but we cannot substitute our judgement for what the member states ultimately decided. I think all of us within this space, especially when we talk about the migration space, will come up against criticism, inevitable. It’s maybe the hazards of the job, but it’s also, I believe, a sign that we are doing something that’s really hard but also really important. 

The New Humanitarian: How do you calibrate the decision internally when you come across projects when member states are asking and providing funding for you to participate in a particular activity that has human rights risks associated with it? 

Pope: We have in our building our own risk-based analysis and evaluation measures and our own internal auditing procedures to make sure that the work we are doing is consistent, and sometimes it means saying no; sometimes it means saying that we can’t do the work. 

But ultimately, there are many ways that we are looking to engage with governments on the inside and quietly and through our existing channels to come up with better outcomes. Because we are a member state organisation, we are tasked with working with our members. So we’re not in the same position as an NGO that can just speak out freely and maybe with the same candour publicly. But also there is tremendous value in being able to give that very private, diplomatic, straightforward advice and have the trust of partners from around the world. 

The New Humanitarian: IOM has been fairly outspoken when it comes to migration deaths in the Mediterranean. The 10-year anniversary of the shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa that put those deaths on the global media radar is on 3 October. Since then, more than 28,000 people have died at sea trying to reach Europe. What can be done to try to prevent these deaths?

Pope: As we started the conversation, we’re at a moment where there are tremendous pressures on communities, and we know that the bottom line is that if people do not have alternatives, they will move. Our obligations as an international community, number one, is to continue to support development with those communities that are most at risk, that are most vulnerable. The answer is not to withdraw assistance. 

Number two is to meaningfully create other pathways for communities so that the only option in front of them is not to get on a boat and go across the Mediterranean. Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that the job opportunities exist and that people are going because they can find work. Again, this is about being very pragmatic, lining up people with opportunities and doing so in a way that doesn’t lead to further exploitation, that doesn’t lead to further loss of life. 

There’s a lot of work that still has to be done to get there, but I think we are well positioned to do it. The good news is that we’re hearing a lot of very positive feedback from our member states about the need for it. It’s not easy. I’m not going to pretend we’re going to fix it tomorrow, but I do think there’s a path forward. 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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