UPDATE (2 July): For the first time in 50 years, the IOM will be helmed by a non-American. On 29 June, after this op-ed was originally posted, member states elected Antonio Vitorino, a Portuguese former EU commissioner, to lead the UN’s migration agency and rejected President Donald Trump’s pick, Ken Isaacs, who had a history of anti-Muslim remarks. Trump's anti-immigration policies, including separating children from parents, were also widely viewed as being a factor in the decision.
On Friday, a new director general of the International Organization for Migration will be elected. This is without doubt one of the most important jobs on Earth right now. Events of the past two weeks – from the shores of Europe to the Mexican border – only confirm how critical the new director general will be for IOM, the UN system, and the world at large.
There’s one overall task for whoever takes up the post: lead at a global level to help us all (member states in particular) find a way out of the big political mess that migration policy has become. How to do that? Glad you asked.
If I were director general and had to choose one priority to start with, I would focus on the most complex question of all: shifting the narrative away from crisis, emergency, or global tragedy towards a more pragmatic and sober message. Migration is a reality, is manageable, and is here to stay. Let’s get on with the important job of handling it through gradual and sustained engagement. That cannot be achieved by idealistic policies, collective agreements, and global standards: it requires muddling through ‘second best’ or partial solutions, which exist now and can be acted upon.
This means brokering deals, nurturing debates, fostering innovations, and spotting concrete opportunities and entry points for reform, wherever they exist. It means working not only at the national or state level but driving change from the ground up by engaging with local officials as well as members of civil society groups and businesses.
It means reaching outside the multilateral system to new allies, especially those with a real desire and capacity to demonstrate in practice how to better manage global migration. Mayors come to mind, as do business leaders (in the tech or engineering industry, for example), who need to access talent wherever it is in the world, and some governments – especially those that have demonstrated commitment to innovative practices and realistic reforms, from Canada and Germany, to the Philippines and Uganda.
Internally, within the UN, the new director general must develop stronger partnerships and strategic alliances at a time of wide-ranging UN reform. This is key if IOM hopes to deliver on one of its most important and strategic mandates: the implementation of the first intergovernmental Global Compact for Migration, to be agreed by UN members states in December.
This will require IOM to step up its own capacity to manage and monitor global processes. That can only be done in collaboration with UN agencies overseeing key related agendas, such as the International Labor Organization, UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, to name a few. IOM has only recently joined the family, so the new director general must go the extra mile to make new friends and discover which allies it can rely on.
Pay special attention to the relationship with UNHCR: the migration and displacement communities have grown farther apart than ever, often paying little attention to the realities of human beings on the move beyond the increasingly unhelpful labels of ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’. It would be good to see IOM take the lead on all matters related to human mobility, including climate-related migration. The director general should not shy away from proposing concrete actions for all migrants in vulnerable situations, irrespective of their status.
What else? Strong synergies with the sustainable development community would help, ensuring that IOM plays a leading role in the delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This will give IOM legitimacy and influence beyond the migration community, demonstrating in practice that human mobility can contribute to achieving human development goals, growth, and prosperity. Key allies here should be the World Bank and regional banks, which are increasingly engaging in migration-related initiatives as part of their lending operations.
Externally, the director general’s key priority should be to demonstrate that IOM can evolve and transform from an operational agency, with its roots and boots on the ground, to a global presence able to steer and lead the most complex and urgent reform agenda of our time. This requires vision and resolve, especially if the financial resources available to lead the agency into this new era will be – as is almost certain – scarce.
Politically, the new director general must perform a fine balancing act: on one hand, she or he should build on the very strong relationships between IOM and its member states. Increasingly influential emerging economies also happen to be key players in migration policies and practice – think key border countries like Mexico or Turkey; those that host large numbers of refugees and other migrants, like Kenya; and regional powers, like the Philippines, Thailand, or Brazil. At the same time, the new director general cannot afford to not keep the United States and Europeans on board, even though their current leaders are wary of too much international cooperation or relaxing national immigration policies. The dilemma, of course, is that these very countries can provide much-needed financial support to IOM.
This is all a tall order. All of it will be 10 times harder to achieve if the new director general needs to spend much effort, political capital, and time trying to convince people around the world that he or she can be a credible ambassador on global migration. At best, this will be a distraction. And there’s so much to do right now, that’s a liability that IOM can just do without. *
(Foresti also serves as an advisor to IOM's Migration Research Leaders' Syndicate)
Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.
Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.
We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.
Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian.