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IRIN interview with IOM head Brunson McKinley

[Iraq] IOM head, Brunson McKinley.
IOM head Brunson McKinley (IOM)

IRIN interview with IOM head Brunson McKinley

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) was established in 1951 as an independent, intergovernmental body to resettle European displaced persons, refugees and migrants. It has since has grown to encompass the membership of 98 nations. IOM deals with a wide variety of migration management activities worldwide, and will play a prominent role not only in the provision of assistance to third-country nationals (TCNs) who flee hostilities in Iraq but in the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Iraq once security conditions permit. While not part of the United Nations system, IOM maintains close working relations with UN bodies and operational agencies. IOM has as partners a wide range of international and NGOs.

In an interview during a brief visit to the Jordanian capital, Amman, IOM Director-General Brunson McKinley shared with IRIN the mission of his organisation and the various roles it would play in the context of the present crisis in Iraq and a future post-conflict Iraq.

QUESTION: What is IOM and how does it interact with the UN and NGOs?

A: Well, I could give you a very long answer on that, but I'll try to give you the thumbnail answer...We are an intergovernmental organisation. The number of member governments is actually growing rather fast.

Why is it growing so fast? Because of the very complex migration issues that have come to the fore in the post-Cold War world. In a world which is globalising, questions involving movement and dispersion of people around the world, the need for policies to deal with this new fact of life, has given our organisation a lot of prominence and has brought a lot of different kinds of work to it...

We get involved in economic migration, that is, job placement. We get involved in developmental work, because migration is a factor - sometimes positive, sometimes negative - in the development agenda of the world. We get involved in emergencies, because in a war or other emergency - man-made or natural, people tend to be scattered, and if the emergency or the war lasts a long time, you inevitably develop new populations of people who are scattered around the world and come to have the same kinds of needs that other migrants do.

Iraq is not a bad example of that. There have been people leaving Iraq for various reasons, for economic reasons or political exile, for decades now, and there are huge populations of Iraqis all over the world. This is also a factor when you think about post-conflict Iraq. We get into health questions, we get into law and order questions, we do capacity building for governments who are trying to improve their own ability to deal with migratory phenomena. We do a lot of policy work, we provide a forum - through our counsel, through our research - for governments to discuss and hopefully solve migration problems, particularly through regional fora...

That's what IOM is in a nutshell. IOM is perhaps best known for its work in emergencies, because of the media attention they are given. We do a lot of work in cooperation with UN agencies, NGOs, and governments in moving people, registering people, helping them to re-establish themselves, sometimes getting involved in what appear to be rather extraneous questions such as elections.

Often part of a post-conflict scenario is a new government, but if half the voters are scattered around the world, as, for example, in the case of Kosovo, you need an organisation that can find them and put the ballots in their hands, mark the ballots, and let them participate in decisions about the future of their country. In the case in Iraq, too, it's not impossible. Supposing the Saddam Husayn regime falls, one of the early tasks will be putting in place a new government, and one of the things you have to do sooner or later is validate that new government through a referendum or election.

But a lot of the interested parties are not in Iraq, they left a long time ago, they're all around the place: 200,000 people here in Jordan, several million in Western Europe, 200,000 or 300,000 in Iran, and scattered all over the place - so that kind of outreach to these diasporas of migrants is another important function of IOM in those countries.

Compensation: we handle compensation claims - we find these people, we get a cheque in their hands for lost property, we have a big programme for this. That's an area that a lot of people say "what's the connection with migration?" The connection is the fact that emergencies - wars - scatter people around the world. Some of those people go back home afterwards to resume their prewar lives, but for a lot of people, and it's been going on for a long, long time in the case of Iraqis - beginning in the 1970s when the Ba'th party took over, with increasing speed in the 1980s after Saddam took over...

Some will come back, sure, and we'll help them to come back, that'll be a programme for us, too. But a lot of them won't... and the question will be what role will those people have in building a new Iraq? One role might very well be through elections, another might be through sending money back, being a channel for the support of their families, remittances - but some of them might have a property claim, too. For a lot of them, some Ba'th party activist has moved into their house and they're going to want to get it back.

Q: That's quite a mandate.

A: Now you use the term "mandate", which I think is kind of a UN concept, which I think tends to confuse some people, because it leads them to think there's a document somewhere which states that all of these things - and only these things - will be done by IOM, and somebody else will do the rest. But it isn't like that. We're a much more flexible... and needs-driven organisation. Governments come to us and ask us to perform certain services connected with migration and a lot of the things we're doing today in the year 2003 are things that nobody asked us to do or even thought of 10 years ago, but then there are those things that are just the same as we were doing 50 years ago...

We try to address the needs that people seem to have and we're forced to do that, because we do not have oil wells or inherited wealth. We are entirely dependent on our programmes and our projects, and if they're good, people fund us, the usual donors, and if they're not, they don't...

Q: What is the focus of your present trip to Jordan?

A: Well, I came here to work with the Jordanian government, in particular, because they asked me to, to help them with their problems, to visit with our own people - I had intended to go up to the border, and I may still, if the weather gets better tomorrow, I want to see what's happening up there.

We are getting ready - have been ready for some time - for two different kinds of tasks in connection with Iraq. One is the exodus of people because of the war... Now, as you know, they're not coming, for a variety of reasons... We haven't concluded that they will not come, so we're going to stay ready, and depending on different turns of events in Iraq we might still see refugee and TCN outflows, for which we're directly responsible...
But
we're also looking at a second set [of responsibilities], in post-war Iraq... We've been given responsibility by the UN system for coordinating IDP work in the 15 central and southern governorates of the country. The northern three governorates will stay with UNOPS [The UN Office for Project Services], because the north is different, and that's been going for some time...But the centre and the south are brand new areas.

Q: So what will that involve?

The perfectly honest answer to your question is: let's wait and see... We'll have to deal with the situation on the ground. But I think it's pretty easy to predict certain functions. There is
the coordination role that we will play and, in fact, we've begun to play that already. A lot of the partners will be the NGOs that we'll be working with, the Red Crescent, and other specialists, and we've been having meetings here in Amman, and in other places too, in Kuwait and Larnaca [Cyprus], to put together a coordination system and to assign tasks in the IDP area.

What we hope to do is to have a focal point for each of our 15 governorates, an NGO will have the lead role there, they're signing up now where they want to go, where they think they have the comparative advantage to help coordinate the relationship of that network to the other players - humanitarian, developmental, military, and the rest - and will try to make the whole system work together without overlap and duplication.

One of the early tasks of this system certainly will be registration and census information. Nobody knows for sure exactly what the status of displacement is inside Iraq and what it could become. So far, there doesn't seem to be too much internal displacement because of the war over the past week. Before the war started, people were leaving the cities to go to villages, to get away from Baghdad, towards the northern areas that they knew were safe. That's continuing.

Severe fighting in cities might lead to new outflows, new displacement. But in any case, there's plenty of what you might call the "old displacement" in Iraq because of ethnic engineering that has been going on for some time, where different groups have been banished, exiled, moved around...So you have to do some good registration to identify the ones who are vulnerable and get help to them...For those who can't go home because their homes are destroyed or because their community doesn't have the facilities that you need - clean water and the rest - we may have to help construct camps..

I think it's fair to say that most of the current IDPs are living someplace, so it's not a matter of building a camp for them, it's a matter of getting them the supplies they need. Those supplies will be food, of course - we're not the lead agency for food, that's WFP [the UN World Food Programme] obviously - but helping WFP to coordinate and to get their food delivered at the right time and to the right place, that's something that an IDP coordinating agency - us - will have to do. And we may also help with transportation, that's one of our major functions...

And then, I think, as soon as possible, try to get the IDPs back home... However, the question of "home" is a little bit more complicated than just that. The home they may have been living in could be a temporary one, and what they really want to do is go back to their original home which, however, is now in somebody else's hands, and that's a little more complicated... So, what are you going to do? Are you going to fight it out? Or are you going to have a system that will adjudicate these things? So that's another longer-term part of our work...

There are other tasks that we might be asked to do longer-term after immediate needs are met, and that would be things like demobilisation. This is one that some people say "how does that fall into the mandate of the IOM?" Well, it falls into our mandate because there is no internationally-recognised agency for demobilisation, but also because of the fact that once soldiers and combatants are disarmed and handed civilian clothes, they often become a potential economic migrant...So there they are, they're a group of people who need training and placement services...

Also, that has a security aspect, because if you don't deal with these former fighters, chances are, they'll revert, so if you want peace and quiet, security and stability in a postwar situation, you have to deal with that...

Return of qualified Iraqis will be another potential chore for us. Of course, there are a lot of people inside Iraq who have good educations and technical specialties. Iraq is different from Afghanistan in that regard. Afghanistan had been essentially stripped of its educated class by the civil war, by the Taliban, and almost anybody with a university degree and any money from Afghanistan had left...

Now Iraq will not be exactly like that... but there are certain categories where, for political reasons, we know they're tainted by association with the old regime and it will probably be desirable and even necessary to bring in others to replace them... So, to the extent you can, you'll want to bring back maybe a couple thousand experts from the outside to take up those posts...

The Saddam Husayn regime has done things in its own way for many years, and the Iraqis are going to have to learn to do things slightly differently. That means that in many areas, they're going to want to set up a more modern, more humane and technologically better-based system of migration management so, like any other country, they can have better control over their borders and movements of people in and around the border.

This also has security aspects. Large numbers of people who are worried about counter-terror and security of movement today will be particularly interested in the existence of a strong and reliable system of control in and around Iraq for obvious reasons. One of the points of the war was to make sure Iraq did not become a holding or transit ground for terrorist groups, and that desire will certainly need to be reinforced in the new Iraq as well. But you have to have in place mechanisms for movement control, so you know who is in your territory and what they're doing...

One of the very important differences between Afghanistan and Iraq is that Afghanistan is poor and Iraq is rich. There is in Iraq the money to pay for a big programme and, of course, as you know, this is one of the big discussion items this week [by the UN at its headquarters] in New York, and probably for many weeks to come. But there are resources there that can support the Iraqi reconstruction whereas Afghanistan is very largely dependent on the generosity of donors...

For more information on the IOM see: www.iom.int


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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