Changing the game

Amy Pope, new head of UN migration agency, vows to prioritise Africa

By Julian Pecquet, in Washington

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Posted on May 17, 2022 15:45

Deputy Director General for Management and Reform Amy Pope poses in Geneva, Switzerland, the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration
Deputy Director General for Management and Reform Amy Pope poses in Geneva, Switzerland, the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration/ US State Department photo

Amy Pope, the new head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), made African representation and climate change cornerstones of her campaign.

With the full backing of the US government, Pope this week beat out the incumbent director general, António Vitorino, to win election as the first woman to lead the IOM in its 72-year history. She had been serving as the agency’s deputy director general for management and reform at the Geneva headquarters since September 2021.

Pope spoke to The Africa Report from Switzerland in December shortly before visiting Washington during the US-Africa Leaders Summit to make her pitch directly to African leaders. She vowed to listen to what they need from the (IOM), in terms of migration services and policy advice.

In a statement announcing her candidacy on 3 October, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken lauded Pope as the “visionary and inclusive leader IOM needs at this time of unprecedented displacement and migration”.

We do not have proportionate representation of our African member states.

“When we think about the future of our organisation, when we think about migration, when we think about how we can add the most value to our member states, the future is really in Africa,” Pope told The Africa Report.

From demographics, to conflict and climate change, Africa is being disproportionately impacted, she said, adding that it’s vital for IOM to invest on the continent and that perspectives from its leaders be included in the conversation.

“Building the engagement with Africa now and seeking their input and making sure that I’m reflecting their priorities,” she said, “is absolutely key to the future of the organisation.”

African voices

Central to this task is ensuring Africa is adequately represented at all levels of the agency.

“This is about rounding it out – making sure that we’re not just catering to one part of our membership. It’s making sure that we are engaging with all 175 of our members.”

Pope refers to the IOM as a “very European” agency, where Americans, Italians and French people are the top three nationalities on staff – a legacy of who pays the bills. The US, for example, covers about a third of the agency’s more than $1bn annual budget.

“When we look at the leadership levels, we do not have proportionate representation of our African member states,” Pope said.

Pope also wants to increase local staffing in Africa. The agency has about 20,000 employees, including people on short-term contracts, rising to 25,000 when implementing partners and third-party consultants are added in.

About three dozen countries – of which 10 are in Africa – aren’t represented in the organisation at all, including Madagascar, Botswana and the Republic of Congo.

Climate focus

Another key priority, Pope said, is to start connecting the dots between climate change and migration. That way, the IOM will not just respond to crises, but work with member states and other donors “to create more sustainable solutions, rather than just reacting and putting band aids on things all the time”.

“If you look at the role of IOM in COP27, one of the important pieces was to get the global community speaking and acknowledging the role of climate change in human mobility,” she said.

Food security has a direct impact on displacement. If people can’t eat, they move

“We need to […] seiz[e] the moment, engag[e] in a global conversation, and then driv[e] response,” she said. “Food security has a direct impact on displacement. If people can’t eat, they move.”

To formally link climate change with security challenges in Africa and around the world, Pope posits that the IOM can engage with the UN Security Council, which debated an African-led resolution on the matter last December, but Russia vetoed it.

UK-Rwanda controversy

Despite her background as a lawyer working on human trafficking issues in the US Senate and at the US Department of Justice, Pope makes it clear that the IOM is likely to continue to stay out of political tiffs over migration.

To date, the agency has kept silent on one of the most controversial migration policies affecting Africa: the UK’s deal to pay Rwanda £120m ($145m) to send asylum seekers on a one-way ticket to the tiny land-locked country. UNHCR, in contrast, has publicly lambasted the policy.

“People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy,” Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs said in April. “They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.”

Unlike the UNHCR, Pope says, the IOM does not have a legal convention to defend. Rather, the agency’s role is “primarily working with our member states to come up with sustainable solutions”.

It’s difficult to say that it would be a place where we would be involved

“States have […] the sovereign right to engage in whatever policies they put into place,” Pope said.

“Our job […] is to make sure that we are respecting the human rights and dignity of all people, including and especially migrants, because migrants often are easy targets,” she said. “But it’s also to make sure that when we’re working with states, that we’re doing so in a way that […] provides much more meaningful support to migrants.”

On the UK-Rwanda deal, she said: “It’s difficult to say that it would be a place where we would be involved.”

Reclaiming US leadership

Pope sees her candidacy as a chance for the US to reclaim its mantle as a world leader on migratory issues after losing ground under President Donald Trump.

Trump’s pick for the IOM job was roundly defeated in 2018 in apparent blowback against his anti-immigrant stance and his nominee’s history of Islamophobic comments. Ken Isaacs, an executive with the Christian relief agency Samaritan’s Purse and former head of foreign disaster assistance at the USAID, finished a distant third. This was after his past social media posts, which denounced Islam as a violent religion and raised doubts about climate change, came to light.

“The issue of migration, refugee resettlement, humanitarian response, is something that is very important to this administration as a whole,” Pope said. “The leadership of IOM is one that’s important to the administration, in addition to my personal interest and commitment to the organisation.”

“I would say, it’s more than just ’we’re back’. It’s that we’re taking it to the next level,” Pope said in reference to US efforts to re-engage African leaders.

“IOM is at this pivotal point. We are facing historic numbers of displaced people. We’re seeing increased pressures on every level, whether it’s conflict, growing economic disparity between communities, and […] climate impacts. […] this is really the US stepping up to say: Not only are we recommitting to these issues, but we recognise that IOM is uniquely situated to provide a leadership role; and we think that it’s important to do so in Africa.”

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