Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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Washington’s Bid for the Top Job at the UN’s Migration Agency Is Raising Eyebrows


The current race to lead the International Organization for Migration is pitting the deputy head, an American, against her boss, who is Portuguese. It’s a strange move, some close observers say, since in theory they are meant to work as a team. The election by secret ballot is May 15. IOM/TWITTER

The United States is working hard to get back on the world stage after four years of the Trump administration’s shunning of multilateral organizations — starting with the United Nations itself. Now the UN’s International Organization for Migration is being eyed as a way for Washington to regain part of that limelight.

Amy Pope, the deputy director of the Geneva-based IOM since 2021, wants the top job and is challenging the re-election of her boss, Director-General António Vitorino, who is from Portugal. It’s an unusual move, some insiders believe, because in theory they are a team. But historically, the IOM has been headed by an American, and Pope has the Biden administration’s backing. The election, by secret ballot among IOM members, is scheduled for May 15.

Jeffrey Crisp, a former chief of policy development and evaluation in the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, voiced concern about the relationship between Vitorino and Pope as they race against each other and the implications for the organization.

Crisp, who has also worked for the British Refugee Council and has years of experience on global refugee and migration issues, wondered if the two IOM leaders even talk to each other now. “How do they maintain relations with each other? The staff members of IOM — are some supporting Amy Pope and others supporting Vitorino? It is a little bit of a break with UN protocol,” Crisp told PassBlue.

“The UN is a very protocol-minded organization, and people usually follow the rules or follow a precedent,” he added. “For a deputy director to challenge their boss for the post is a little bit unusual and needs a little bit of an explanation.”

Pope acknowledged in an interview with AFP that it is “not ideal in some ways” to be challenging Vitorino, who would be expected to earn a second term, but defended her decision as a response to the need for progress at IOM. The organization, founded in 1951 to address the problem of displacement in Western Europe after World War II, told PassBlue that it was unable to comment on “the election or candidates” as it is a “member-state-led process.” An email to Pope went unanswered.

Vitorino, a Portuguese lawyer and a former judge who also worked for the European Union as commissioner for justice and home affairs, was elected as the 10th director-general of IOM and took office in October 2018. He succeeded William Lacy Swing, an American, and defeated another American, Ken Isaacs, and Laura Thompson of Costa Rica. (Thompson was the IOM’s deputy director-general and the runner-up; Swing, who led the agency from 2008 to 2019, did not run for another term.)

Pope is a lawyer and was a deputy homeland security adviser under former President Barack Obama. She was appointed as IOM’s deputy director-general in charge of management and reform in 2021.

“It is certainly clear that member states of the UN, particularly the most powerful and most prosperous member states, place a lot of emphasis on their nationals [being] elected to senior positions,” Crisp said. “There are certain posts in the UN which are more or less reserved for people of particular nationalities. The heads of IOM have traditionally been Americans.”

He added: “The personality and the ideology of the person at the very top matters and can make a difference. It is important who is at the top; a change from one CEO to another does make a difference, and CEOs do bring with them certain perspectives and policies which might be different from their predecessors.

“It is much more difficult to know the extent to which the country they come from might determine their policies,” he continued. “If Amy Pope is elected, to what extent will she be pursuing a US agenda or will she have a degree of independence?”

Until 2018, only one non-American led the IOM, which joined the UN system in 2016 and is an intergovernmental body of 175 member states that aims to promote orderly migration and assists migrants in the process of resettlement, working with international agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and nongovernmental groups of all kinds. In 2021, the US contributed $668 million, approximately 67 percent of IOM’s total funding for the year, or $998 million. The organization is dependent entirely on voluntary contributions, and the US donates by far the most among individual member states to designated programs and overall operations.

António Vitorino is running for re-election. The agency has been mostly led by Americans, and it has never had a woman at the helm. 

The domination of the US at IOM slipped in 2018 when Isaacs, who identified as a pro-life advocate, lost to Vitorino in the three-way race. Isaacs’ campaign was led by Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN at the time (and now a Republican Party candidate for US president), and his defeat — a significant blow to the Trump administration — was viewed partly as a rejection of Trump’s hostile views toward migration.

“So, you can understand why the Biden administration will want to recapture that post,” Crisp said.

Since Joe Biden assumed the presidency in 2021, his administration has been working to recover the US’s dominant standing in the global arena and to reposition Washington front and center in multilateral institutions. Some of Biden’s first acts in office were rejoining the Paris climate agreement, the World Health Organization, the Human Rights Council and other prominent global institutions that President Trump hammered at or withdrew from altogether. Unicef is traditionally led by an American, and the recent appointment by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for the post was Catherine Russell, a longtime member of Biden’s inner circle.

When Biden nominated Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the UN in 2021, she repudiated Trump’s “America first” mantra and embraced the goal of returning to the multilateral fold. “America is back,” she said. “Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.”

After Pope launched her campaign last year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top American diplomats rallied around her, declaring their support for her candidacy. As Blinken put it: “She has the expertise and vision to guide IOM during an era of unprecedented global displacement and migration. She is the leader we need in this extraordinary time.”

Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s under-secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, echoed Blinken, saying, “Amy’s people-first approach offers the demonstrated leadership needed to address today’s unprecedented migration [and] displacement challenges.”

Crisp said the loud support Pope enjoys from her country is no guarantee that she will be elected, but the same could be said of Vitorino, who continues to enjoy support from the 27-member European Union bloc at the IOM and among the top donors to the agency.

As is typical for such UN-related elections, most of the drama occurs offstage. For example, Foreign Minister João Gomes Cravinho of Portugal appealed for support for Vitorino in a letter sent to other foreign ministers. In the letter, he described Vitorino as “the best candidate” and urged that he be allowed “to continue managing the organization for the next five years.”

Pope’s bid marks the first time in the IOM’s 70-year history that a sitting deputy has contested the director-general position, and it comes during major change and challenges for the IOM as migration movements soar worldwide and political machinations play out nationally. Last year, another American, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, was elected head of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a first for a woman and a symbolically charged development since she was running against Rashid Ismailov, a former Russian politician who also led the ITU’s governing body at one point. The election was held in October 2022, eight months after Russia fully invaded Ukraine.

In recent years, the IOM has played a key role in addressing migration crises around the world, including the ongoing Rohingya refugee catastrophe in Bangladesh and wars in Syria and Yemen. However, the organization has faced criticism for its handling of certain problems, including allegations of mismanagement and misconduct in addressing the migrant crisis in Zintan, in northwestern Libya.

“Though they were aware of what was happening, IOM and UNHCR officials failed to properly advocate for the victims,” Sally Hayden, an Irish journalist who has reported extensively on migration, said in a 2018 article on, quoting aid officials and former UN staff familiar with the situation.

Moreover, the US did not sign on to the UN’s Global Compact on Migration when it was endorsed by the General Assembly in 2018, the first such agreement to address the 258 million or so people “on the move,” as the UN put it. Under the Trump administration, the US pulled out of the negotiations on the compact in 2017. The compact was adopted a year later by 152 votes, including by Portugal. But the Biden administration revised its stance on the compact, saying in December 2021, “It is in this spirit that the United States is pleased to announce our endorsement of the vision contained in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM or Compact.) We commit to working with other countries to enhance cooperation to manage migration in ways that are grounded in human rights, transparency, nondiscrimination, responsibility-sharing, and State sovereignty.”

Yet the Biden administration is planning to revert to more restrictive migrant control rules at US borders, or what opponents call an “asylum ban.”

Amy Pope’s campaign to be elected the next director-general of IOM has entailed trips to Africa, among other regions, to court votes for her race against Vitorino. 

More recently, the IOM has weighed in on one part of Britain’s migration plan, announced in April 2022 and revived after a lull by the new government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, despite outrage from human-rights advocates. The policy envisions flying people who enter Britain without a visa or other technical permission to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed and decided there. The British government said it would pay Rwanda $145 million to have the asylum seekers sent to the landlocked African country on one-way tickets. The UN Refugee Agency, led by Filippo Grandi, an Italian, condemned the policy. Although the IOM has not condemned outright Britain’s “illegal migration bill,” as it’s called, an IOM spokesperson described aspects of it as worsening “risks for survivors of modern slavery.”

“The proposed Illegal Migration Bill in its current form would make it impossible for victims who arrive in an irregular manner to access the NRM and get the support and protection they need,” the IOM said in a statement, referring to the National Referral Mechanism. “Instead, these persons would be detained and removed.”

Yet the British High Court cleared the government’s Rwanda plan as lawful.

Pope, if elected, might remain silent on the matter. “It’s difficult to say that it would be a place where we would be involved,” she told The Africa Report when quizzed about the bill.

The IOM does several jobs. On the one hand, it positions itself as a humanitarian organization. On the other, its focus is largely determined by the interests of big donors from the global north. Often it strays from migration (addressing floods and earthquakes, for example), Crisp said.

“What exactly is its mandate?,” he asked. “It interprets migration in an incredibly broad manner. IOM has a strange financial structure. It does not have core funding which it can use to do whatever it wants to do. All the funding coming into IOM is basically project-based funding supported by a particular donor state. So project-based funding basically limits IOM [in not allowing it] to pick and choose what it does.”

The organization also assists its member states with so-called assistive voluntary return — deportation.

At the same time, the IOM fills an important gap in the humanitarian space. It provides aid for migrants who are not helped by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or member states because they do not qualify as refugees but also can’t be sent back to their home countries.

Pope and Vitorino are quiet on the problems identified by Crisp. Cravinho, the Portuguese foreign minister, while campaigning for Vitorino, said that his administration at the IOM had experienced a large transition and “has reinforced multilateral response to the expanding global challenge of migration in its numerous dimensions — humanitarian, security and development.”

Pope has said she would also focus on climate change, data use and partnerships with the private sector, among other things. “My vision for IOM as the world faces this historic displacement crisis is to put people first, whether is migrants or member states or the workforce,” she said in a campaign video.

The policies of both Vitorino and Pope are not remarkably different, said Nicholas Micinski, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Maine. “I do not think any of the candidates will drastically change the approach of IOM. Amy Pope is talking about people-centered and climate change as revolutionary change, but it is not really that revolutionary. They are already part of IOM’s policy.” Micinski argued that the phrase “people-centered” is a euphemism for the organization’s lack of focus on human rights.

To be elected, Pope will have to win over the European Union bloc that supported Vitorino in the last election and continues to back him, as well as gain votes from other continents whose votes could swing anywhere. Pope has been touring African countries, including in Mali and South Africa, meeting and shaking hands with leaders and promising better representation. It is unclear if she is using her position at IOM to pay for these trips.

“What kind of promises are both the European Union and US using to gather support for their preferred candidate, because clearly the US is supporting Pope, and the EU, led by Portugal, will support Vitorino,” Crisp said, adding that member states could vow to vote for one candidate but vote for another, since “the vote is a secret one, which means neither the EU nor the US will actually be aware of how member states voted in the election.”

Regardless of the politics surrounding Pope’s candidacy, she could be the first woman to lead the IOM, and that is not insignificant, says Susana Malcorra, the president and a co-founder of GWL Voices, a gender-equality advocacy group.

GWL Voices comprises 62 current and former senior women leaders at various multilateral institutions. In a recent report scrutinizing some of the largest such organizations and the world’s four major development banks, the group revealed that since 1945 women have held top jobs only 12 percent of the time; many of the organizations have never been led by a woman.

“We don’t comment on the merits of any individual candidate,” Malcorra, a former chef de cabinet at the UN and foreign minister of Argentina, said in an email. “But . . . there should be a proportionate number of male and female candidates in each election, and the process should be fully transparent and competitive.”

She added: “In seven decades, the IOM has never elected a woman Director-General. We need more women leading and running for the top jobs at our multilateral organizations, even when the forces of tradition have kept leaders — mostly men — in power for more than one term. The IOM’s election is one of 17 that will take place in the next three years in the multilateral system, and they all offer historic opportunities to end the shameful legacy of gender inequality in multilateral bodies.”

This article was updated to correct the number of IOM member states. We also added that an email to Pope for a comment went unanswered.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the race at IOM?

Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Washington’s Bid for the Top Job at the UN’s Migration Agency Is Raising Eyebrows
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1 month ago

Many thanks for the points raised in your post.

Indeed, Antonio Vittorino has the support of various EU countries, but he is not the EU candidate and was not adopted as the EU candidate because some EU countries are not very happy with his work, approach and “bilan”. This is also the case of most African countries, who have now decided to back Amy Pope as they are seeking fresh leadership and a new start. With the exception of the African Portuguese-speaking countries, it is rare to find countries in Africa supporting him. The disappointment is actually quite loud.
The same could be said about Asia and Latin America & the Caribbean (LAC). For the Pacific, it is know that he has no support.

It is regrettable, to note that for close to five years he has ignored the challenges of the Global South, disregarded regional distribution by appointing some 75% of the Directors from the Global North, and only visited capitals in Africa and LAC when he need their vote.

Member States are well informed about the tragic situation of IOM. I think pressblue should ask the IOM staff about the legacy of DG Vitorino compared to DG Swing and his achievements.

Last but not least, we are many to find it outrageous that Portugal with a population of 10 million (0.00000125% of the world population) and contributing less of that percentage to global international aid and assistance is actually sitting on 10% of leadership positions of the UN system (UNSG, UNOPS ED and IOM DG) without mentioning the U.N. Legal Counsel which is a position at USG level. There are no competent people in Botswana, Romania, Vietnam, Suriname, to mention few?

1 month ago

The article has many inaccuracies that should be corrected: 1) IOM Deputy Director General Thomson was the first DDG to run for the DG position, 2) Antonio Vitorino is not the candidate of the EU block. Several EU members do not support his candidacy. 3) IOM has 175 Member States, not 165. 4) The European vote (27) barely represents some 16% of the total vote and as such is not decisive compared to the African vote (54 countries). It was the African vote that secured Vitorino’s election in 2018. On several speculative aspects, I would suggest that passblue reaches out to the campaign teams of Antonio Vitorino and Amy Pope on how they are financing their campaigns and trips rather than making assumptions. Last but not least, leadership matters and the world should not condone entitlements.

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