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IOM director general: ‘Migration is much more effective than development aid in transforming communities’

Amy Pope, the head of the International Organization for Migration since October, advocates focusing on the private sector to promote mobility through safe and legal channels

Lola Hierro
Amy Pope
Amy Pope, the director general of the International Organization for Migration, in Madrid, Spain, on November 16, 2023.JUAN BARBOSA

Just two years after joining the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Amy Pope, 50, became its new director general on October 1. For years, Pope was U.S. President Joe Biden’s top advisor on migration policy. She is also the first woman to hold this organization’s highest post and takes her role seriously: immediately after her appointment, she traveled around the world for over two months, from the Cook Islands to Kenya via Spain, to learn firsthand about the challenges she faces. The American believes that working with governments is essential, but she advocates greater involvement of the private sector to encourage migration through legal channels. With 184 million people in the world outside their home countries, convincing the world that human mobility is a positive is her major purpose. “Migration has enormous power to transform communities, it is much more effective than development aid. It allows people to develop their potential and give back to their environment,” she said eloquently during an interview in Madrid, Spain, last November.

Question: What are your priorities for your time in office?

Answer. The first is to address how climate is going to displace people. In the Horn of Africa, for example, there are already more people displaced by climate than by conflict. Secondly, we need to work on safe routes. Vulnerable people are more likely to pay smugglers. That is bad for the migrants themselves because they are more likely to be exploited, as well as for the host communities because it puts downward pressure on market wages. The third is partnership with the private sector, which is the recruiter. We want them to participate, to invest, to make sure that people have the training they need and can access legal avenues to migrate.

Q. You have always championed migration as an opportunity.

A. Because it is. Human beings have migrated since the dawn of civilization. All the available evidence shows that migration creates opportunities and economic benefits for the migrant, for the country he or she came from and for the country he or she is going to. We are determined to work with governments, civil society and the private sector to demonstrate how migration can work and to counter this narrative that it is a problem.

Q. We have increasingly more migration and, at the same time, some governments and their policies, certain media and a part of society criminalize them. Can you contribute to reversing that message?

A. I found it very shocking when Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, said that Europe is going to lose one million workers a year due to age. No matter how good the technology is and no matter how good we are at using artificial intelligence, we will not make up for that loss. We have to learn to identify the benefits of migration.

Q. The private sector can do a lot, but governments can drive the right policies. How much work can IOM do with governments?

A. The Government of Spain is forward-looking in this. It is studying the needs of its labor market, involving the private sector and other governments, especially in North Africa, so that job seekers can access opportunities in Spain. We need to replicate this around the world. The economies of countries like Japan and South Korea are aging rapidly: by 2050, 40% of their population will be retired, so the number of seniors needing care is going to be staggering. We’re using the facts to argue that governments must act now.

Q. Spain has allowed hot deportations and is also chartering deportation flights to Africa. What is IOM’s position on such things?

A. Spain is committed to allowing people to apply for protection and asylum. But beyond the right to state their case, it is a human rights issue. The way to manage migration is to do it comprehensively. It’s not about rejection; it’s about understanding where people come from, what drives them, and what we could do to reduce the pressure that pushes them to migrate. We also have to recognize that people come…because there is an economic opportunity. All governments need to be realistic in identifying legal avenues of access and making sure that the people who are eligible and want to access those avenues know about them and know how to do so.

Q. The United Kingdom is going ahead with its plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. We have seen similar proposals in Denmark and in Italy, which wants to open detention centers in Albania. Have you looked at this new trend of outsourcing asylum?

A. Yes, we are concerned about procedures that would outsource the process of applying for asylum because countries need to demonstrate that they still respect that right, that they are not putting the migrant at risk or putting undue pressure on the migrant. Outsourcing asylum procedures carries many risks. We don’t know yet whether doing so respects the 1951 Convention.

Q. IOM is involved in controversial initiatives such as the improvement of detention centers in Libya, a country denounced for mistreating and torturing migrants. Will you support such projects during your mandate?

A. Governments have the ability to set their border policies and the sovereign right to manage their borders, so our job [starts] when a government returns someone. We want to make sure that people come back safe and sound and that they’re not left to their own devices, because we’ve seen it time and time again. And if you do that to someone, they will probably migrate back and be more vulnerable to violence, exploitation, etc. We also know that there are cases where migrants suffer extreme mistreatment in detention centers, and we are thinking about how to strengthen our level of response and our protection teams, but we have to make difficult decisions.

Q. Speaking of Libya, could IOM tell the government that they are not going to cooperate unless they respect human rights? Does IOM have an obligation to support all countries that ask it to do so?

A. We do not have that obligation, but we do have an obligation to assess what is best for each person. There are cases in which a migrant is inhumanely detained and wants to return home. Then we have to make a decision: do we allow that person to go home? Or do we say, “since he is in a terrible situation, any decision he makes is not really well informed.” But there is a human being in the middle of that debate. So, we’re looking at how to do our job in a way that keeps that person as a priority. None of this is easy.

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