12th Dec 2023


Who's next to lead International Organization for Migration?

  • On 15 May, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will elect its next leader. Immigration is a politicised mess (Photo: Miko Guziuk)
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On 15 May, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will elect its next leader. Just like five years ago, the contest is not without controversy, with member states divided over prospective candidates. However controversial these elections are, they can be an opportunity for change and reform in IOM, which is still very much needed.

In 2018, as the current leadership began, I reflected on the tasks before the incoming director general of the UN's migration agency.

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Immigration, while a historic global reality, was — as it is now — a politicised mess. I called for the new IOM leadership to promote change and reform, to "broker deals, nurture debates, foster innovations, and spot concrete opportunities and entry points for reform." Reform and change take time, but in many ways the migration reform agenda is sliding backwards, not moving forwards.

The governance of global migration continues to be a major political challenge: the sense of urgency created by the climate emergency and the consequences this poses to people on the move only adds to the pressure.

Meanwhile, in Europe and beyond we continue to see nationalist political forces making it harder and more dangerous for people to move, whether they do so by choice or necessity. With economic and political instability at an all-time high in many parts of the world, the life of migrants is getting harder by the day.

IOM cannot reverse this alone, of course. But looking back over the past five years, it's unclear whether IOM has made enough progress on some of the key areas of change I highlighted back then.

The narrative of crisis and emergency has continued to dominate the political debate, only made worse by the climate crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic hit migrants and displaced people hard, but it also created unprecedented awareness of the value and contribution of the migrant workforce to economies and societies worldwide.

My sense is that IOM and the broader migration policy community have not made enough of this opportunity to harness the largely positive public attitudes towards refugees and other migrants, for example by calling for long terms work visa reforms and other measures to fill labor skills gaps which are evident in many sectors, from health and social care to agriculture and beyond.

I also called on IOM to work outside its typical and predictable partnerships. While there has been some new engagement with the private sector, which has stakes in migration, we need to see employers speak up with a much louder voice. Industries like tech or engineering are thriving due to the contributions of migration.

These industries are sincerely interested in working with organisations and governmental systems to provide economic stability to people on the move. While we see business actively engaged on refugees, largely through their corporate social responsibility offices, IOM and the migration community struggle to create a visible platform to engage with the business community on the future of work, skills and talent.

Patchy progress

Progress on implementing the Global Compact for Migration has also been patchy. Here IOM must play more of a leadership role. Sure, it cannot do it alone and shepherding the compact through the UN system to ensure cooperation while also raising much needed funds from member states is no easy feat.

But the internal UN work is also not enough — IOM needs to find allies beyond the UN system and create a much broader and stronger coalition, at global but crucially also at regional and local levels, with city mayors for example, regional bodies like the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the Economic Community of West African States or the Caribbean Community.

This is key to bring the compact closer to where it really matters, where it can make a difference and where politically viable and locally initiatives can turn it into a reality on the ground.

I am pleased that the financial reforms made in IOM have generated more revenue for the organisation, thus creating more efficient resources and support for people on the move. However, more is needed to leverage these resources to further advance the internal reform necessary to transform IOM from an under-resourced operational agency to a global leading and credible voice on one of the most urgent global policy agendas and political challenges of our time.

IOM needs to reflect and represent all the countries that support it. Building stronger relationships between the organisation and its member states is delicate and the next leader cannot afford to leave any member states behind. It is great to see the United States back on track, supporting the Global Compact and providing much needed financial support to IOM. But as more influential emerging economies grow, IOM must engage those member states more deeply.

In the last five years, the IOM hasn't changed enough to reflect the geography and diversity of global migration. Half of the organisation's staffers are European, yet IOM can only adequately serve the people it works for if they see themselves in the organisation.

IOM should represent the voices of the member states where most migrants move to and from: Mexico, Lebanon, the Philippines, Brazil and Kenya. These are critical players in designing and implementing migration policies.

The experiences of migrants themselves hold the key to creating safe, sustainable and practical solutions. We need IOM leadership that will engage directly with migrant-led organisations and diasporas and be present in the places where migrants are, both where they are leaving and where they are going.

Elections are an inflection point, and the democratic process can be healthy. The fact that the two leading contenders in the race are from the US and Europe is certainly disappointing, yet all member states can make this election count by holding them to account and demanding to see more progress in the months and years to come.

The next leader of IOM must ensure that they spend every moment and effort to bring migrant and diaspora communities, governments, cities, civil society and businesses together in new coalitions championing innovative, proactive action to finally make the most of all the opportunities that migration brings to humankind.

Author bio

Marta Foresti is a visiting senior fellow at the think-tank Overseas Development Institute and the founder and CEO of LAGO.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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