IOM elections: what the return of US leadership could mean

Security forces watch as migrants try to enter the United States after crossing the Rio Grande River, in Matamoros, Mexico on 11 May 2023 hours ahead of the expiry of Title 42, which allowed the United States to block immigrants from coming in due to health risks. (Keystone/EPA/Abraham Piñeda Jacome)

Ahead of an unexpected race for the top seat at the United Nations’ migration agency, advocates and diplomats consider what this may mean for displaced people on the ground.

At 9 am Monday, a secret ballot election among member states will begin to determine who will prevail at the helm of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Last autumn, the agency’s American deputy general, Amy Pope, extraordinarily threw her hat into the ring to challenge her boss, the incumbent director general, António Vitorino from Portugal.  But some observers have expressed concern that should Pope win, the IOM may move towards Washington’s tough migration approach.

The election comes as concerns mount that harsher policies may replace the recently expired Title 42, a Trump-era policy  that made it easier to expel migrants coming from the US-Mexico border during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Brownsville, Texas, across the Mexican border from a massive migrant camp in Matamoros, Josh Rubin, founder of the migrant support NGO Witness at the Border, expressed his disappointment with the US response to the rising flow of people seeking to enter the country as they flee poverty, violence and the effects of climate change. 

“The only tool in the US toolbox to deal with the issue is the disincentivization of migration. It is the attempt to make it appear worse for people who want to migrate than to stay where they are or go somewhere else,” he told Geneva Solutions by phone. “If your policy is to say ‘we are going to make it really hard on you if you come here’, eventually you will drift into horrible acts of cruelty.”

A week ago, a Land Rover ploughed into a crowd of migrants queueing at a bus stand in the US border town, killing eight people, mostly Venezuelans, and injuring at least ten more. Meanwhile, roughly 24,000 law enforcement officers and an additional 1,500 troops have been stationed along the national frontier to secure entry points.

Rubin said conditions for migrants in Matamoros, one of several preferred transit points into the US, have become increasingly difficult with the sharp spike in arrivals, due to concerns of the lifting of pandemic restrictions leading to even tougher policy enforcement.  The Mexican border region is also rife with drug cartel violence, yet another issue migrants have to cope with.

Pope’s hope

Some experts fear what Pope winning the bid for the IOM lead role may mean.. The US official, who joined the UN agency in September 2021 as deputy director for management and reform, announced her candidacy last October to run against Vitorino.

Vitorino, who is close to UN secretary general António Guterres, is only the second non-US director general in over 70 years since the organisation was created. He was elected in 2018 after a nominee put forward by former president Trump was criticised for his anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric.

Pope recently took unpaid leave to focus on campaigning, visiting over 40 countries as part of a drive that has received strong support from Washington, the largest contributor to the organisation. Africa, where the IOM has been very active, has figured high on her campaign trail.

Read more: US jump starts IOM leadership election race

An expert, who has been closely following the election and asked not to be named, told Geneva Solutions many in the UN agency were “shocked” when Pope announced her run. “It created a lot of internal difficulties,” he said. “Staff viewed the move as a lack of loyalty towards the organisation.”

The American candidate has been openly critical of her boss, accusing him of being reluctant to reform the agency. Vitorino has rejected such assertions and pointed to the sharp rise in contributions to the IOM from $2 billion to $3bn over the past four years.

The expert said Pope’s individual campaign messages should not be mistaken with US ambitions. “There is an ambiguity in her messaging, where she is promising many things to the global south, but in reality she is there to implement the vision of the US which is clearly not in favour of the interests of the global south.”

He added that while the phenomenon is not new, “there is a gap between the discourse and the (US’s) action that is really obvious”.

Migration is expected to figure highly on the agenda of what is already a tightly contested race for the US presidency ahead of elections in November 2024, for which president Biden recently announced his candidacy.

‘Fundamentally colonial’

Megan Bradley, author of a book on IOM and associate professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, said that while Monday’s vote may be unique, it also represents a continuity from the past, with the possible return of a US leadership.

At a time when there are growing calls for decolonising UN governance, the presence of two candidates representing major donor blocks from the global north and the unwritten dominance of agencies by a select group of countries may appear to some like an anathema.

“It’s an indictment of where we are at now,” Bradley said. “We may talk about decolonising the system but international migration management remains a fundamentally colonial undertaking in many ways. It is therefore not surprising that we see this continued lock on an increasingly important organisation coming from the global north.”

Read more: Two in the race for IOM top job as its chief launches bid for second term

Both candidates, she said, nevertheless realise the weaknesses in the organisation’s system of funding, allowing donors to tag specific projects, which may draw money away from much needed emergency response in certain regions.

“It allows them to be nimble and quick, but also creates difficulties regarding consistency, predictability and seriousness in their engagement across certain circumstances because they have to continuously chase the money,” she said.

Several diplomats from Africa and Latin America told Geneva Solutions that beyond the election, for which many had not yet received instructions from their ministries, reform in funding would be the most important issue for the agency to tackle.

In many countries including in Latin America and the Mediterranean, the IOM works as a key partner to governments, providing services to implement policy and helping to process and support migrants and internally displaced people with information as they transit often perilous routes. It often fills a void to provide emergency support to migrants who may not qualify for refugee status.

Changing the funding structure at IOM, however, may be complicated. When IOM became a UN agency in 2016, it was agreed that it would maintain “member state assessed contributions”. In recent years, European countries have increased contributions to the agency’s core funding, but experts are wary as to whether either the EU or the US will increase donations further going forward.

Higher bar to achieve

On the Mexico side of the US border, Rubin said there was little evidence of international organisations being present, with church groups regularly providing some of the basic necessities.

IOM together with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Friday issued a joint statement welcoming “positive initiatives to expand resettlement and other regular pathways in the (Americas) but express concerns about new restrictions on access to asylum” after the lifting of Title 42 in the US.

And while uncertainties prevail over how the IOM may be able to respond to emergencies in the coming years, one thing is for sure: either candidate on Monday will need to garner support from at least two thirds of its 175 member states before clinching or keeping the DG’s seat.

With the number of member states having grown significantly since the turn of the century, such changes may weigh into future elections at the Geneva-based organisation. In 2003, the IOM counted 98 member states.

“That has changed the dynamics at IOM and may make it more difficult for the US to retain its leadership there,” Bradley said.