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

António Vitorino, director general of the IOM, addressing the high-level ministerial meeting on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan in Geneva, September 2021. (Credit: UN Photo/Violaine Martin)

Portuguese ministry officials are in Geneva this week to promote the reelection of Antonio Vitorino as director general of The International Organization for Migration (IOM) after confirming his bid last month, pitting him against US candidate Amy Pope.

Portugal's secretary of state for foreign affairs and cooperation, Francisco André, who is attending the Global Effective Development Summit this week, is also using the visit to voice his government's support for Vitorino's second term, Mário Martins, deputy permanent representative at the Portuguese mission told Geneva Solutions.

The 66-year-old former politician’s bid comes after US candidate Amy Pope, the IOM’s deputy director general for management and reform, announced in October that she would also be running in the election race.

The bold first-move approach from the US took the International Geneva community by surprise as it came before Vitorino himself had confirmed whether he planned to run again or not, with the Portuguese keeping silent for another month. In the past, IOM director generals have tended to hold the post for two terms.

Vitorino’s appointment in 2018 broke with a long tradition of Americans holding the post – the only exception up until then being Dutch Bastiaan Haveman who led the organisation from 1961 to 1969.

He won against Ken Isaacs, the controversial candidate of then US president Donald Trump and Costa Rican Laura Thompson who, like Pope, was the IOM’s then-second in command.

Critical time for migration

A lawyer who has held several government positions, including as deputy prime minister and minister of national defense, Vitorino has presided over the IOM, an organisation of around 10,000 employees, at a critical time when it has had to respond to various crises including in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

"In his first mandate, and in a particularly challenging international context, Vitorino achieved important results in strengthening the organisation,” Portugal's department of foreign affairs said in a statement endorsing his reelection last month.

“He implemented reforms in the top management structure, increased geographical and gender diversity and established mechanisms for evaluation and accountability,” it added.

Pope, who has launched an active campaign against Vitorino, has made climate change and its confluence with other migration issues one of the cornerstones of her bid and is positioning herself as a “problem-solver and innovator” that can help strengthen member states’ engagement with the organisation.

The US has been taking steps to increase its engagement and leadership within the multilateral system, with American Doreen Bogdan Martin recently elected as chief at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Headquartered in Geneva, the IOM promotes international cooperation on migration issues and helps provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced people. The inter-governmental body has 174 member states and offices in over 100 countries,

The election will take place at a special session of IOM’s Council in June 2023.