UPDATE: IOM member states have rejected the US nominee, Ken Isaacs as director general. After three rounds of voting, his name was withdrawn from the list of candidates for securing the fewest number of votes. This is the first time in decades that an American will not helm this agency.
Portuguese politician and EU diplomat Antonio Vitorino secured the requisite two thirds majority and will become the next head of the IOM. Incidentally, he served in Antonio Guterres’ cabinet when Guterres was Prime Minister of Portugal.
On June 29, member states of the International Organization for Migration will elect a new executive director. Under normal circumstances, this would not be much of an affair: an American has served as executive director of the IOM for over 50 years; by tradition whomever the American government nominated the lead the IOM would lead the IOM.
But these are not normal circumstances.
For one, the policies of the Trump administration at the southern US border runs contrary to the IOM’s mission statement that “humane and orderly migration benefits migrants and society.” Also, the man the Trump administration nominated to lead the IOM, Ken Isaacs, has tweeted disparagingly of the religion of Islam and claimed climate change is a hoax.
This is posing a rare challenge to the tradition that an American serves at the helm of the IOM. But for the rest of the world, the decision to back an alternate candidate is not so simple: if countries fail to elect Isaacs, there is concern that the Trump administration might retaliate by withholding funding for the IOM.
The International Organization for Migration was created in the wake of World War Two to help countries deal with mass displacement in Europe.
It has evolved over time into an entity that supports both migrants and countries that experience migration by lending certain technical capacities and providing assistance in times of emergencies. For example, as the Libyan civil war intensified in 2011, the IOM organized airlifts of migrant workers from Nepal and Bangladesh out of the county. The IOM is also a platform in which countries can come together to adopt common strategies and set common standards and norms around migration issues more broadly.
In February, the Trump administration tapped Ken Isaacs, a former Bush administration official and longtime humanitarian professional, to replace the IOM’s outgoing chief, William Lacy Swing. Weeks later, reporters uncovered a series of tweets and other public statements from Isaacs in which he said disparaging things about Islam. (He’s since apologized.) CNN also uncovered statements from Isaacs in which he seemed to cast doubt on climate change. (He’s since affirmed he believes climate change is real.) He’s also tweeted eyebrow-raising comments on the topic of migration
“#immigration #wall #Austria #Switzerland consider#buildingawall in #Alps to control their borders from refugees”
These comments have already cast some doubts about his suitability for the role — and that was before the Trump administration began a policy of systematically separating migrant parents from their children at the Southern US border. Ken Isaacs had not disavowed this practice in any public statement, even as other American heads of UN agencies, like UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore, have condemned it.
The policy of migrant family separation at the border has drawn widespread condemnation and is the most visible sign of the Trump administration’s hostility towards laws and norms that govern the movement of people across borders. But behind the scenes, too, this administration is abandoning engagement on this issue.
One of the most important tasks of the next director general will be to marshall global support for a new Global Compact on Migration. This is a non-binding international agreement intended to set some common standards for how countries approach migration and migrants. It is a fairly wide reaching accord, covering everything from enhanced criminal intelligence sharing about smuggling networks, to attempts at norm-setting around how governments should treat unaccompanied minors.
But the Trump administration last year announced it was withdrawing from these negotiations. That move inspired two countries to put forward candidates to challenge the status quo. Portugal nominated diplomat António Vitorino, Costa Rica nominated IOM’s deputy director, Laura Thompson.
This has set up a rare dynamic at the IOM in which countries may feel compelled to back a non-American candidate.
But as they do so, they face the implicit threat that the United States may withhold its funding for the IOM, which amounts to about one third of the group’s billion dollar budget, if their candidate fails. This is not some theoretical outcome. The Trump administration has already signaled its willingness to withhold funding from UN agencies as a form of political retribution. Earlier this year, the Trump administration froze payments to the UN agency that provides humanitarian relief for Palestinian refugees after members of the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to condemn the Trump administration’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
The election on Friday will be held by secret ballot. A candidate needs the support of two thirds of the IOM’s 169 member states. If after three rounds of voting no candidate emerges, the candidate with the least amount of support is taken off the ballot. If a candidate then receives an absolute majority, that candidate is voted on alone by the entire membership. If even then he or she cannot obtain the requisite two thirds support, the entire election process starts anew.
Most observers with whom I’ve spoke believe that Isaacs is still the clear frontrunner. But the fact that his candidacy is being challenged at all is yet another sign that the world is growing uneasy with the Trump administration’s approach to international migration.