William Swing, secretary general of the International Organization for Migration. Photo by: Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

On Monday, the International Organization for Migration joined the United Nations as a related organization. If you thought it was already part of the U.N. system, you’re not alone.

The IOM has seen its profile rise in recent years as migration has become a full-on megatrend. In the world, 1 in 7 people are migrants, with the surge of forced displacement casting a dark shadow over the reality of a world on the move. More people today are displaced from their homes — 65 million — than ever before in history.

Amid the attention focused on migrants and refugees in this United Nations General Assembly, the IOM finalized its association agreement with the U.N. Devex squeezed into an elevator with IOM Secretary General William Lacy Swing, for an up close and personal interview on the sidelines of the U.N. Summit on Migrants and Refugees in New York.

You have said that being part of the United Nations will help you look horizontally across issues. Specifically with regard to climate change, how will that be the case? As you look ahead to COP22, how might being part of the U.N. change your engagement in that process?

It will give us a seat at the table and a much clearer voice in the dialogue. I mentioned the 75 million [people] living just 1 meter of above sea level. We’re very much engaged on that. I just met yesterday with the new head of the UNFCCC, Ms. [Patricia] Espinosa. We’re very much linked up with them. I think by being in the U.N., it will be a more effective partnership all around … We’ve just published the first [Atlas of Environmental Migration]. We’ll be very much engaged on that.

IOM Secretary General William Swing, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, talks about trends in global migration and mobility, and why the organization will be more effective as a part of the U.N.

As you know our audience is development professionals. What are the practical implications of this merger in terms of staffing. Do your IOM staff immediately become employees of the United Nations? How does that play out?

To be very frank, this is a very minimalist agreement. We don’t submit the budget to New York. We don’t have any particular reporting requirements. We don’t have to go to certain meetings, but we can. The director general will still be elected by the member states. It has nothing to do with New York. I’m satisfied that we can do all of this without becoming more bureaucratic or larger. We can do it without becoming slower. We can retain our flexibility … I think we can be in the U.N. without taking on some of the characteristics of some agencies that become very layered and less effective.

Do you think you’ll be able to continue to voice a critical perspective?

Yeah. I don’t see it affecting our ability to be able to advocate for positions, no. We’re going to collaborate closely with the U.N., but we don’t have to be in any way more bureaucratic or more encumbered than we would have been. Frankly, we want to retain our business model. We have 10,000 people. We only have 300 in Geneva; It’s about 2 percent. We have a $1.5 billion budget, and we run the whole organization for 3 percent of that — $50 million a year. That, we want to retain. If I don’t retain that, then I’ve not kept my obligation to the member states, because I’ve promised them that.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.