Funding fears as US loses IOM leadership

António Vitorino, IOM’s new director general, delivers a speech shortly after his victory. Photo by: IOM

WASHINGTON — Washington’s candidate to head the United Nations’ migration agency was roundly rejected Friday, coming in last behind candidates proposed by two other countries, and raising fears of retaliation from its largest donor.

Leadership of the International Organization for Migration has historically been considered all but reserved for the United States. Since its founding in 1951, all its leaders bar one, in the 1960s, have been American. But in voting at its Geneva headquarters last week, the 171 member states elected António Vitorino of Portugal as the organization’s new director general. Vitorino, 61, is a former European commissioner for justice and home affairs and former deputy prime minister in a socialist government in Portugal, where he served under António Guterres.

The U.S. candidate, Ken Isaacs, had been highly controversial since his nomination by Washington in February over numerous comments on social media criticizing Islam and dismissing climate change. After the comments were published by the Washington Post, he issued a statement saying he “deeply regret[ted] that my comments on social media have caused hurt” but did not explicitly retract them.

A week before the election, 50 organizations working on migration, including International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and Church World Service, signed a letter to IOM member states that, while not mentioning Isaacs by name, said the new head of the agency should demonstrate “a record of and commitment to respecting diversity and condemning xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance.”

Commentators said the election outcome was as much about the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump as it was about Isaacs, a vice president of the Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse.


Jeremy Konyndyk, the former head of the U.S. government’s foreign disaster relief efforts during the Obama administration and a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, argued in a statement that the result represented a rejection of “the Trump administration’s own views on migration — attacking fundamental asylum rights in the United States, banning travel from numerous Muslim-majority countries, devastating refugee resettlement, and most notoriously, separating undocumented migrant children from their parents.”

Keith Michael Harper, former ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council under the Obama administration, issued a statement calling the election “Yet another sign that U.S. power, authority, and prestige has been so dramatically diminished. IOM director is seen as an ‘American seat’ and Trump was unable to place an American in it.”

Sector officials said the Trump administration’s decision in December to pull out of talks on creating a global compact on migration also undermined Isaacs’ chances. IOM, which has over 10,000 employees in offices in more than 150 countries, is the main intergovernmental body charged with promoting humane and orderly migration. It will take the lead on implementing the compact once it is adopted.

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Under IOM rules, a candidate for the director general position must win by a two-thirds majority. In the third round of voting, Isaacs received only 22 votes, compared to 68 for Vitorino, and was knocked out of the running. The Portuguese candidate won in the following round against the remaining competitor, IOM’s deputy head, Laura Thompson of Costa Rica.

Despite widespread discomfort with the Trump administration’s policies, many observers believed Isaacs still had a good chance of winning, since the U.S. is the IOM’s largest contributor, paying about one-third of the organization’s annual budget of over $1 billion.

In the months leading up to Friday’s vote, the U.S. State Department lobbied extensively and organized numerous meetings for Isaacs with officials in various parts of the world. Under Trump, Washington has also used the threat of withdrawing financial aid to pressure countries into supporting its international policies, but IOM election rules protected individual member states from such fears.

“The key thing is that it was a secret ballot,” said Jeff Crisp, an associate fellow at Chatham House and a former senior official with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Some NGO officials remained sanguine about the future of U.S. support for IOM. The State Department issued a conciliatory statement immediately after the vote that asserted: “We congratulate António Vitorino on his election and look forward to working with him. IOM is an important partner for the United States around the globe, and we are committed to working with IOM to address root causes of migration and to promote safe and legal migration.”

Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration in the Obama administration, wrote shortly before the election that anti-Muslim comments should “disqualify” Isaacs from the job.

Afterward, he told Devex that “because the IOM plays such a critical role [in] achieving the objectives of all states, including the United States, I think this vote will not have a big impact” on U.S. support for the organization. He pointed to IOM programs such as those directed against human trafficking, assistance to newly resettled refugees, and voluntary repatriation of vulnerable migrants to their countries of origin.

But some observers have long voiced concerns that Washington might reduce its support for IOM if its candidate was not chosen, following previous actions against the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNESCO, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Characterizing the election result as a “stinging rebuke” to Washington, Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at CGD, stated, “I would be very surprised if the United States did not take some retaliation” against IOM.

Observers noted that IOM’s budget is largely “project based,” and Washington might decide to shift its funding to programs in the Western hemisphere that it sees as more important for the U.S.

IOM’s new head, Vitorino, will succeed William Lacy Swing, the U.S. diplomat who has headed it for two five-year terms, in October. Observers say one of the biggest challenges he will face is Europe’s crisis over migration. Just hours before he was elected on Friday, European heads of state concluded marathon talks with an agreement that includes a commitment to explore the controversial idea of establishing screening centers for migrants outside of Europe, most likely in North Africa.

Swing had expressed serious reservations about the idea, and a number of NGOs are concerned that European leaders may sacrifice the rights of migrants in favor of political priorities.

“The thing to watch,” said Chatham House’s Crisp after the election, “is the extent to which IOM assists the European Union in whatever strategy it has come up with.”

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About the author

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    Burton Bollag

    Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. He was based for a number of years in Europe (Geneva, Prague and Bratislava) and as chief international reporter for Chronicle of Higher Education reported widely from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also done radio reporting (for NPR from Geneva) and TV reporting from various locations.