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GENEVA: The International Organization for Migration has an antiquated way of approaching its mission and desperately needs renewal, the UN agency’s second-in-command with designs on the top job told AFP.

Amy Pope, the IOM deputy head acknowledged it was “a bit awkward” to be running to unseat her boss Antonio Vitorino.

“It’s not ideal in some ways, but it’s really about the future of the organisation,” the 49-year-old American lawyer said this week.

IOM, which is due to hold leadership elections in mid-May, finds itself in the unusual situation for a United Nations agency of having a director-general challenged by a subordinate over what typically would have been a shoo-in second term.

Vitorino, who served as Portugal’s deputy prime minister and defence minister in the mid-1990s, took the IOM reins in 2018, breaking decades of US leadership at the organisation.

Pope insisted that her decision to run against her 66-year-old boss – only the second non-American to run IOM in its seven-decade history – was not about putting Washington’s pick back in charge.


“I think the nationality matters less than the frame of mind and energy levels and strategic vision and willingness to work really hard,” she said.

“This is not a retirement job.”

Pope, who has spent most of her career focused on migration issues, including within the administration of former US president Barack Obama, only started working at IOM a year and a half ago.

She said she had been “really excited” when she landed the post as deputy IOM chief, in charge of management and reform.

But she said it soon became clear to her, and to Washington, that “if we were really going to make progress, there needed to be new leadership”.

While the organisation, which serves the needs of an estimated 281 million migrants worldwide, is “very, very good at providing immediate support during humanitarian response,” she said, in other areas, “There is just a lot of room for improvement.”

Pope, who if she wins would be the first woman to lead IOM, called for finally “taking the organisation … into the 21st century”.


“We’re still kind of stuck in old ways of looking at migration,” she said, insisting “real vision” was required to bring about a much-needed culture change.

She called for a broader focus on the impacts of climate change on migration, which she dubbed “one of the most significant challenges for our generation”.

In the face of such threats, she said IOM could do far more to leverage its massive amounts of data to detect and address problems before they spark large migration flows.

She pointed out, for instance, that drilling boreholes in search of water in communities regularly affected by drought or building more stable shelters to withstand storms help people remain in their communities.

“We need to flip the conversation,” Pope said. “We can and we should begin to do interventions on the front end.”

If you only look at the people trying to make dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean or the Channel, she warned, “You have missed about 10 interventions that could have happened along the way.”

She said more work needed to be put into establishing regular migration channels, making it possible for people to move legally and safely.


Pope said communication especially needed to be dramatically improved at IOM, whose current chief has become notorious in Geneva for avoiding the media.

“There is a sense within the organisation that we need to be afraid of the story of migration,” she said.

Instead of shying away from the issue, the response to the rampant anti-migrant sentiment seen in many countries should be leaning into the story, she insisted.

IOM should focus on telling stories “humanising” the people in need, she said, but also “telling the good news stories of migration”.

“There is overwhelming evidence about the value of migration for economies, for rebuilding cities, for strengthening innovation and entrepreneurship,” Pope said.

“I think it is critical that we as an organisation lead with that.”