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Record-Breaking Global Migration

Credit: IOM/Gema Cortés
In a world characterised by economic crises, conflicts, and natural disasters, the uptick in migration is proving to be one of the most important geopolitical phenomena of the century. The adverse effects of climate change and environmental degradation are increasingly driving people from their homes--IOM

GENEVA, Switzerland, Oct 3 2023 (IPS) - On 14 June, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued his flagship annual report, Global Trends: Forced Displacement 2022. It states that by the end of 2022, the number of people displaced by war, persecution, violence and human rights abuse had dramatically increased by 19.1 million — the biggest increase on record — reaching a total of 108.4 million.

This record-breaking displacement resulted mainly from the war in Ukraine and the eruption of conflict in Sudan. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, in Africa’s Sahel region and elsewhere also contributed, as did prominent natural disasters related to climate change.

Rush to conflict, slow to solution

In the report, High Commissioner Filippo Grandi was right to blame this tragedy on people who “are far too quick to rush to conflict, and way too slow to find solutions,” leading to such “devastation, displacement and anguish for each of the millions of people forcibly uprooted from their homes.”

On Monday 15 May 2023, the Member States of IOM elected Ms. Amy Pope as its new Director General.

Yet, to blame the perpetrators of such conflicts is not to absolve the rest of the world for responding so appallingly to such displacements. This is inevitably irregular or illegal migration. On the day that the UN report was released, as many as 600 men, women and children perished needlessly when a human smuggler’s boat, Adriana, capsized off the coast of Greece.

In the following month of July, news photographs showed 27 bodies of African migrants along with dozens of inebriated figures stranded along the Libya-Tunisia border. A few weeks later on 21 August, Human Rights Watch reported that border guards of an important Middle Eastern country had carried out “widespread and systematic” abuse of hundreds of African migrants and asylum seekers trying to cross its border between March 2022 and June 2023.

That country has rejected the allegation as false. If the evidence proves otherwise, then we could consider this an extreme example of “a kind of grim and tragic monotony,” the phrase used by the American Quaker humanitarian Louis W. Schneider in 1954 to characterize the world’s aggressive attitude toward unwanted migrants.

Lansana Gberie

Secure borders, safe passages

Perhaps more pernicious, because more subtle and more easily replicable elsewhere, is the growing practice by wealthy countries of providing training, logistical coordination and other high-tech support to poorer countries so that those poorer countries can forcibly prevent migration to the rich ones.

Linked to such pernicious support and coordination is the recent migrant boat tragedy off the coast of West Africa, after patrol boats chased a fishing boat carrying migrants. Maneuvering in pitch darkness to escape, the migrant boat lost its way and struck rocks off a popular beachfront in Dakar, Senegal, killing at least 16 people.

No doubt those countries have legitimate, and probably even humane, reasons for their robust efforts to stop this kind of irregular and dangerous migration: thousands of young Africans have died over the years trying this perilous route. And state sovereignty requires secure borders.

Still, it is hard to shake off the impression that staunching illegal migrant flows is a greater priority than helping desperate young people — often displaced by conflict and ecological disasters — to more secure and prosperous destinations.

The issue is not just a matter of moral consideration. It is a hugely complex problem, clearly one of the great global challenges of our unequal world, and one without an easy fix. Even so, the world must find a more humane and effective way of addressing it.

Humane management of migration

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) was founded in 1951 to “help ensure the orderly and humane management of migration, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced people.”

The vision is ennobling, and IOM takes its mission seriously. The organization is currently made up of 175 member states, operating in 180 countries around the world (including my own, Sierra Leone). It employs thousands of people from diverse backgrounds in fulfilling this mission.

In March this year, as chair of the governing council of IOM, I visited two African countries where IOM has a significant presence. My first stop was Morocco — Rabat and Casablanca — where, during two days in March this year, I met with migrants, staff of IOM, senior government officials, diplomats and civil society organizations working with migrants.

Morocco is a critical migration hub — a source country, a transit point, and increasingly, a destination country for migrants. It combines border security arrangements with richer countries to its north with its own efforts to accommodate migrants, though perhaps with a lopsided provision of resources between the two.

Because of Morocco’s strategic location, the African Union in 2020 established the African Migration Observatory (AMO) in Rabat. Headed by an Egyptian diplomat, Ambassador Amira Elfadi, the observatory could potentially assist in monitoring events such as the tragedy at the Tunisia-Libya border. But when I met Ms. Elfadi, she had no staff yet. The AMO needs support for operations as extensive and energetic as those in Kenya.

The most effective combination

I had wide-ranging conversations with IOM staff in both countries, in town halls organised by local IOM leaders. Passion for the work of the organisation was very strong. Passion combined with strong technical knowledge and an eagerness to engage with migrant communities and local authorities at all levels — which I found stronger in Kenya — makes for greater effectiveness.

In May, by resounding vote and unanimous acclamation, IOM elected Amy Pope as its director general. She is a resourceful and energetic American who embodies this combination of passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm for engaging with staff at all levels, with all governments and local authorities, and with migrant communities.

A veteran migrant defender, Ms. Pope is the first woman to head this important organization since its founding 72 years ago. In her vision statement, she committed to a “people-centred” approach, defining this as a commitment to “the migrants, vulnerable people, and the communities IOM serves, IOM’s member states and its workforce.”

Since becoming deputy director of IOM over two years ago, Ms. Pope has consistently pursued this vision with a passion rare in the staid corridors of Geneva power offices. She is now one of a handful of pioneering women to lead important international organizations in Geneva, which hosts a few dozen. All of them assumed their positions within the past four years. It has been a refreshing change.

A novel leadership of a global organization grappling with a large global challenge tends to come with high expectations. It is both the attraction and a pitfall of progressive change. Either way, it will not detract from Ms. Pope’s commitment to posit that she will be as successful only in so far as the world wants her to succeed.

With the extraordinarily grim developments heralding her tenure, the world must embrace her “people-centred” approach. A failure to do so could mean unending calamities like the ones described above.

Dr. Lansana Gberie is Sierra Leone’s Permanent Representative in Geneva. He is Chair of the Governing Council of International Organization for Migration.

IPS UN Bureau


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