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‘Very Little Courage or Leadership in Refugee Crisis’ – Migration Chief

As the International Organization for Migration entered the U.N. fold, its leader, William Swing, talked to Refugees Deeply about crises, confusion and why it matters that he gets a seat at the table.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, shakes hands with William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration, after signing documents during the opening of a summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, at U.N. headquarters.AP/Julie Jacobson

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is now formally part of the United Nations. After a refugee summit season marked by interagency turf wars and squabbles over definition and duties, the IOM’s entry was one of the few permanent changes.

Outside the bureaucracy that polices global movements of people, the IOM is little understood. It is led by American William Swing, a career diplomat whose understated style can be lost amid the clamor of voices on the international stage.

A former U.S. ambassador and U.N. special representative of the secretary-general, Swing spent much of his career in tough postings such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Western Sahara.

The decision by the diplomat from North Carolina to speak out in stark terms about forced migration has been taken by some as evidence of the scale of the interlocking global crises.

“We are facing a perfect storm of a refugee crisis and very little courage or leadership in facing it,” he warned delegates at the Sept. 20 Concordia Summit in New York.

Refugees Deeply: What does the IOM’s formal entry into the U.N. system mean for migrants around the world?

William Swing: Well, if it doesn’t mean something for migrants, why do it? Right. What it means for migrants is that they will now, through us, have a seat at the table and a voice in the decision making. For example, in the high-level dialogue in 2013, I was removed from the plenary and given a much more restricted role because I wasn’t U.N. The IOM was speaker number 103. That sort of thing is less likely to happen when you’re part of the U.N., so we can do a better job of representing the migrants and letting them speak through us. In addition we’ll have access to information, for example on projects and funding.

Refugees Deeply: Some experts are concerned about conflating the terms “refugees and migrants.” Is the definition that you’ve given that “all refugees are migrants but not all migrants are refugees” changing?

Swing: That is the simple way I’ve explained it. But no, it’s not changing. Migrants are people who are moving from their place of origin to somewhere else. I moved for work from one city to another, so I guess you could say I’m a migrant worker. We need a global compact that calls for states to share responsibility for anyone on the move whether they have proper papers or not, regardless of whether they have papers or not. I know this sounds terribly idealistic.

Refugees Deeply: The arrival of the IOM in the U.N. has left some observers confused over how it will work with the U.N.’s existing refugee agency, the UNHCR. How do they work together and how are they distinct?

Swing: We, together with the UNHCR, have resettled about 6 million refugees since 1952. When the UNHCR has made a refugee determination, and there’s a country that’s prepared to take them, the file moves to IOM. We do between 250,000 and 300,000 medical exams a year. We do cultural orientation, language learning. In the case of [Canadian Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau’s 25,000, we chartered the aircraft and did the security. We do the operational stuff. Some people don’t understand how we work together. Files go to us, then we do the medical assessment, we do cultural orientation if they want it.

It used to be the greatest confusion was, who we are? Are we U.N. or an NGO? Some people don’t understand what an intergovernmental organization is, although we have 165 governments who belong to the IOM. So that will be clarified now we’re in the U.N. We’re the U.N. migration agency, although we won’t change the logo or the name of the flag. We used to hear criticism that the IOM would do anything for money. But this has never been true. In fact, when we turn governments down on a project, they get upset with us.

Refugees Deeply: Many countries ranging from the U.K. and nations in the Balkans to the island of Nauru have talked up policies designed to stop migration. Should that be a policy objective?

Swing: I have been making this point at the round tables. In talking about root causes, we mustn’t talk about impinging people’s freedom to migrate. We want root causes addressed so there’s a choice. But a lot of people are moving who want to move, not forced to move. What President Obama is calling for are three things. One, for more resettlement countries to come forward. Secondly, larger more respectable quotas. And then thirdly, this new fund he’s setting up, which I think the IOM will probably manage, to help countries who are willing to be resettlement countries but feel they don’t have the money for it.

Refugees Deeply: While the summits began global compacts on refugees and on migrants, there has been almost no mention made of internal refugees and forcibly displaced people (IDPs). Why?

Swing: IDPs are a very sensitive issue because of national sovereignty, I think that’s what it boils down to. It was not included in either of the summits because then you’re talking about dealing with people inside their own country, and many states believe they have rights over trying to protect and help them themselves. But we do a lot of it. We have 200 people in Syria working on IDPs. Some countries don’t want to talk about it. For us it’s one of the major issues. Most of the work we’re doing in Syria and Libya is IDP work.

Refugees Deeply: The IOM has faced criticism in the past for being overly focused on returning migrants. Will its new status and additional funding mean more migrants going home under your Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programs?

Swing: Forty thousand annually has been the average in the past, but last year we did 65,000 returns. We should expect that number to increase – it will. But keep in mind the key thing is that it has to be voluntary. Because voluntary we can help. And we now insist on the second “R” which is reintegration, which means a financial package so that they can go back with dignity and start life again. I wouldn’t want to project the exact figure, but I know it will be larger.

I would think the largest location for that increase would be Germany. It has the most migrants and the largest groups of probable returnees. They’re often people who don’t qualify as refugees under the 1951 Convention who haven’t been able to find their way into the job market or into studying, and have come up on hard times and they really want to go home; it’s been a tough experience for them. We work, mostly with European governments, to offer that second “R” which is a little bit of repatriation money.

In the past there’s been a lot about AVRR that was misunderstood; was it really voluntary? What’s the difference between AVRR and deportation? We had to explain that to them. A lot of the academic community and the NGO community used to criticize us for that. We hear less of that these days, partly because a lot of NGOs are also now offering return services.

Refugees Deeply: Will entry to the U.N. family fundamentally change the IOM?

Swing: We’re preserving our business model. That we will remain a proximity organization with 97 percent of our 10,000 staff in 500 places around the world where the work is done has to be done. We have a nine-to-one ratio of local-to-expat staff. And the final point is that out of a $1.5 billion budget, we run the organization for less than 3 percent and there are very few agencies that can claim that.

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