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IOM Director General William Lacy Swing.

INTERVIEW: ‘It is important to let the positive side of migration be told’ – IOM Director-General

IOM Director General William Lacy Swing.

INTERVIEW: ‘It is important to let the positive side of migration be told’ – IOM Director-General

Migrants and Refugees

Every day, for the past three years, just over a dozen migrants have died on average, or one person every two hours, according to William Lacy Swing, Director-General of the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), in a message to mark the International Migrants Day, 18 December.

“A report arriving on my desk twice weekly tells a tragic story,” says Mr. Swing in his opening sentence, adding that the report he receives at his desk details the number of migrants who have died.  “They die when the vessels smugglers cram them into sink, they die of exhaustion crossing deserts, or much worse they die when those holding them captive – in places like Libya – take everything they and their families can give, only to murder and bury the migrants in mass graves.”

The UN migration agency calculates that today one in every seven people in the world is a migrant – “someone living, working and starting a family somewhere other than his or her habitual place of residence,” says Mr. Swing. “And, even though so many are just trying to live, too many are dying,” he adds.

Mr. Swing’s knowledge about the issue is backed by years of experience. “We have had 65 years of getting to know about migrants at IOM,” he says, adding, “And we know that, wherever migrants die during dangerous journeys, many could have avoided their fate had they had information about the risks ahead or opportunities for a better life closer to home.”

This year, on 19 September, IOM was welcomed to the United Nations family as a related agency during a UN General Assembly high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.

In the following interview with UN News, Mr. Swing speaks about IOM’s place in the UN system, the issue of migration and the need for a global shift in the perception of migrants.

UN News: William Swing just start by saying what the significance is, of this integration between the IOM and the UN; what are the benefits for the IOM and what do you hope the benefits will be for the United Nations overall?

William Lacy Swing: Perhaps I should go back and tell you why this happened when it did. I always say that in a way the earth moves beneath our feet in several ways. First of all, in the last 5 to 6 years migration has become a truly global issue. It is sort of a mega trend of our century, with more people on the move than ever before and more forced migrations and greater tension. So all governments now have migration as at least one of their priorities. Secondly, 2015 was a real important year for the United Nations and for migrations because if you take the Sendai Disaster Risk Reduction Framework of March 2016 or the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] of last September, or the Paris Climate Change Agreement of December 2015, [you have the UN] for the first time ever have a written mandate to deal with migration, and we are outside of that. So if you want to be a real player in the SDGs, then you need to be inside. In addition to that, there was the consideration that we are well known to the current leadership in the UN and to some of the major leaders of the world. Many of whose term will end in December or January. So we thought this would be an appropriate time to do this. So that’s the main reason we are coming in, but I think in the end there are 165 member states and we decided to go in because we thought that this is the best way to help migrants and help our member states.

... wherever migrants die during dangerous journeys, many could have avoided their fate had they had information about the risks ahead or opportunities for a better life closer to home.

UN News: So would you say you bring expertise and experience of longstanding?

William Lacy Swing: 65 years of experience. We were twined or joined at the hip with UNHCR in 1951. The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees [Antonio Guterres] used to say that the problem was they lost IOM to a birth certificate, and now we found it again after 65 years. So we’ve now come into the UN. Meanwhile, over the 65 years we’ve grown – we are probably more than 50% in the UN system already: we use the UN grading and salary structure; we are in the security system and the retirement system; we’re in the cluster system – we run the shelter cluster in natural disasters; I’m the champion of the UN humanitarian system for preventing sexual exploitation and abuse for example. So, we were sort of partially in the UN already, making the transition very simple.

UN News: So what benefits will it bring to the UN overall? How will you bolster the UN’s work now that you are part of it?

William Lacy Swing: Well as I said in my remarks at the General Assembly on 19 September, for the first time the UN will now have a UN migration agency. For the first time they will have the global reach that we have – which is ten thousand people in 500 places on all five continents – which will give you a lot of ground, truth and knowledge, plus the 65 years of experience, as we’ve evolved with the migration issue. I think also our business model, perhaps will be something that will interests other agencies. By that I mean, we had a one and a half billion dollar budget last year, and we used only 50 million – about 2% – to run the organization. And of the 10 thousand people, we only have 300 in headquarters. So it is a very lean administrative structure, which I think stands in contrast to some of our sister agencies.


UN News: What are the key differences in terms of how you work, in emphasis, between the IOM and of course the UN’s longstanding refugee agency? Some people will wonder, you know, they think migrants and refugees are often the same.

William Lacy Swing: Yes, there is a lot of confusion in the public mind and for understandable reasons. The way it works with the UNHCR-IOM relationship is that once the UNHCR has made a refugee status determination (RSD), and there is a country that is ready to receive the refugee, normally the file passes to IOM and we do all of the operational activities. We do all the medical exams – about 250 thousand a year. We do cultural orientation for Australia, Canada and the United States. We do the transportation and we do everything that’s required to get them to their new home, and that works very well. We’ve always had a good understanding, they [UNHCR] are our closest traditional partner, but we go beyond refugees. We do others. Refugees are somewhat less than 10% of 244 million migrants. So the other migrants are people like victims of trafficking, the sick and the elder on the move, pregnant women on the move, tens and thousands of unaccompanied minors, people going to join their families, students. So that all comes under our ambit, and we do that. We do lots of unusual things: we do out-of-country voting, in order to have more political stability that way; we did the reintegration of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka; we’ve been asked to help with the reintegration of child soldiers in Colombia, and so on.

UN News: So you are confident that you are bringing things into the UN that currently are not being practiced or are not falling under some agency’s authority or jurisdiction? 

William Lacy Swing: That is actually quite right, I had not thought of it that way, I agree. That’s right. We also do for example land and property settlements because after a war, if the person wants to come back their country and someone is in their house or sitting on their land they won’t come back. So we try to sort out those things, and try to remove as much as possible elements that push people along a migratory route unwillingly.

I think also for migrants they will see this [incorporation of the IOM into the United Nations] as a boost to them because they have a voice and a seat at the table.

UN News: So are you also confident that there won’t be any sort of inefficient overlaps, if you like, between the work that you’re doing and the work that the refugee agency does? That you will be working in parallel.

William Lacy Swing: Yes, there will be areas like, for example, the internally displaced persons – we have 200 people inside Syria that are doing only assistance to IDPs. Plus, there is a lot of overlap with other agencies; we work closely with ILO, on labor migration. We work with UNICEF on anything involving children – like the Colombian children I mentioned. We work with UNDP on things like border management, so what I think this will do is, it will give us a greater coherence – and we had it where we were sort of outside the tent but now that we have a seat at the table it allows us, I think, to knock the rough edge off the position and bring us together. 

UN News: And what fundamental difference do you think it will make in the lives of migrants and refugee having the IOM now working within the UN?

William Lacy Swing: Well that is the key question. If I had not thought that it would improve the lives of the migrants I never would have recommended this to the member states. But we think for one thing, the voice of migrants needs to be heard in UN circles, and as it stood before, it was fairly faint because we were outside the system. It’ll also give us greater access to information, very important information on projects. To be very frank, it will give us more access to funding because previously we were excluded from the multi dollar trust funds and we need to have access to them. We are number 5 or 6 in terms of CERF [Central Emergency Relief Fund] funding – we get about 10% of the 300 million.

UN News: Would it make conditions easier in the field in practical terms, now that you can work within the UN family?

William Lacy Swing: I think so, [on a technical level] a lot of countries did not give us privilege and immunities. They confused us with an NGO, which we are not – we are an intergovernmental organization up to now – and so that will simplify things, and it will also clarify in the minds of people who don’t know who we are or what we are. I think now that we are in the UN and now that China has joined, a number of countries will now look at us much more seriously in terms of membership. We have 165 members now, and I think we will get fairly close to universal membership in the next couple of years.

UN News: As you said, we have the biggest crisis in terms of migration and refugees since World War II, what benefit do you hope that the people you are serving will see from this incorporation of the IOM into the United Nations?

William Lacy Swing: Well it will make us as I mentioned more coherent. I think we will speak much more with one voice on the issue. I think a lot of countries will be much more comfortable with us now that we are in the UN system. I think also for migrants they will see this as a boost to them because they have a voice and a seat at the table. But we don’t look on a lot of these issues as crises; we think that the Europeans call a crisis was really avoidable. There were early warning signals, Lampedusa and so forth, and you know that if people have been in camps for 6 or 7 years, like the Syrians, they are going to eventually head north because they can work and their children don’t go to school. So I think all of that will now be much easier to manage together as a team.

UN News: You said in your address at the Refugee and Migrants summit that there was a toxic atmosphere surrounding the whole issue of refugees and migrants. How do we detoxify and how can the IOM specifically help with that?

William Lacy Swing: I think there are ways to do it. We need to involve the media much more; the media are really our friends. We need to involve the private sector much more because they know where the jobs are; they do the training; they can be a big help and we’ve not engaged them enough. In addition to that, I think we have got to find a way – and we are doing it through several of our programs. I am a migrant is one of the projects. We have a lot of social media we are doing now, to let migrants tell their own stories and to let the private sector tell the stories of the enormous contributions that migrants made because historically migration has always been overwhelmingly positive. This great city of New York was built on the backs of migrants, with the brains of migrants and it is still being done so today, and I said it in one of the session here that “If all of the migrants – the recently arrived migrants in New York City – were to form a city they would probably be the third or fourth largest city in the United States” and the 244 million that UN has documented as being international migrants would form the sixth largest country in the world – a slightly smaller population than Indonesia, and slightly larger than Brazil – so it is a big issue, it is big factor in our life, but only the negative side is being told, and now you have the worst of all worlds because those fleeing terrorism are being suspected of terrorism. That’s the worst part of the toxic narrative. The other aspect of that is, we’ve got to show some political leadership on the question and help our people to understand that given the demographic imbalances between global north and global south our societies are all going to become more multiethnic, multicultural, multi-religious, multilingual, but if we aren’t preparing our people for that, it won’t go well.

UN News: Just to follow up, on the toxicity issue, xenophobia obviously has been identified by many people as being a growing, rising problem across societies throughout the world. What message should the UN and the IOM in particular be sending in order to calm this xenophobia down?

William Lacy Swing: As you know the Secretary-General has been concerned about this for a long time and I’m very pleased that he’s launched a programme against xenophobia – the TOGETHER campaign – that’s all very important to us to let the positive side of migration be told, because now as it stands, people are seeing, in migrants, the possibility that they are bringing in possible terrorists among them. In fact, we know from the statistics in the United States that out of approximately 700,000 cases, I think they found three – none of which proved to be in fact connected to terrorism. So I think all that can be done. We are doing a lot on social media now with the means that we have. We have the ‘I’m a Migrant’ campaign which is basically designed to let migrants tell their own story – what it is they are doing, how they’ve succeeded, what they left behind, and all the stories, too, of these social remittances they bring home, the contributions they make in investment and trade, in addition to the remittances, which is about 500 billion a year, which in its totality is more than all of foreign aid – so, we need to let them tell their story.


UN News: There’s a huge wave of migration going on from Africa presently, people fleeing from unstable, war-torn areas; areas of deep impoverishment, what’s the key message that the IOM can relay in terms of that? Clearly it’s been a very disorganized migration. How can we save more lives? Thousands have perished in the Mediterranean alone in the last few years.

William Lacy Swing: Well, the obvious thing to say is that we have to do a better job of preventing conflicts and an even better job at trying to resolve them – that’s the obvious thing – but in terms of what we can actually do, we have to get more information out, both in countries of origin and destination. In countries of origin to try to caution them and alert them to the dangers along the migratory path and let them know that this year alone 3,200 have died just in the Mediterranean, in addition to those who have died in deserts and in other areas of the world, and we’ve documented 55,000 deaths since the year 2000 and that is probably a gross underestimation because we don’t know how many died in the desert in addition to the ones in the Mediterranean, where bodies are never found. You have a kind of double jeopardy where you not only can’t come to personal closure; you don’t see the body of your loved one. And you can’t come to legal closure; you don’t know whether your spouse has died, you ask yourself, “am I a widow or a widower? We have property together can I now…” So it is a terrible situation we are in, and we have to try to warn them about these things and try to offer them some options too. We do try to help those who really want to return home, to come back in a voluntary fashion with some money to get life started again.

UN News: A lot of migrants are being exploited, through remittances – through money that they are trying to send home in order to support their families – what can the IOM do to help in terms of that?       

William Lacy Swing: You are absolutely right, the charges for remittances range anywhere from 10 to 12, to 15 per cent and even more if it’s going to Africa, very often, unfortunately. So what has to be done? We have a couple of initiatives going, one is with the Universal Postal Union in Bern, Switzerland. Using the postal system as the scheme, we have a pilot project right now in Burundi, to try to use that postal service to allow them to send money home virtually and cost free, but the goal I think the G20 had, was to try to bring it down to 3 per cent or below. Some countries have done that already. We also work with the private sector in the same regard to try to bring it down because if you’re losing 10 to 15 per cent of your hard-earned money just to send it home, that is terrible. That is really not acceptable. There is another issue here, we have to try to bring some order into the migrant recruitment system, where many migrant recruitment agencies are corrupt and criminal in terms of recruiting people under false pretenses. They bring a young woman into a country as a domestic worker, and they end up taking her passport away and putting her in a brothel. They take a young man and offer him a good job, take the passport away and take the first year or two years’ wages. This borders on the criminal, so we need to try to sort that out. We have to try and come up with a set of international standards which you could subscribe to.

We have to try to bring some order into the migrant recruitment system, where many migrant recruitment agencies are corrupt and criminal in terms of recruiting people under false pretenses.

UN News: Is there a danger overall that the international system might get overwhelmed as the flow of migrants just seems to be increasing year on year?

William Lacy Swing: That’s I think a misperception of what we are talking about. If you take the UN figure of 244 million, it’s still about three per cent of the population that’s moving. Numerically it’s higher because the world’s population has quadrupled in the last century, but the percentage is the same, 3%. It’s been that way, pretty static for years. What we are having though is the greater percentage of forced migrants because of these wars. You have armed conflicts from West Africa to the Himalayas. The conflict in Mali is over now but you have Boko Haram in Nigeria, you have unfinished conflicts in Libya and Yemen. You have Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Somalia 40 years later, Iraq, Afghanistan, and of course worst of all the war in Syria, and others that are out there. So that’s going to continue to push people out. I mean if your child had not been in school for five or six years, and you can’t work, you’ve got to do something; you’re not going to stay on the sideline.

UN News: What is the greatest single challenge you face in the years ahead?

William Lacy Swing: Right now it would probably be to change the perception of migrants, if you can’t change that you are going to, in the end, be constantly fighting an uphill battle. If you can get back to a historically accurate narrative that migration has always been historically positive, if you can get back to that narrative then you can get a more sensible dialogue. What is happening now is, rather than addressing the fears of people, politicians are capitalizing on these fears to stay in office or to get in office and to stay in, and right now to be pro-migrant does not always win votes for you. So that I think is probably the biggest challenge. That’s why this whole question of our relations with the media are so important in letting migrants start to tell their own story.

UN News: And your relations with politicians, obviously in key states as well

William Lacy Swing: Exactly, and this is why we are always available to talk. I find that we have to spend more time not only with the media but more time with the parliaments of this world because I think, generally speaking, if you can explain it to them they’ll understand how it can be managed and that there are tools there to help you manage it. Under the SDGs, I always say SDG 10.7 talks about orderly and regular migration. How do you do that in an unsafe, disorderly and irregular world? That’s what we are talking about.