MMC interviews António Vitorino
“Rights and obligations”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The legal status of the millions of people on the move around the world should be no impediment to the respect of their the rights, and humane and dignified treatment, according to António Vitorino, for whom international cooperation is the sine qua non of successfully managing migratory flows.

When we observe current affairs and the political mood in many parts of the world, it appears there is a distinct anti-migrant and anti-asylum tilt. Is this a correct assessment of politics today, or is this a distortion? How would you characterise today’s attitudes to displacement and migration?

The political mood you describe is due to a variety of factors. The certain diffuse sense of crisis, feelings of injustice, political conflicts, they are not all related to migration, but it’s true that when it comes to migration and asylum, this kind of diffused feeling of uneasiness can become catalysed and channelled into anti-migration and anti-asylum sentiment. To a certain extent, this is due to current political debates in open societies towards a greater polarisation. This polarisation emphasises the negative impacts of migration instead of focusing also on the positive side. So, for me, for IOM, our key concern is to recognise that migration is a challenge for migrants, first and foremost. It is also challenging for host communities as well and we need to address this, while recognising that it brings along a number of opportunities, for both migrants and host communities. We need to focus more on the second side to have a more balanced approach.

So is it mixed migration with irregular migration that attracts the negative reactions? Because at the other end of the spectrum, regular migration is going on, it’s thriving and fairly non-problematic. Is that right?

Yes, I think that we live in a world where the flows are very complex. For us, all who are on the move need to see their fundamental rights fully respected, be treated in a humane and dignified way, irrespective of their legal status. Legal status will then determine additional rights and obligations in the country of destination, while always respecting their human dignity.

Are you finding it harder now in IOM to operate in a world where the distinction between regular and irregular is less defined, where smugglers and traffickers are less separately defined and where people who are displaced are moving together and they’re looking for the same protection and the same outcomes?

Oh, yes, definitely. From the point of view of IOM, it is important to deal with mixed flows together with other agencies, especially UNHCR, which is in charge of the specific protections accorded under the [1951 Refugee] Convention. But within these mixed flows, we also identify a large number of migrants that are on the move and may be in need of humanitarian assistance – particularly special protection for those who are in a vulnerable position – even if they are not entitled to international protection according to the Convention. And that’s why the critical part of the exercise is to afford all human beings the same dignity and the same access to fundamental rights irrespective of their legal status. Legal status determination comes in later when it is necessary to decide what is their eligibility for residence and potential access to international protection in a third country.

Do you agree that people are pushed into irregularity because of the current restrictive immigration policies and refugee policies? And if that’s the case, how do you think this should change? Or does it not need to change?

We are concerned at the fact that the evidence suggests that there are more people resorting to smugglers and traffickers in order to move. And definitely one of our key concerns is to reduce irregular migration, to prevent people from being involved with the smugglers and traffickers because those are the situations where their fundamental rights and their human dignity are most at risk. It is hard to definitively establish a link between more regular migration and less irregular migration, but it is necessary at the same time to have legal pathways for migration so that people can be fully aware that they do not have to expose themselves to criminal networks, but have an alternative in pursuing legal pathways.

Legal pathways are mentioned a lot in the new Global Compact for Migration. But do you see any contradiction between what’s been agreed in the Global Compact and actual policy and actions being implemented by the signatories?

The adoption of the Global Compact is not universal, but the vast majority of the member states of the United Nations have subscribed to it. The main characteristic of the Global Compact is its so called 360-degree view. Among the 23 objectives, some objectives are more focused on issues of interest to countries of origin, other objectives are more of interest for countries of destination. The implementation of the Global Compact, as a political platform of cooperation, is a state-led process. Each government will pick up the objectives that they consider priorities for their country, more adequate to the reality of migration in their regions. From our perspective, as an organization, we are prepared and ready to support member states in the implementation of the Global Compact according to the priorities that those countries have identified. Therefore, there is a diversity of ways of implementing the Global Compact.

The key point -and that is the added value of the Global Compact – is collective awareness of the fact that the complexity of migration today means that no single member state is able to deal with the mobility of people alone. And therefore, international cooperation, whether at the global, regional, or bilateral level, is absolutely fundamental to effective management of migration.

The UN Migration Network is specifically designed to help implement the GCM. What does IOM’s role as the Network’s coordinator entail?

The UN Migration Network aims to bring together roughly 38 entities in the UN system, all of whom have to deal with migration one way or another. So, the first objective is to bring some consistency and coherence to the way the UN system deals with migration. It replaces the Global Migration Group, but it also aims to be in line with the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2030, and the ongoing reform of the UN development system.

The UN Migration Network is also a tool to support member states in the implementation of the 23 objectives of the Global Compact. IOM as an organisation can act in this field with a double head. As an organisation, we will go on doing what we have been doing for 68 years, but as you know, IOM became an agency related to the UN in 2016, and is now within the UN system. The fact that we are the coordinator of the UN Migration Network puts us at the centre of the UN system when it comes to migration. And in that sense, we have a specific role to play as a convener, a facilitator, a coordinator of the work of the different entities in the UN system that deal with the issue.

There is an increased securitization of mobility generally, whether it involves migrants or refugees or asylum seekers, whereby those on the move are increasingly dealt with as if they were security problem. How do IOM view this development?

Historically speaking, there has always been a security dimension to the movement of people. First and foremost, for the migrants themselves, because regular migration is the safest way to migrate and irregular migration and the operation of traffickers and smugglers a threat to the security of the migrants themselves. But when you speak about security, you are referring to the way that the migratory flows are viewed, especially in countries of destination. I’ve always said that it is totally abusive to say that migrants can be portrayed as a threat to the security of the countries of destination. But having said that, I do recognise of course that there is always a minority that can have harmful intentions when moving. And so, it is quite fair to recognise that a security screening is also required when it comes to mass movements.

But it is totally unacceptable and abusive to link migration with terrorism, for instance. That is extremely unfair for the overwhelming majority of migrants that migrate regularly, that are in the countries of destination, that abide by the law. And we should not stigmatizse an entire group just because a tiny minority may have harmful intentions.

How about what we are calling the “normalisation of the extreme”, the use of measures and policies to prevent irregular migration including asylum seekers? Do you agree that many of the measures that countries (and even the EU) are putting into place today would have been regarded as extreme just a decade ago?

When you look at migration, member states are entitled to control their borders. That’s a key element of national sovereignty, and extremely important for the reassurance of all citizens, especially in countries of destination. But if you are just thinking about the global North, you can have a number of examples worldwide, including in the global South, where these kinds of policy developments are spreading.

So the difficulty we are confronted with is to ensure a balanced approach to migration policy that is not hostage of an obsessively securitised approach, but at the same time does not deny that there are a number of valid security concerns. The responsibility of civil society, of the business community, of the local authorities, of the national authorities, and of the international organisations, is to make the case for regular migration pathways that can be an antidote to abuse of migration for criminal or other security purposes.

How do you think changes in demography, climate change, economic imbalances, and the impact of AI and automation will affect future migration?

It will definitely affect future migration, but it’s not just in the future, it’s happening now. If you look at the Pacific Islands or the Caribbean, you’ll see that rising sea levels are creating arduous conditions for people to stay and remain in the places where they were born, and pushing people to move. If you look to Africa, you will see that desertification and water scarcity are already driving people to move, often alongside a number of other factors. And to a large extent, the urbanisation process that is ongoing in Africa is due to the displacement of people from rural areas where agricultural opportunities have been exhausted, who are trying to find a livelihood elsewhere.

Climate change, for a large number of people, is not just a conceptual issue or a problem for the future, it’s something that is already having a real impact, and creating obligations to the countries and to the international community to find solutions for those affected, including durable solutions for those people that are displaced, specifically those that are internally displaced in a number of countries.

Nobody can say exactly what the labour market will be in 20 years, but definitely the kind of opportunities to find a job in countries of destination for migrants will be impacted by the changing nature of the labour market in industrialised regions, whether due to technological advances, such as artificial intelligence, greater participation of women in the labour market, or the different skills that will be needed to undertake jobs. And that is an issue of concern for us because definitely shifting job opportunities can make migrants even more vulnerable than they are today. And one of the areas where we are investing is precisely on what we call “pre-departure orientation”, including human capital development, to make sure that people are prepared, have the skills not only in language, but also, soft skills, entrepreneurship, cultural knowledge, and above all, the technical preparation to find jobs in the countries of destination when labour market in key countries of destination is a moving target.

What are your teams in IOM thinking about the future demand for migrant workers? Are you expecting it to be high in developed countries where there are declining populations despite the current and future rapid spread of automation?

It is very difficult to make forecasts and quantitative forecasts are always extremely dangerous because they can be misused. It’s unfair to say that there is no demand in countries of destination. There is quite a relevant demand for labour in countries of destination, whether in Asia, the Gulf countries, in Europe, or in North America. So therefore, while we anticipate that there will go on being a strong demand, and opportunities, for labour mobility, this will be impacted by the very fast change in the shape and needs of the labour markets of the future.

Some people think that in the future, Western OECD countries may have to compete with emerging economies for migrant work, and that migrants will be in demand and have a greater choice.

Once again, I think that you are talking about the present. You are not talking about the future. It’s already happening.

Does IOM expect climate change to have a dramatic impact on human displacement?

Absolutely. The impact will be very significant. I am always afraid of giving figures because these projections are vulnerable to a fast-changing environment. But from our own assessment, we estimate that roughly 40 million people are currently living in cities that are threatened by submersion who will be impacted by climate change. If the global temperature rises 1.5 degrees Celsius we estimate that roughly 30 to 60 million people will be affected. And if temperatures rise by two degrees, the number of people impacted will rise to roughly 100 million. This does not mean all these people will migrate. Let me be very clear. But this definitely means that situations will proliferate where the drive to move is very much present. And we are talking about large numbers.

Do you think the international community will be forced to accept more legally agreed terminology and status for those displaced by climate change? At the moment no government is willing to grant somebody the status of a “climate refugee”.

I don’t know, to be honest. But I think that we should be very careful not to undermine the international protection system through the broadening of categories of protection. This would weaken the historical and very well consolidated refugee protection framework that exists. We, as IOM, work with migrants that we can see are in need of protection, especially women, children, unaccompanied minors, those who are in detention as, for instance, those who live in awful situations in Libya in detention centres. Those migrants, they are not generally eligible to refugee status, as they are not fleeing from persecution, but they are in such a vulnerable condition that they need humanitarian assistance or other forms of protection. And therefore, I think we need to find solutions for those people who are in those conditions, whether they have moved because of climate change, or because of poverty, and therefore deliver to them the assistance which is the minimum due to maintain the human dignity of those persons.

Concerning demographic changes, especially with the fast-rising population of Africa between now and 2050, should we expect to see a large number of African migrants attempting to enter Europe in the coming years?

Demographic projections show that probably in 50 years’ time, the population in Africa will double. You can see that, in Nigeria, for example, it will likely be a 400 million country by 2050. And it’s hard to think that it will be possible for Nigeria to create jobs for all these people in the years to come. So, the grounds for increased mobility is there. But at the same time, I would like to point out that today, 80 percent of those who move from one African country, move to another African country. Only a minority of migratory movements in Africa are directed towards Europe. And in practical terms, the free-trade agreement that has been established in the African Union with the protocol concerning the free movement of people will be a very relevant instrument to accommodate this kind of population growth, if it can create opportunities for economic development within signatory African countries themselves. So, it’s very premature to say that population growth will represent a linear growth in flows towards Europe.

Some people predict the future will be dystopic, with greater global inequality and mass displacement causing social unrest and so on. Are you a pessimist or an optimist when it comes to future mobility?

If I was not an optimistic, I would not be Director General of IOM. But I attempt to be a realist, and a determined person. There are challenges, yes, of course. There are obstacles, yes, of course. There are threats, yes, of course. But I think that we have a moral obligation of bringing together civil society, migrants themselves, states , public authorities, and international organisations to overcome those obstacles and those challenges, and I do believe in open societies, in rational decisions, in a humane approach to migration. And I can guarantee you that migration is not going to disappear, so we will all need to work together to ensure migrants are not only safe but have the opportunity to succeed.