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E.g., 06/21/2018

“The Missing Piece in the Globalization Mosaic”: A Conversation with IOM Director General William Lacy Swing

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“The Missing Piece in the Globalization Mosaic”: A Conversation with IOM Director General William Lacy Swing

Editor’s note: On one of his last official trips to Washington, DC before his term ends in September 2018, Ambassador William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), sat down with MPI Senior Fellow Kathleen Newland to discuss IOM’s accomplishments during his decade at the helm, negotiation of the UN Global Compacts dealing with migration and refugees, and challenges facing IOM as it joins the UN system.

What follows is a transcript of the conversation.

Kathleen Newland: Thank you so much for joining us today, Bill. It’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to talk to you.

You’re nearing the ten-year mark as Director General of the International Organization for Migration, and these have been momentous years. You’ve been the head of that organization at a time of serious migration crises all over the world, most recently in Bangladesh and Myanmar. And of course, the crisis in the Mediterranean in 2014-15 really brought migration and refugee flows to the attention of the whole world, partly because they were affecting European countries.

But alongside these crises there have been some positive developments in your field. The UN has finally agreed to take up migration as a global issue, first by including it among the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, then by agreeing to negotiate a Global Compact for Migration, and it was at that time the IOM formally entered the UN system as a related agency. How is this going to change the agency that you have led through this tumultuous period?

William Lacy Swing: Thank you very much Kathleen, it’s really an honor to have this opportunity to share with you some thoughts and answer some of your very, very good questions there.

Before I get to the question on how the UN relationship changes things, let me comment on what you just said, because it’s very accurate and very interesting. When I came to this position in 2008, I must tell you it was very difficult to get a longer conversation going on migration. You would get a few sentences in, and then people would want to go onto something else. And that changed almost overnight because of the events you mentioned.

We now have armed conflicts, almost a dozen of them, from the western bulge of Africa to the Himalayas and beyond, with little hope of any short- to medium-term solution. We’ve had the results, of course: the outflows of people, collapsing economies, war, etc. So, anything we’ve been able to do in terms of protecting and assisting migrants is because we are now, and for the last maybe seven or eight years, riding the crest of a wave called migration, which in many ways is the missing piece in the globalization mosaic. And it’s likely to be a megatrend for the rest of this century, given what we know now about demographic predictions and the other drivers of migration.

“When I came to this position in 2008, I must tell you it was very difficult to get a longer conversation going on migration. You would get a few sentences in, and then people would want to go onto something else. And that changed almost overnight.”


In terms of entering the UN system in 2016 after 65 years or so of existence—why did we not go in earlier? Well, it wasn’t only that our Member States weren’t very keen on it, but because of all that we know now, the driving forces, and the agreements that were signed in 2015, those being the Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda in July 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals at the General Assembly in September, and of course the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015. As an intergovernmental organization, we were sort of outside all those agreements, with no access either to information or funding.

We also had a constellation of personalities who we knew would be no longer in office in January 2017. So, this was of course President Barack Obama, because Washington had always been opposed to our going into the UN. We had the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, who knew us well and respected us and liked us, thought we were doing good work, and we had Jan Eliasson, the Deputy Secretary-General who was very favorable toward us and who was our negotiating partner, so we said now is probably the time to go in.

KN: Well, it’s interesting that you mentioned migration is sort of the missing piece in globalization, because we have large-scale agreements in so many other areas, on movement of money, movement of goods, and now on climate change and so on. But with the exception of refugees, where there is a longstanding international regime, migration has been sort of the stepchild of the international system.

From the movements you’ve described in the UN and literal physical movements on the ground, this is beginning to change, as it’s become such a high priority and such a hot-button issue for so many governments. It’s not the easiest time to be leading an international migration agency!

WLS: No, but I’m extremely grateful that we’re as far along as we are. 2016 was the defining year, not only because of our entering the UN system, but more importantly because everyone agreed that there should be these two compacts. We’ve never before had the heads of state of the world assemble for a General Assembly meeting to talk about migration and the solutions to that, so it’s already a historic occasion just to have gotten this far. And whatever we get out of the compact will be so much better than anything we’ve ever had before.

And, we’ve increasingly recognized that there are these mixed flows, mixed migration groups of people, and that for many of them there is, as you mention, no legal framework for protection or assistance. You have people who are going to join their family to reunify. At least 50 percent of people on the move today are women, many of them now moving for professional reasons, often traveling with children. You have victims of trafficking, you have the sick and the elderly, all sorts of people out there for whom not only is there no protection but there is no regard either.

“We’ve never before had the heads of state of the world assemble for a General Assembly meeting to talk about migration and the solutions to that, so it’s already a historic occasion just to have gotten this far.”


And this is all taking place in a period of almost a countercyclical reaction of the international community, of antimigrant, antirefugee sentiment, which basically is part of the challenge with negotiating the Global Compact, because it has to be negotiated in a hostile atmosphere. We have many countries who are suffering from refugee amnesia, to use [former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy] Javier Solana’s term, who have forgotten that UNHCR [the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] and IOM were established in 1951 precisely to take European refugees to safe shores and new lives. We have people who are now trying to preserve and protect societies that no longer exist. Where isn’t there a multiethnic society anymore? So, it’s a rather peculiar kind of atmosphere in which we’re working.

KN: And yet you’re the International Organization for Migration. So, despite the fact that states may look to you for assistance, as the Global Compact aspires to a state of safe, orderly, and regular—by which they mean legal—migration, there are so many obstacles to the safety of migrants. And not only refugees but other migrants who are not formally in need of international protection because their own governments will not protect them, but just are vulnerable because of the dangerous journeys they’re taking and the uncertainty of their reception in the places they’re aiming to go. How can IOM help states manage these flows in a more orderly way that’s safer?

WLS: Well that’s of course a key question for how we go forward, isn’t it? First of all, we need to be working with governments to engage in programs of public information, public education. We cannot blame the people for having fear of the other, if we’re not giving them evidence to the contrary. Namely our reading at IOM is that migration has always been overwhelmingly positive and beneficial to countries. So, we need to try to find a way to change the narrative. I think the media and interviews like this are extremely helpful because the word can go out there. Because what’s happening with the antimigrant sentiment is not only are we endangering migrants’ lives, but we’re denying ourselves their contribution, which is the irony of the whole thing.

So we have to change the narrative if we can, we have to help people, help countries and their populations embrace diversity, because our reading is that given the driving forces that we know of, that all of our countries are going to become almost inexorably, increasingly multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious, multilingual. And if we don’t prepare our people for that, it won’t end very well. This is the issue and the challenge.

“We have people who are now trying to preserve and protect societies that no longer exist. Where isn’t there a multiethnic society anymore? So, it’s a rather peculiar kind of atmosphere in which we’re working.”


KN: As you say, if you look at it in the long term, the most successful societies, the most dynamic cities, are the ones that have embraced diversity and have handled it well.

WLS: Well I’ll give you one example, just as a quote. We have done a study with McKinsey Global Institute, and one of the findings there is that although international migrants over the last 40 years haven’t changed very much—the percentage is about 3.5 percent of the world’s population—what has changed is that we’ve had a quadrupling of the world’s population in the 20th century. So, numerically there are many more people but percentage-wise it’s the same. These 3.5 percent of the world’s population produce 9 percent of global wealth in terms of GDP [gross domestic product] and that’s 4 percent more than if they had stayed at home. So that’s the kind of evidence we need to deliver so that people can say, “Well, let’s give this a chance.”

KN: Indeed, and that’s part of the job I suppose of the IOM, to assist its Member States to strengthen their capacity to manage migration so it doesn’t seem so frightening.

WLS: And that even includes legislation. I mean, certainly one of the things we hope will come out of the Global Compact is that there should be laws that decriminalize irregular migration, that prohibit putting children and women into detention because they don’t have proper papers, things like that that can be done on the legal side.

KN: Yes, whereas the trends seem to be in the opposite direction, from regarding migration as an administrative violation to really criminalizing it. And that’s very problematic.

I’d like to talk a little bit about IOM. It’s evolved considerably over your tenure as Director General—I’ve known the agency for longer than that and it’s really taken sort of a new place in the constellation of international agencies, partly because your issue has achieved so much greater prominence. But I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the changes over IOM that you have seen over the last ten years that you think are the most significant.

WLS: Well thank you for that. It’s difficult to address that, however. I don’t want to be seen as taking credit for anything, because it’s been a group effort for the agency as a whole. Let me see how best to address that. First of all, I think that we recognized early on in my time that we needed to restructure the organization. This is simply a very mechanical thing, but we had posts out there that were called Missions with Regional Responsibility, which were largely fictional in nature. Number one, they had no money to be regional, and secondly, they were in competition with the posts they were supposed to be helping, for the same funds for projects. So, we got rid of that and put in place nine regional offices around the world and we really sort of delocalized a lot of the responsibilities of these posts, so we were closer to the people who were doing the work.

“We also built the organization in the last ten years very strongly on partnerships—we cannot do it alone and we shouldn’t try to.”


We put in place a Migration Policy Coordinating Committee and a Management Coordinating Committee, which have functioned I think quite well to get into the policy and management issues. So that, just on a technical level I think, was very helpful. I think also we realized we had to do more in terms of professionalism—we knew that we were good at operations, because everybody said, “They’re good at operations—they can walk, but can they talk?” You know, they can do field exercises, but can they make policy? And we got much more heavily into policy, and one of the suggestions I’ll be passing on to my successor when that’s known will be that we should probably begin to look at possibly a department of policy planning. Because what we did in the restructuring of 2008-09 was to give policy responsibility to each of the four departments, [and] that would now need to be much better coordinated. One of the concerns that has been expressed in the UN family has been that IOM needs to be stronger on policy, when in fact we’ve done a lot on policy, we’ve been very weak in communicating what we’ve done on policy, so those are some of the things that have happened.

I think also professionalism in terms of more training, more crosscutting exercises with one another, so that we begin to talk about the whole person within IOM—people who can not only operate but who can work on an even level with ambassadors, heads of aid agencies, etc. I think we’ve made some progress there. We have to continue it, but I think our people are now considered much more rounded than perhaps earlier.

We also built the organization in the last ten years very strongly on partnerships—we cannot do it alone and we shouldn’t try to. We’ve expanded enormously the number of observers but also the number of real partners on the ground, and that’s wonderful to see when it happens. When the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees [António] Guterres and I flew down to the Libyan border after [Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi fell in February of 2011, we were seen as doing it together, we did this together. We evacuated a quarter of a million migrant workers to 54 countries, and we got strong financial support. The international community liked this, they said, “You’re working together, that’s the way it should be.”

And then finally, I think we put a lot of emphasis on Member State ownership. We received a budget increase of 4 percent for three consecutive years. Had I requested it, it would have been turned down flatly, but this was something done by a Member State committee that they set up themselves. The reason we’re in the UN today is because the Member States set up a committee called IOM-UN Relations. They had 19 meetings over three years, and then they themselves concluded IOM should go in the UN. It wasn’t our doing.

KN: Ah, that’s interesting. And you have a lot more members than you used to?

WLS: We had 123 when I started, we’re up to 169 now, and we have at least three new members who will be coming in on June 29. So yeah, it’s about 50 more than we had, so about five a year.

KN: Well, that’s a very healthy rate of increase!

WLS: And we want to continue working toward universal membership.

KN: You’re getting quite close on that score and have brought in some of the countries that are really major players in the world migration scene. I mean, China, and Saudi Arabia, which is such an enormous player as a receiving country of migrant workers. And one of the things I suppose that’s driving this increase in membership is that there are so many countries out there that really do need migration policy assistance, advice, and knowhow really to manage these groups of people as you mention. So many countries are becoming both origin countries and destination countries at the same time, which really changes attitudes very dramatically.

You mentioned partnerships and in addition to the countries, you’ve developed some pretty innovative partnerships with other kinds of actors. You mentioned the McKinsey Global Institute but there’ve been others—the Economist Intelligence Unit, the polling organization Gallup—and this indicates to me that there is a lot more to migration than just the intergovernmental relations.

WLS: Absolutely. There are many other actors out there. I’m glad you mentioned that, because we feel that in the future one of the responsibilities and challenges that we have is really to develop our capacity for data and data analysis. But we cannot do it on our own, we don’t have the capacity.

We’ve established a Global Migration Data Analysis Centre in Berlin, with strong support from the German government. We were pleased about that, but it’s done in partnership. You mentioned McKinsey Global Institute, the Economist magazine, the EIU unit there, Gallup World Poll, the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], and others. And we want to do it on a consortium basis and give everyone credit, that’s the only way it’ll work. And then people know that all these sources have come together, so it makes the data much more reliable.

We also have another kind of data, which is the Displacement Tracking Matrix, which has sort of been spun out of whole cloth. It basically is a series of thousands of local collectors who allow us to put together a profile of the displacement in a country, so that we know where the people are, what the family units consist of, what the gender breakdown is, what their principal needs are, and you can make a much more targeted and more economical emergency intervention. And you know, it’s being used by most UN agencies now. It’s a form of data collection for a specific purpose. And now, for example, we’ve just done data collection in Libya. We have tracked 400,000 migrants in Libya—we believe there are more, but that many we know are there, and therefore you can start planning for that.

“There’s never a day that goes by that I don’t have some reason to be proud of our people in the field.”


KN: Alright. And one of the more notable accomplishments of IOM just within the last year has been emergency evacuations, humanitarian evacuations from Libya, in which you’ve again been working with UNHCR in Libya—that seems to be a recurring theme.

WLS: We do joint interviews together [with UNHCR] to make sure that no one we’re sending back is being sent back to danger. We can only, according to our constitution, do voluntary returns. We have returned close to 30,000 since January 2017. I have a report every day of at least one chartered flight leaving, with migrants who were in detention, in Libya—in Tripoli, in Misrata and elsewhere—who want to go home, and they go home with a small financial package. But we’re tailoring it now to include the local community to which they’re returning, so that there’s some sustainability to it. It was a little rocky at the beginning and we had a lot of bad publicity on it, some major newspapers reporting that the migrants were unhappy, etc., partly because we had to surge a lot of people in the area from Senegal to Cameroon, in 13 countries. But now it’s smoothed out a bit and I think it’s going quite well, and it’ll be a new form of the voluntary return program where you help the local community also, so I think more sustainable.

KN: That’s incredibly challenging and of course nobody is happy when their migration dreams have been disrupted and they’ve ended up in a dangerous situation in a Libyan detention center. Going home is the best of a poor set of options, I suppose.

So you’ve travelled, in economy class, to some of the most troubled places in the world, like Libya, like Congo, South Sudan, and the Myanmar-Bangladesh borders, and so on. Such troubling and difficult situations. But I wanted to ask you, what are some of the most rewarding things you’ve seen resulting from the work that IOM has done, even in those extremely difficult situations?

WLS: Well as a general statement I would say, and I said to our colleagues here in Washington at a town hall meeting, there’s never a day that goes by that I don’t have some reason to be proud of our people in the field. Specifically, [when] High Commissioner Guterres and I evacuated 250,000 migrant workers from Libya successfully to 54 countries. That was very, very rewarding because these people were taken out in conditions of dignity, were received on the other end, and a lot of the countries that received their migrants home then asked us to give each migrant a certain amount of money to start life again.

I would say also our contribution to the resolution of the Ebola crisis. We were asked to set up the first Ebola treatment centers outside the capital of Monrovia in Liberia. We ran the Ebola training institute in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and we did the emergency operation centers in Guinea. We’re very proud of that, because what I did was I sent about 200 people into that troubled area of Ebola, and I had no specific insurance to cover them. They went there at great risk to their lives—I took a big chance, and they all came out well. In fact, one of my colleagues I sent there, after he’d been there two weeks, was offered a promotion to go to another post, and turned it down. He said, “Nope, I have work to do,” and stayed on. So that’s the sort of thing that makes you proud.

I think the work we’re doing now, taking people out of detention centers, what we’re trying to do with the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh, what contribution we can make to the Global Compact, things like that, there are many, many examples. I don’t want to be seen as bragging. I’m very proud of our people because they’re the ones who are doing the work. We at headquarters are there to support them, but there are many reasons.

KN: The IOM’s involvement in the Ebola crisis points to one of its strengths, repeatedly cited, which is really the ability to get things done. You have the reputation of being an agency that can deliver quickly, at scale. And there must be many instances when governments and other agencies are asking you to do things that are a little bit outside your mandate of migration, but things need to get done. And IOM is often the one to do it.

WLS: It’s such a crosscutting issue, you can always identify a migration connection.

KN: Indeed. Well, you’ve been at IOM for almost ten years now, and before that among other things you headed the largest UN peacekeeping operation that was ever mounted, in [the Democratic Republic of the] Congo. You’ve been ambassador to five African countries and Haiti, and that’s not all—those are just some of the highlights. It’s an extraordinary record so far. I wonder if I could ask you if there are things you are looking forward to doing when you have a little more time to call your own.

WLS: That’s a very thoughtful question, thank you very much. I haven’t really thought that much about it because I still have so much to do before I leave. No, I would like to now enter into a period of reflection on what I’ve done, because I’ve moved around so quickly that I’ve never had a chance to set down my thinking or do an oral history, and I would like to see what is lost in the cobwebs of my mind that I can still resuscitate. I have fairly good long-term memory, and I’d like to—not because I think I have anything particularly astute or profound to say, but simply for my own peace of mind—try to record it and reflect on it, and say, “What have I learned from this? Is there something here worth passing on, if nothing else at least to my family?” So, I want to do some of that, a period of reflection, and perhaps some writing. And I’m going to spend a lot of time obviously doing some of the tennis games that I didn’t get to do, things like that, and seeing more of the family, and trying to, not to stay engaged, but to keep up at least with the issues.

“I would like to now enter into a period of reflection on what I’ve done, because I’ve moved around so quickly that I’ve never had a chance to set down my thinking or do an oral history.”


I will not in any way try to do anything to breathe down anyone’s neck in any position I’ve had before. I’ve made a point of trying never to go back to countries where I was ambassador simply because, you know, we are actors on a stage and we play a part for a period of time, and the only thing is whether people say the person was good in this role or mediocre, or does one even remember you played the role. So that’s the sort of thing I want to avoid, hanging around, you know.

KN: Well I’m sure that people will be beating a path to your door to take advantage of your experience and indeed to capture some of the lessons of that extraordinary record that you have accumulated.

It’s really been a tremendous honor to work with you Bill, and I wish you all the best as you charge ahead over the next few months in wrapping up this extremely challenging period in the history of the IOM.

WLS: Thank you very much Kathleen, MPI has been one of our great partners, and we look forward to continuing that strong partnership.

KN: Thank you for that.