US challenger Pope first woman elected to lead UN migration agency

·4-min read
Antonio Vitorino is the current head of the IOM
Antonio Vitorino is the current head of the IOM

White House veteran Amy Pope hailed an "extraordinary day" after becoming the first woman elected to head the UN migration agency, promising a more "comprehensive" approach to helping migrants.

Pope, currently a deputy director at the International Organization for Migration, was elected by acclamation after her boss, former Portuguese government minister Antonio Vitorino, bowed to her lead and withdrew from the contest.

The IOM announced in a statement that she would become the organisation's first woman chief on October 1, after its 175 member states elected her to a five-year term.

"It's really an extraordinary day," Pope told reporters after the win, insisting "this is an incredible moment in time in terms of the work our organisation can do".

Pope, 49, pointed to the more than 100 million people who have already been displaced by conflicts and disasters worldwide, in addition to the many migrants simply searching for a better life.

- Climate change impact -

"With the impacts of conflicts and poverty and climate change, there will be even more work that we can do."

She is calling for "a much more comprehensive" approach to migration, including using data to identify vulnerabilities linked to for instance climate change early on, before they force people from their homes.

The IOM was founded in 1951 to handle the displacements in Europe following World War II but the agency only joined the UN fold seven years ago.

The race for the top job at the organisation came as global numbers of migrants soar, with some 281 million migrants throughout the world, according to a 2020 estimate.

After a first round of voting, Pope was just 12 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to declare victory.

Instead of allowing the vote to go to a second round, Vitorino decided to bow out of the race.

- 'Shock' challenge -

The unusually acrimonious leadership campaign had pitted the United States, eager to regain its traditional hold on the IOM's top job, against its European allies, observers said.

Within the UN system, agency chiefs who wish to take on a second term are typically shooed in without challenge, and a European diplomat told AFP Pope's candidacy "was a bit of a shock."

Pope however told reporters she "never saw this as a battle between the United States and Europe", stressing she looked forward to "working comprehensively with all of our partners".

Vitorino, a 66-year-old former Portuguese defence minister and deputy prime minister who in 2018 became only the second non-American IOM chief in the organisation's history, had appeared defiant before the vote.

"All my predecessors for 70 years made two mandates," he told AFP, adding he saw no reason why he should not do the same.

He enjoyed strong support from European countries, but Pope managed to convince countries in other regions she had the vision needed to address new and emerging challenges.

"The previous director-general did well, but there is a crisis," Gambian ambassador Muhammadou M.O. Kah told AFP after the vote, voicing confidence that Pope "has what it takes".

- Will 'call out' practices -

She has called for a broader focus on the impacts of climate change on migration, which she dubbed "one of the most significant challenges for our generation".

With a long career in migration and disaster relief, including in the administration of former US president Barack Obama, Pope had high-level backing.

US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have weighed in on her behalf.

She insisted though that she would not shy away from criticising US migration policy if warranted.

"I am not working for the United States government," she said, adding it is  "important that we as an organisation call out practices no matter where they're coming from."

Pope's election comes as her own country has introduced tough new asylum rules to replace an expired pandemic-era policy.

"The situation at the southern border of the United States underscores why it's so critical that we approach migration from a much more comprehensive point of view," Pope said.

The IOM, she stressed, must work with countries to identify why "people are being displaced, and to build solutions that address ... the root cause."