Interview with William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization of Migration (IOM)

William Lacy Swing, Director-General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)

6 December 2011 – The International Organization of Migration (IOM) is an intergovernmental body with 132 member states and offices in over 100 countries. It promotes humane and orderly migration, focusing on issues ranging from international law to migrants’ rights, and works closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other partners.

William Lacy Swing of the United States has been Director General of the IOM since 2008. Prior to taking the lead of IOM, he held senior appointments in the UN, including as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative (SRSG) for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he led the largest UN peacekeeping operation in history; and as SRSG and chief of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). On the launch of the IOM’s 60th anniversary report World Migration Report 2011: Communicating Effectively about Migration, Mr. Swing spoke with the UN News Centre about the challenges in migration today.

UN News Centre: The 60th anniversary report of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) focuses on communication. Why is the issue of communication being put as a priority?

William Swing: We have a paradoxical situation in the migrant world today. There are more people on the move than at any other time in recorded history: about 215 million international and 740 million domestic migrants moving within their own territory. Given the current count of about 7 billion people in the world, that means that about one out of every seven people is on the move. Numerically that’s more than at any other time, although percenWe need to help migrants have a voice in the public arena so they can speak for themselves and talk about the contribution they are making.tage wise, it’s about 3 per cent.

You would think at a time like this that migration would be something that is very welcome but in point of fact, the cruel irony is that more and more governments are turning inward, borders are being closed, visa regimes are being tightened and there is less and less opportunity for migration to occur on a legal basis, so a lot of people are being pushed into the hands of traffickers.

We at IOM believe that a major part of the problem is miscommunication or non-communication about the contribution that migrants make. So this is the purpose of our 60th anniversary report: to talk about how we communicate about migration and migrants.

UN News Centre: The report calls for public discussion. What does this mean?

The IOM and the UN Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) relocating people displaced by the January 2010 earthquake to a more secure location ahead of tropical storm Tomas. UN Photo/Logan Abassi

William Swing: First of all, we think that governments need to show the political courage to explain to the population why in today’s world, when you have an ageing developed world and a youthful developing world, the push-pull factors are clear. Why are we not explaining that to our public so they accept it? One of the important points here is that the very composition and nature of the nation-State is changing before our very eyes but we are not doing an adequate job – including my organization – of explaining the inevitability of large scale migration, the importance of preparing for it, and the desirability of it.

UN News Centre: Is it a call for responsibility or a call for help?

William Swing: I’m talking about sharing responsibility together to talk about the reality of migration as a necessary and inevitable part of today’s life, and the desirability of it if we learn to manage it properly. Part of the problem is finding a formula whereby people understand that national sovereignty is respected as to who enters a country. At the same time, we respect individual rights, including the oldest poverty-reduction strategy, which is to move when one has the need to move.

UN News Centre: Media is clearly a main actor. Is the media doing enough today?

William Swing gives interview to journalists in the DRC in 2007 UN Photo/Marie Frechon

William Swing: We have a responsibility to do a better job of informing the media so that they have the full story. It’s obviously very dramatic when you have a boat of irregular migrants arrive somewhere – that is the headline story. It’s much more difficult to make headlines out of migrants who are contributing and probably paying as much in taxes as they are sending home in remittances. That’s not an interesting story, and we have to find a way to help the media to give the full story and get rid of the stereotypes.

UN News Centre: Do you think new media, social media, can help?

William Swing: Absolutely. We live in a digital world. It’s a digital revolution. You have now, in contrast to the year 2000, when you had 390 million people connected to the Internet; today it’s approaching 2 billion. You get probably 250 billion emails sent on a regular basis. You have 850 million subscribers to Facebook and a similar amount to Twitter. Obviously they have a major role to play and we have to give them a fuller picture.

UN News Centre: How do you think we can bring countries of destination and countries of origin together to see the problem at large and try to find solutions?

A checkpoint is set up outside Malha, North Darfur, as Sudanese returning from Libya wait to enter the town. UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

William Swing: That’s a very key point. In our own way, what we’re doing is we have a series of what we call regional consultation processes around the world, where we do exactly that: bring countries of origin and of destination together. There are about 16 of these now. We are trying to create new ones for areas as distant as the Caribbean and Central Africa, because that’s where they get together and talk about the challenge of migration before it becomes a major issue. We need to do more of that. The Global Forum [on Migration and Development] is working for example. The Global Migration Group. These are institutions that I think are doing a good job.

UN News Centre: In countries of origin there is this problem of the loss of human capital. But we also know that the funds transferred to these countries are very important. How do you think can we talk to the people involved in this process?

In Pakistan, more than five million people were affected by floods in 2011 and government estimates put the number of families in urgent need of emergency shelter at over 200,000. UNHCR: S. Phelps.

William Swing: You are hitting on a major point here, that of the diaspora. I think the latest figures show about $350 billion a year sent home by migrants, which is roughly the GDP [gross domestic product] of Finland or Austria or Kuwait. That is very important because it helps people put food on the table, educate their children and so forth. But the larger question is the ‘brain-drain’ that concerns countries of origin. There are a lot of new schemes out there, circular migration is one, ways in which diaspora are somehow able to keep the home fires burning. These involve, for example, looking at legislation that allows dual nationality, recognizing we have multiple identities, that allows for multiple visas – a lot of people overstay because they have a one-entry visa. There’s a lot we can do to facilitate movement between these two worlds so it is a brain-circulation rather than brain loss.

UN News Centre: How can UN agencies and the UN system be involved better?

William Swing: I’ve been very pleased at the progress that has been made on that score. The Secretary-General himself takes a strong personal interest in migration. He supports the Global Forum, he comes to those meetings, we have support from all of the agency heads because each one has a part of the mosaic of migration, whether it’s children or women, or the question of international crime networks. All of them have something to say about migration. We are doing our part to participate in that discussion, and I think overall it is going well. I’m happy that the Alliance of Civilizations, another body that has a strong association with the UN, is trying to break down the stereotypes about nationalities and so forth.

UN News Centre: What about the process of victimization of migrants?

William Swing: Once governments pass laws that criminalize migrants who are there on an illegal or irregular status, then it is very difficult for any of us to help them, because they are criminalized. And this we would very strongly caution against. The other thing that I think we all need to do better is to listen more to migrants. We need to help migrants have a voice in the public arena so they can speak for themselves and talk about the contribution they are making.

UN News Centre: And what about employers?

Migrants arriving from Tunisia and Libya aboard a Guardia Di Finanza boat after their own boat nearly sunk off the coast of Italy. UN Photo/Phil Behan

William Swing: It’s interesting that employers increasingly have an interest in migration because the skill deficits, particularly in much of the developed world, are simply too great and they are very strong advocates for it. What we would like to see is in these contracts that are written for migrants, that there is a clause that would give them a responsibility to protect these migrants when something goes wrong. If you take, for example, Libya: working together with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), IOM was able to repatriate about a quarter of a million migrant workers to about 54 countries. But had the companies taken greater responsibility, we would have had to do less, and they would have taken part as partners.

UN News Centre: You are talking about 200 million migrants today. How will see this figure change in the next decade?

William Swing: The forecast for the year 2050, four decades from now, is about 405 million migrants.

UN News Centre: And what do we do with this issue, with this opportunity?

William Swing: We have to prepare for it, to manage it properly, knowing that there is a reality that we are going to need large numbers of migrants. We have to prepare for climate change, the inevitable large scale displacement of populations, to be in a position to do disaster preparedness, risk reduction, and at the same time continue what I would call a public information and public education programme on the part of governments that helps a population to appreciate what it is that the migrants do. And in those cases where there is no place for particular migrants, that they be treated in a manner that is dignified and humane.

UN News Centre: You yourself are a migrant. Sometimes people leave their country because of their poverty, others do not need help. How do you manage the different kinds of situations?

William Swing: A large number of migrants do very well on their own. They don’t need assistance, they are well accepted. In high-skill areas where there are great needs, there are many fewer problems. But if a government has only a high-skill migrant policy, then it is going to fall short of its goals, because the deficits will be at the mid-level and particular in the lower skills, where jobs are as we say ‘the 3Ds’ [difficult, dangerous and degrading], the jobs that locals don’t want. You’re going to want to let some people coming in at those levels too.

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