Tuesday, August 16, 2022

“Mothers and children play a relevant role in the design of current societies”

Interview with António Vitorino, Director-General of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)

Sofia Rainho

The Director-General of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is deeply concerned about the growth of transnational crime networks following the closure of borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In an interview with PRÉMIO magazine, António Vitorino urges all states to include migrants in their national vaccination plans. And warns to the new reality that affects migration and is closely linked to climate change. “There are more and more people living internally displaced within their countries, largely due to climate change,” he says.

What is the impact of the pandemic on the population around the world?

The impact is very strong, but it’s asymmetrical, it’s not the same everywhere. Migrants are usually the most vulnerable in societies. They normally have precarious jobs, live in overcrowded dwellings and they were, obviously, hit hard by the virus. Especially because during the lockdown periods for us to keep having food someone had to work the fields, someone had to be in supermarkets, someone had to drive buses, someone had to collect the garbage and, normally, these professions have a large presence of migrants. If you ask me if the migrants stopped the answer is no. Because many migrants were stranded due to the borders closure and there are about 3 million worldwide. But the number of migrants who arrived in Italy in 2020 from North Africa, for example, is 3 times higher than those who arrived in 2019. Or the number of migrants who arrived in Spain crossing the Mediterranean is the same as in 2019. And the number of migrants who have left from the African coast and arrived in the Canary Islands is almost two hundred per cent higher. Globally the world was in standstill, but the impact on migratory movements was very asymmetrical and different in each region.

And taking into account the impressive figures you mentioned what is the IOM’s main challenge in the current pandemic scenario?

The great challenge for us at the moment is the integration of migrants in national vaccination plans. It’s very important not to leave migrants out of the vaccination plan because, as we have already seen and we have witnessed this recently in Odemira, if migrants are not included in national vaccination plans they will be left behind in a bubble where, obviously, contamination will be easier and variants can proliferate. Hence this is our pedagogy: no one is safe until everyone is safe. As engineer António Guterres says. We call on all states to integrate migrants into their national vaccination plans.

Do you think that the idea that without global vaccination there is no health security has already been internalized?

In addition to those who are firmly against vaccines, against any type of vaccine, and there are many – just check the internet and look at the number of chats and anti-vaccination sites – I believe that there is already a widespread conviction in most countries that the vaccine is necessary even if we are not entirely sure, as there is not enough scientific evidence yet as to the duration of the immunity provided by the vaccine. The big problem with vaccination is that out of the several million doses, which have already been distributed and applied, 80% were distributed in developed countries in the north and only 20% in developing countries in the south. And there is a problem here of fairness and balance in the distribution of the vaccine. And therefore, for example and according to CODAC calculations – a World Health Organization mechanism that coordinates the purchase and supply of vaccines within the scope of the United Nations – the most optimistic forecast is that by the end of the year 2021 20% of the world population will be vaccinated. And given that 20% the overwhelming majority will be in the north, we will keep having a very serious problem with the virus during the year 2023 and hence the need to fight it, especially in the least developed countries.

Don’t you think that what we are currently experiencing can further increase the cleavages between the richest and the poorest countries?

This is happening already. I give you the example of migrants. I address the developed countries and tell them “you have to include migrants in national vaccination plans” and I say that in the remaining countries also, in developing countries. But when I say that in developing countries the answer I get from leaders, which is understandable, is that it’s a “great idea, but can you get vaccines for our people now too?” It’s very difficult to address a country that does not have vaccines and say that, in addition to their citizens, they must also include migrants. Simply because they didn’t have access to the vaccine yet. And they probably won’t in the coming months.

Photo: André Kosters / Lusa


Many migrants fear reprisal during the vaccination process. How should governments act and what work can be done with migrants to convey both confidence and the indispensability of the vaccine?

This is a very important issue because, in fact, migrants need, first and foremost, to be informed about the advantages of the vaccine. We engage in true pedagogy, information campaigns in many places where we operate – and the IOM is in 160 countries worldwide – and we have to do it in different languages because when we do this in the major communication languages like English campaigns are not always understood. Our major concern is, first of all, to address migrants in a language that they understand and with simple explanations as to the advantages of vaccination, because in many cases vaccination is not part of the cultural habits of some populations. And secondly, it is clear that migrants often have some mistrust when it comes to take to public health services. Especially migrants who are in an illegal situation because, as I said, they are afraid that if they try to get vaccinated they will be registered and authorities might take advantage of vaccination to apply migration policy measures, particularly those you mentioned, that is being detained or even expelled. That’s why we have been telling the states that in order to gain migrants’ trust it is very important to ensure that there will be no law enforcement intervention just for getting the vaccine. But I must concede that in several places we have had resistance from migrants precisely because there is mistrust as to the procedures and deportation policies that may be adopted and applied to them.

The world stopped this past year. What do you thing it will happen when the world starts moving again?

We have to be humble and realise that this pandemic has shown how a tiny virus managed to stop the entire world, something that had never happened in history. And we have to be cautious when coming up with predictions as there are many things we don’t know yet, first and foremost as regards scientific evidence, based on which public policy decisions must be made. I do have some certainties. Migrations will not stop. Our major concern at the moment is that, given that borders are now closed, there are more and more migrants turning to traffickers and smugglers. One of the consequences of the pandemic is the increase in transnational crime networks demand. The other conclusion we have already reached and which seems to be consolidated is that in the future when traveling and crossing borders, whether to transport goods, for business purposes, to provide services, or in leisure, border controls will increasingly include a health component. There is a whole debate around this at the moment which, in the opinion of the World Health Organization is in many ways is still premature. But we are talking, for example, about the health passport, the European passport … these issue will be put on the table. And there we will be faced with yet another challenge. Besides the lack of knowledge – we don’t know for sure how long a vaccinated person is immunized, when vaccination should be repeated in order to guarantee immunity – there is also the issue of border controls closely linked to health issues, the need for states to invest in infrastructure, training staff – be it border guards or migration service officials – in order to focus on this new dimension, which will take some time to be applied in practical terms. Of course there are positive aspects, digitisation has taken a giant leap forward. We can obviously use digital mechanisms in a smart way, the QR Codes, etc., in order to guarantee the privacy and protection of personal data, which is a very sensitive topic. But the big challenge is that, for these systems to work they will have to be interoperable considering that if each country has its own particular system they won’t work. And poor and less developed countries may run the risk of being less able to develop these systems, which are expensive – they cost money to states and people – and, therefore, their citizens may be excluded from the flow of travel and mobility on an international scale. This will be another cause for inequality.

Photo: IOM


Photo: André Kosters / Lusa

In which major international humanitarian crises is IOM also involved and engaged in right now, in addition to the pandemic, whether of religious or tribal nature, such as the case with the Rohingyas, in Ethiopia, or following wars.

Unfortunately there are plenty. We have prolonged crises over time, one of which is the one you mentioned involving the Rohingyas, in Cox Bazar, but we also have refugees from Syria, the situation in Latin America because of the displaced from Venezuela… We also have new crises that are very much associated with something that is sometimes underreported and which is climate change. There are more and more people on the move and who have to leave the places they lived in because of climate change and the loss of soil suitable for agriculture, as is the case with the Sahel. Or the case of northern Mozambique, where around 200,000 people were displaced because of the hurricane Idai, two years ago. And now, unfortunately, there is another relocation movement as a result of terrorism in Cabo Delgado. We have already 800 thousand people displaced in the province of Cabo Delgado, 600 thousand that add up to the 200 thousand displaced after the hurricane Idai, and there you have an example of people being displaced for several reasons and not just one. And there are also other crises currently emerging. There is a very difficult situation in Central America, in the countries of the northern triangle – Honduras, Salvador and Guatemala – where climate change has also had a very negative effect, both in terms of hurricanes, and two have erupted recently, given the resulting destruction and loss of production capacity of coffee and cocoa, two fundamental agricultural productions for the region. With climate change these productions have been seriously affected and people tend to move and, normally, in these cases they tend to head to the United States of America. Ethiopia is another case, a very complex internal conflict that is closely linked to the balance between the country’s many religions. But the whole Horn of Africa is subject to huge pressure, be it migratory flows towards the Gulf countries, crossing Yemen, a country which, as we all know, experiences a prolonged crisis … in short, I could got on a on and mention a number of complicated situations.

You mentioned the need for a kind of common plan among all States. Is there a common strategy between organisations like UNICEF, the World Food Plan and IOM, etc.? Are they all coordinated and integrated in this matter?

Yes. The reform implemented by António Guterres when he was elected in the first term was there to allow precisely the strengthening of the coordination bodies of each State in the many United Nations agencies. There are agencies that have a very different focus, agencies that don’t have an operational vocation, such as the World Health Organization, and there are large agencies with an operational vocation, that is, they are really on the ground and close to people. That’s the case of IOM, of UNHCR, of the World Food Program and Unicef. They are all different in kind, to this particular end, the United Nations system as a whole, under direction of the resident coordinator of each country, acts in response to crises. Then there is the answer each particular agency can provide depending on its own qualifications and abilities. I believe that the reform has resulted in a much more coordinated response by the institutions and the United Nations to these humanitarian crises like never before.

Left wing and right-wing populisms extend across Europe. They are harmful to the integration of migrants in host societies, some because they stimulate hatred, others because they tend to follow the easy path, generating negative reactions in the process. Do you think a literacy campaign could be useful?

Absolutely, but this issue is not only there in migration. I think that all democracies are entering a phase of hyperpolarization of political debate and these populisms, on the right or on the left, are the ramparts of this hyperpolarization. It becomes more difficult to have a rational conversation on topics that are complex topics and which cannot be solved with simplistic answers. The integration of migrants in host societies is always a very complex process. There are no magic solutions. It is, as I often say, a micro process, it’s not a macro process, in the sense that there is no integration in a country as a whole. Integration is played, won or lost, in the workplace, in the place of residence, in access to first-line social services, namely health care, and in the integration of children in national education systems. It is thus essential that migrants learn the language of the country where they are. Language learning is essential. Therefore, simplistic answers that translate into saying white or black cannot perceive this complexity, this double integration, because the objective of integration is not only for migrants where they chose to live and where they were accepted, but it is also for societies that take them in and which face realities they were not used to until then. And this dialogue is not always easy, it requires permanent attention, it requires a great commitment from local authorities, it requires active participation of unions and business associations because the workplace is very important. Contrary to what is often said, people don’t come here to receive subsidies, people come here to work. And therefore, the importance of integration in the workplace is fundamental. My experience tells me that women have a fundamental role to play in integration, because mothers, even when they engage only in domestic tasks, and today this is less and less the case even in migrant families as men and women both work, but mothers are always more concerned with their children and children are very important tools for the socialization of the whole family. If children are duly integrated at school, this success will have an effect and a positive impact on the integration of all family members. This cannot be solved with a “like” or a “dislike”, as nowadays all seems to come down to in the social media. Things are unfortunately much more complex.

Investment made in developing countries, by institutions like the EU or by private entrepreneurs, could help and a lot so that the must-needed local development could take place and populations would not feel the need to migrate, which in turn would also help and stop human traffickers from doing their job and so on. What has failed? Is it just the Europeans or the Americans fault, or of the so-called developed countries, or is there also some local lack of preparation that prevents things from moving more quickly?

Creating jobs in technical and vocational training in the countries of origin of migratory flows is a fundamental response to reduce the migratory pressure, but also to ensure that the human capital that migrates, and which represents a loss to the country of origin, remains in the country of origin and helps its development. This logic works under this perspective, does not produce results in the short term in the sense of having results on a significant scale around the corner, because it requires continuity as regards projects and often some of these projects don’t have the necessary continuity, and this means duration in time and investment and financing guarantees to produce effects. But there is also the reverse side of the medal and obviously no one will invest in a country where there is no guarantee that the administration is not corrupt, where there is not a favourable environment to invest in business … therefore, even when there is the will to support these countries of origin, part of the work has to be done by them, and that cannot be replaced, e.g. guarantees have to be provided so that whoever invests feels comfortable with the investment they are making, generates return and is not subject to discretion.

Photo: IOM

How do you see the position of Portuguese society in relation to migration and migrants?

I have the perception that fortunately until now the issue of migration has not been a factor of division among the Portuguese and I hope it will stay that way. In part, in my opinion this happens because Portugal is a country that has the phenomenon of migration pretty much in its collective memory as a people. There is somehow a dialogue with us here. And the President of the Republic, in his last speech on April 25, addressed the issue of reading the colonial dimension, but we should not forget that there is also this second dimension. A Portuguese migrant once said “we integrated Portugal in Europe even before Portugal had joined the European Community”. I remember when I was young, when I was 17, people saying that Paris was the second most populous city of Portugal because there were a million Portuguese living in Paris. And we all remember the conditions in which these people lived; there are accounts and memories all over the country because emigration was a cross-sectional phenomenon. And if you go to any village, there is always a family in each village who has a relative who migrated. So there is a principle here: treat others the way you want to be treated. And we know we were often discriminated when we migrated. And we also now that joining the European Community gave our migrants a status of citizenship and also regularization and relevant rights. For them, it was, in fact, a huge leap forward. This is to say that Portuguese society has every reason and duty to understand migrants, to relate to them, and to do their part to contribute to integration, provided that immigrants themselves also do their part.

Odemira is an unavoidable issue. You said recently that it was an “embarrassing” and “unacceptable” situation. How do you explain situations like theses, whose responsibility is it, and what should or can be done to prevent identical situations from repeating?

There is the issue of public health and that is the main and most immediate issue. Responding to the public health needs of that group of migrants is a public responsibility of the Portuguese government. There is a second dimension, which is very important, which is the recruiting conditions of these workers. And there is enough evidence that, although there are fortunately very positive recruitment cases where legal and ethical rules are applied, unfortunately we are also aware, now with greater visibility, of completely unacceptable forms of recruitment. For me it is unacceptable asking a worker to pay a fee to have a job, having to pay a middleman to have the right to have a job. At IOM we have a program precisely on ethical recruitment, we have a set of principles, we work with many companies, many multinationals, which have production centres in countries with high migration levels to ensure that recruitment is done according to the rules and the canons of safety, hygiene and justice. Then there is a third dimension, which is the housing issue. I would say that the housing issue is rather complex. There are cases where employment contracts state that the employer undertakes to provide housing, but there are many cases of contracts where that duty does not fall on employers. The demand for housing is left to the migrants themselves. Local authorities have therefore to be on the front line because quite, and is perfectly understandable, migrants who want to have a maximum savings rate in order to send money to their country of origin are willing to live in worse conditions and this is not acceptable from a human point of view and is terrible. On the other hand, we also need to understand that the host countries have to show flexibility to integrate this floating population in their urban planning. We know this and it happens every year in the Algarve: in the summer the population increases three times and the health system is always under huge pressure in these months because it was planned to cater for the permanent resident population and reached a peak in demand because of the vacationers. The problem of migration, and especially of this seasonal migration, is very similar. Programming social or even urban services for the population residing in a municipality is one thing… but for 3,000 people who suddenly arrive in a small municipality and who often work in other municipalities is very difficult and requires great flexibility. I believe that a decision was made recently, e.g. housing construction agreement for about 3 thousand people were signed – employers’ associations took the responsibility to accommodate 1000 people and municipalities, with the support of European funds, took the responsibility as regards the remaining 2 thousand. This seems to me to be a good answer, but it has to be applied in other places because, let’s be clear, we know that Odemira is not alone in this.

Photo: IOM

You now have more than 2 and half years in office at IOM. What was the biggest challenge you have encountered so far?

For a migration organization based on mobility, the biggest challenge was having witnessed how the world suddenly stopped. There is no greater paradox. It didn’t really stop, but obviously the biggest challenge was having had to adapt the organization. We are in 160 countries, we have 21,000 employees, we have almost 500 offices spread around the world, and they are not always in the capitals, we have people on the ground and obviously this has had a brutal impact for us. In many places we are still working from home. There are a whole series of activities that have become online and digitized; from interviews to issuing visas to filling out refugee forms to resettled them in safe countries… all of this is now being done online. All of this required adaptations in the computer system, intensive training for qualification… I think we have been very successful, especially thanks to the sense of mission of the employees and those who work at IOM, but it was a huge challenge for an organization based on human mobility when, in an unprecedented way, the world stopped.

And what mark would you like to leave at the end of your term at IOM?

We have made a huge effort to modernize the organization. I usually say that our computer platform dates back to 2004, this is truly an almost Neolithic platform. We need to modernize processes, procedures, and introduce digitization in order to safeguard the organization’s effectiveness and to be able to respond to new challenges. In that sense, my mandate is a transition mandate, between an IOM that operated under a certain paradigm and preparing the organization for the challenges of the next decade. Both from the point of view of procedures and process and technological capabilities, as well as regards challenges. It is increasingly clear that the future of migration is closely linked to climate change. There will be more and more people on the move because of climate change and this is a new issue. More and more people are internally displaced in their own countries. There are currently 50 million internally displaced people who have moved to another place in the same country, but who need humanitarian assistance. Or, if you like, there are 60 million people who live and work in territories that are controlled by non-state armed groups, organized crime groups, terrorists… territories that are not controlled by the respective national states. So there are new challenges that IOM will have to address well just like others before.

What is the biggest task IOM is currently involved in in Portugal?

We support the Portuguese government in terms of bilateral labour agreements currently being negotiated with countries that have significant migrant communities in Portugal. Right now the Indian community is the second largest community in the country. It follows the Brazilian, which has even more people than the Cape Verdean community. But the phenomenon of the Indian community is 5 years old, it means that we need to adapt the mechanisms to the flexibility and the patterns of movement of people. At the beginning of this century there was a community whose numbers increased in a very short period, which was the Ukrainian community. Right now it’s a much smaller community than it was 10 or 15 years ago. We support the government in responding to these fluctuations in the reality of migration to Portugal. We also work on the return and reintegration of migrants who are not allowed to stay in Portugal, with a view to taking them to the country of origin and creating conditions for them to be able to reintegrate in those same countries of origin. And we work on what we call capacity building that is, supporting the High Commissioner for Migrations, the national centres supporting migrants, in the adoption of processes that allow them to respond to the needs of migrants. “Last but not least”, we work very intensively with SEF (The Foreigners and Border Service). SEF is a key partner when it comes to migration. Now it will be split, but until now all the issues that had to do with border controls and European cooperation have been worked out by us together with SEF. Let us see how we will adapt to this new structure that will be created.

From CIM to IOM, what has changed?

We are 70 years old this year and the great leap in IOM took place in the last decade when we practically became a universal agency. What has changed from CIM to IOM is that IOM has become an agency related to the United Nations and not completely separate and autonomous as it has been for many years. As of 2016 it became part of the United Nations system and today is an organization with 174 members, present in 160 countries, with almost 500 offices and has a budget of $ 2.2 billion. It experienced a remarkable growth, corresponding also to the growth of migration. The truth is that in the last two decades the numbers of international migrants have increased exponentially and, therefore, the needs as regards supporting states and migrants themselves have also grown exponentially and, from this perspective, the organization has also grown.

Could this huge migratory flow help mitigating what we know today as Western European civilization, Chinese civilization? Can the role of migrants be such that they are not only integrated but also contribute to building a different society?

Societies are all changing in many ways, including their ethnic, religious, cultural and even gastronomic composition. Even countries that were more reluctant and have cultures that are probably more consolidated and less open to the outside now take in migrants. About 350,000 migrants will be taken in, for example, in Japan in the next three years. The same could be said of China, which, due to its demographic situation, today has a much more open policy to take in migrants in its territory, something that 10 years ago was probably unthinkable as China is the largest country in the world from the point of view of population. But each case is different. The interaction between arriving migrants and host societies is very different. And Portugal, which is a small country, has a good example of this. We have a classic migratory tradition that is linked to the language, which is clearly the migration from Portuguese-speaking African countries and Brazil. This is the profile of our immigration. But, as I mentioned, we suddenly had a very large migratory flow of Ukrainians. Ukraine is not next-door and, as far as I know, does not speak Portuguese. It’s another reality, another dimension and there are other integration challenges. And now we have Asian immigration from Bangladesh, Thailand, Nepal, and India … and this is a new reality that is also completely different from the previous. In this sense, societies interact with migrants. Portugal continues to be a country open to the world because this is our history, this is our identity, and this is our universal vocation. We have such a consolidated history, a language so specific, a culture so clearly established and we do not have to fear being diluted by the interaction we have with other peoples in the world.

Source: IOM

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