Portugal’s Vitorino to Become Next Head of the International Organisation for Migration

In a highly unusual move, IOM member states rejected the US candidate for Director General of the International Organisation for Migration in favour of Portugal’s António Manuel de Carvalho Ferreira Vitorino. His election comes as migration and global displacement are at an all time high.

In what has become the latest in a string of high profile, international roles to go to a Southern European, Portugal’s António Manuel de Carvalho Ferreira Vitorino has been elected the next director deneral of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Vitorino will take over the reins of the organisation on 1 October 2018, replacing William Lacy Swing, who had headed the IOM for the past decade.

Operating in over 150 countries, the IOM has been at the forefront of assisting and protecting migrants since its establishment in 1951. In 1992, the organisation attained permanent observer status to the UN General Assembly. It officially became a related UN organisation in 2016 at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants.

The IOM is guided by the principle that humane and orderly migration is beneficial not only for migrants, but society at large. To this end, it works with international and local partners to tackle operational challenges of migration, highlight migration related issues, and further social and economic development. The organisation’s activities include the promotion of international migration law, engaging in policy debate and guidance, the protection of the rights and health of migrants, and addressing the gender dimension of migration.

In putting forth Vitorino’s candidacy, the Portuguese government stated that it considers “it urgent to mobilise the world and civil societies towards peace and security, tolerance, respect for human rights and sustainable development.” Vitorino’s background makes him well-suited to meeting this mandate. He has served as a judge in the Portuguese Constitutional Court and as a European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs. He’s also been a member of the Transatlantic Council on Migration for more than a decade and more recently joined the Advisory Board of the International Migration Initiative.

Also noteworthy is his previous political experience. Vitorino is no career bureaucrat. As such, he understands the complicated political dynamics that will underpin any international cooperation on migration. Specifically, he was  Minister for National Defence and Deputy Prime Minister in the government of António Guterres, the current UN Secretary General. This established working relationship with the highest level of UN representation should facilitate even stronger collaboration between the UN and the IOM.

According to statistics collected by the IOM (Geneva headquarters pictured), within the first six months of 2018, more than 46,700 migrants have arrived in the Mediterranean region by sea. More than 1,400 additional attempts were made, but ended in death or migrants gone missing. Copyright: Martin Good/

Despite his impressive credentials, Vitorino’s election was not a foregone conclusion. With the exception of 1961 to 1969, the IOM has been continuously headed by an American. However, serious doubts were expressed over the US candidate, Ken Isaacs, who had previously linked Islam with violent extremism. After five hours and three rounds of voting by representatives from 172 countries, Vitorino managed to succeed over not only Isaacs, but also the current IOM deputy chief of Costa Rica, Laura Thompson.

In an interview with UN Radio conducted shortly after his election, Vitorino outlined his priorities for the IOM. He said that the IOM would be “very decentralised, flexible organisation, very close to the ground, very careful to answer to the requests and the needs of its member states when it comes to regulating migration.”

Vitorino’s approach will be put to the test when the international community meets in December at a UN conference on migration with the hope of adopting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This is the first international agreement of its kind with the goal of improving migration governance, reducing the challenges of current migration trends, and expanding the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development. Once adopted, it will fall within the responsibility of the IOM to implement this compact.

More generally, Vitorino will be responsible for overseeing the IOM’s response to a number of ongoing migration crises. Global displacement is at an all-time high with the IOM estimating that there are more than 22 million refugees and around 40 million internally displaced people. In 2017 alone an additional 30.6 million people across more than 140 countries were displaced by conflict or disasters. As such, Vitorino can expect to have a full plate when he takes over the IOM this fall.

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Katrina Pirner

Katrina is a Berlin-based freelance writer who focuses on economics, disruptive technology and politics. She’s previously worked in Canada, Italy, Belgium, and the US. Katrina holds a MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University where she concentrated in European political economy.

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