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UN migration agency can’t meddle in domestic debates, says boss

The UN’s migration agency should not get itself dragged into domestic policy debates, its chief Antonio Vitorino told AFP, as he seeks a second term leading the organisation.

“Migration has become a highly politicised area, and even a highly polarised area,” the 66-year-old former Portuguese deputy prime minister said.

“Some people would like us to be more vocal in some moments of the internal migration debate, but we do not take sides,” he said, noting how the topic is being fiercely debated in countries like Britain, France and the United States.

Vitorino is standing for re-election as director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration. 

The vote takes place in mid-May and Vitorino is in the unusual position of being challenged for the job by his American deputy Amy Pope.

The IOM was founded in 1951 to deal with the displacements in Europe following World War II.

But it was only in 2016 that it joined the United Nations fold, and its boss, unlike the chiefs of other UN agencies, does not single out countries for criticism.

Vitorino acknowledged that the organisation could communicate better about what it is and what it does.

But he says the IOM must have a balanced approach towards migration and is not set up to praise or criticise countries since it is not there to verify the implementation of an international treaty or agreement, like the better-known UN refugee agency UNHCR or the UN Human Rights office.

– European support –

Still, he insisted that the IOM knew how to raise its concerns.

“For instance, considering the European Union, we have been claiming for quite some time that there is a need to address the search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean,” he said.

“And we are very pleased with the fact that recently the European Commission has published a document with a strategy for the central Mediterranean that is exactly taking on board our claim.”

A politician and a lawyer, Vitorino was Portugal’s defence minister and deputy PM from 1995 to 1997 in the government of Antonio Guterres, who is now the UN secretary-general.

He was then the European commissioner for justice and home affairs from 1999 to 2004.

Vitorino was elected to the IOM leadership by member states in 2018, becoming only the second non-American to lead the agency in seven decades.

The agency has 175 member states, with the United States followed by the European Union bloc as its main financial contributors.

“All my predecessors for 70 years made two mandates, and I don’t see any reason for a successful first mandate not to be followed by a second mandate,” Vitorino said.

He said he was counting on “very strong support from the European countries” and “strong encouragement” from other nations in other regions.

– New migration challenges –

He declined to comment on being challenged by his deputy, beyond saying: “It is the first time that it happens in IOM.”

As for claims that he has not…

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