A Conversation With Amy Pope

Monday, March 11, 2024
Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Director General, International Organization for Migration; CFR Member
Executive Director, American Immigration Council; CFR Member
Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy and Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy

Amy Pope discusses her work as director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the UN role in addressing climate mobility, legal frameworks for migration, and the present humanitarian crisis.

The Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy was established in 2019 through a generous gift from Alan M. Silberstein and the Silberstein family. The lecture provides CFR with an annual forum to explore emerging challenges in refugee and migration policy in the United States and around the world.

ROBBINS: All right. Welcome, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s Council on Foreign Relations Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy. We are honored to have Director General Amy Pope here with us for this year’s lecture. 

I am Jeremy Robbins. I’m the executive director of the American Immigration Council, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion. 

The endowed annual lecture was established in 2019 with a generous gift from Alan M. Silberstein and the whole Silberstein family. The lecture provides CFR with an annual forum to explore emerging challenges in refugee and migration policy in the United States and all around the world. So we’re delighted to have Alan Silberstein here today with us in person and Cal (sp) Silberstein on Zoom. 

So thank you all for being here. Thank you, Amy, Director General. And let’s start it up with: Paint the picture. What is the state of migration today? What are we looking at around the world and here in the U.S.? 

POPE: So, first of all, a huge thank you to you, Jeremy, and to the Council on Foreign Relations—and, of course, to our very generous sponsors—on a topic that not many people want to take onboard, but one that really is increasingly important to be discussing. 

And if you look at the newspaper headlines, certainly if you watch the election coverage here in the United States or in Europe, you would think that the sum total of the state of migration is about the numbers of people who are coming up to the southwest border or people who are crossing the Mediterranean or the English Channel through irregular means. But frankly, the vast number of people who are moving today are moving for work; 170 million migrants are working in countries not of their national origin. And the need for migration across the world is growing, because increasingly we’re seeing very significant demographic shifts that mean that economies no longer have the workforce they need. 

Now, that’s not to obscure what’s happening in terms of irregular migration. We are seeing increased numbers of people who are moving irregularly—coming up to borders, presenting themselves, seeking asylum increasingly. And what we’re seeing there is that the drivers of irregular migration are also increasing, at the same time that we’re seeing the demand signal for people to fill jobs go up. 

ROBBINS: Interesting. And so tell me how it’s changing. How is it any different than it was five years ago, ten years ago? 

POPE: The number-one way that it’s changing is that it used to be that we saw proportionately the same amount of people on the move. People tended to move from middle income to middle income, high income to high income. We’re increasingly seeing more people move from countries that are high-vulnerability countries, high-conflict countries, or increasingly people displaced by things like disaster or climate impact. So that’s the major driver, is that more people are moving because they cannot find safety or opportunities in their home countries. 

ROBBINS: Interesting. And so when you look around the world—whether it’s in Africa, it’s in the Middle East, in Latin America—can you drill down a little bit on those causes? So how much of this is climate? How much of these are failed states? How much is people moving to work? Like, what is the—what are the principal things that are moving people? 

POPE: So we work—the International Organization for Migration is in 171 different countries providing services, right? So we do a lot of humanitarian support, we provide support in the context of conflict or peacebuilding, and we work with communities to—and governments to come up with better migration policies. And increasingly, we are seeing people displaced by climate impact. 

So last year, more people were displaced from their homes as a result of climate impact than conflict. Now, if you take climate and you add it on top of countries that already have high vulnerability, especially because they’ve had conflict in the past, they have poor governance, they do not have economic capacity, they do not have economic resilience, you can see how climate is becoming increasingly destabilizing. So climate impact sort of sprinkled on top of everything else is becoming the major displacement factor and will be into our future. 

ROBBINS: All right. Well, let’s talk—so we’re sitting here in New York, where we’ve had a huge increase in migration. We’re kicking off a general election for our—for our president where this is a huge issue. Can you talk a little bit about the impact that we’re seeing from this—so, like, economically, socially, and politically—from these surges in migration? 

POPE: So we see around the world—and this is not unique to the United States—we see around the world that national policy tends to deal with migration only once it shows up at the border, right? So the United States is certainly a good example of that. There is a lot of attention being paid and a lot of money being spent at the U.S. southern border to address irregular migration there at the border, at the land borders. But if you zoom out for just a moment and you look at what’s driving people and you look where there are opportunities to intervene and engage, it’s actually not at the U.S. border, because once someone comes up to the border they’ve already taken the decision to leave. In many cases, there’s already been fundraising to support their movement. We see communities, for example, folks who are leaving from communities in West Africa, it’s actually quite expensive. It can cost 8,000 (dollars), $10,000 to pay a smuggler to get you up into Europe. So that means there has been already a community decision to enable someone to go and search for a better outcome that will benefit the home community as a whole, right? 

So when we look at how do we solve the challenge, it actually means rethinking how we’re looking at the movement of people and understanding what’s driving people. So, of course, that means addressing the drivers. Sometimes that’s poverty. Sometimes that’s violence. Sometimes that’s opportunity. But, two, it’s also recognizing that people are moving because they’re finding jobs; and recognizing that if they cannot find a safe, regular, legal pathway to find a job, the most straightforward way to find a job is to come in and to seek asylum, whether you need asylum or whether you just have no other options at home. So that’s the policy space where we’re encouraging governments to engage. 

ROBBINS: Interesting. And who’s doing it well? Are there any countries that you think are handling—I mean, this is, obviously, not just about our southern border; it’s happening globally. So are there countries that you think are managing integration well, and welcoming well, and figuring out how to deal with these larger flows? 

POPE: So there are a couple of examples out there. The Canadians are probably, of any government in the world, the most forward-looking, the most strategic. What they do is a market analysis, effectively a labor analysis: What do they need within the country in order to meet their market needs? They also are looking at the country as a whole, and identifying and working with the provincial governments to sponsor migrants in communities that do not now have the workforce they need. Now, the Canadians do not have the same kind of border as the United States or Italy or Spain, so arguably they do not have the same pressures on them. But it’s actually given them more flexibility and creativity to be able to build out policy solutions. And the Canadians also have a very forward-leaning policy on protection. So people who cannot stay at home—Syrians, people from Afghanistan, Ukrainians—there are pathways for them to seek safety and refuge in Canada as well. 

Now, the other thing—and then, you know, across Europe, governments are struggling with these questions as well. But the one thing—one lesson, I think, is important to take from Europe is that their processes for adjudicating asylum claims do not take as long as the American process. So right now, if you come up to the American southwest border, you present yourself and say I want to claim asylum, it could take five to seven years before your case is heard. There are a million people in the backlog right now. The asylum system that was built in this country was just not built to handle these kinds of numbers. 

So that reflects two things. One, the process for adjudicating asylum claims is taking a very, very long time, which means that people who come here have—are putting down roots and building ties within the community. The other thing, though, that’s happening is that people who are coming here who do need asylum, who do not have any other option, are also waiting in limbo for a very long time. That suggests we need to be thinking about more regular pathways to meet labor needs, rather than relying on a system that is not built for what we’re seeing right now. 

ROBBINS: So let me ask you about that, then. So we talked about sort of the push factors—climate migration, failed states, some of the others. Talk about the pull factors, right? How much of it is—if things are taking six years or five years to get your case and you can work, how does communication work? How much of this is driven by what people are hearing on social media, what people are hearing back from people who have come? People are smart. People know things. And so when you talk to migrants, what do you see as—what is the balance between the push factors and the pull factors in how they decide where to go? 

POPE: When we talk to migrants—and we talk to migrants all over the world as part of our regular engagement—the fact that you can get a job here, the fact that there has been a labor shortage especially in lower-skilled sectors, is one of the most significant pull factors. And that’s true around the world, and that will be true increasingly. 

So, last year, thirty of the top economies faced labor shortages, and that’s not good news. That meant $1.3 trillion in lost opportunities for those economies. And by the way, it’s not just the United States, right; it’s countries like Uruguay, Barbados, Guyana, countries across Europe. I was just in Japan and South Korea, where the labor shortage is acute, right? So across the world we’re seeing the pull factor of the job. 

And in some ways, the United States has actually benefited—I use this term very carefully—from the fact that there have been people who have come in to meet the labor shortages. And economic analysis suggests that one of the reasons why the U.S. economy has recovered faster from COVID than some of the other economies is because of the number of migrants coming. Now, whether they’re coming regularly or irregularly is a discussion for policymakers, but the bottom line is that the number of people has actually been helpful for the economy. 

I saw that very starkly when I was in Japan. Japan does not have the kind of border that the United States has. It’s very difficult to migrate irregularly into Japan. And the Japanese government is very actively engaging in figuring out how do they bring migrants in to meet their current migration needs. So that pull factor cannot be underestimated. 

And what begs the question is, rather than spending billions of dollars on managing the border, I think the question for policymakers—and private sector, frankly; for business—should be: How do we enable somebody to come in safely and legally? The other reason why this matters is when we speak to migrants, most of them—many of them are not looking to resettle in the place where they work permanently; they are looking for a job. And if they were able to go back and forth to get that work, they would happily do so. But because of the irregular migration system, it becomes very costly, very risky to go back and forth, so people are saying in communities even though that was not their original intent. 

So, again, it goes back to how do we address the needs of both the host community as well as the migrants themselves, and the opportunities that each are presenting. 

ROBBINS: So can I ask you about—so, the Biden administration has been leaning into that and, I think, shares your thesis that if there were legal channels—and I know I can’t speak for the Biden administration—appears to share your thesis that if there were legal channels that would—people would come here to work through them and it would take pressure off of the asylum system. And they’ve launched a number of different initiatives to try and do that. The largest has been the parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans, where about thirty thousand—up to thirty thousand people a month can come in if they’re sponsored and can get parole to be here and work. How is that working, I mean, other that it survived a legal challenge last week? But how is it—in practice, is that actually taking pressure off of the migration challenges at the southern border? 

POPE: Yes. And if you look at the—what they call the CHNB program, which is particular communities that have access, if you look at that program, the categories of people who can come in through that program have actually decreased, with the exception of Venezuelans, right? We see fewer Cubans. We see fewer Haitians, Nicaraguans coming in through irregular channels because they’re accessing this regular channel. 

But the problem is, it is not scaled to the level where it’s needed. So it is—and it’s not well-connected to the labor needs that exist, right? So we saw here in New York City huge pressure within the communities here when there were a number of migrants who were basically just dumped in the city, right? There was not the kind of planning, not the kind of integration, not the partnership with the private sector, so a very inefficient connection of people with opportunities, which then fuels backlash, fuels xenophobia, and a host of other conflicts within communities. 

It's not just here in the United States; we see this play out all over the world. We saw this in Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador as large numbers of people coming from Venezuela moved quickly into communities that were not expecting them. Even in what I think is the best-case scenario in terms of the management of large movements of people, Ukraine, right, where you had millions of people moved very, very quickly out of the country of Ukraine and very welcoming communities on the other side relative to other migration flows, at some point just the sheer number of people coming in at once created pressures and tensions, especially at the local level. 

So, again, this is another place from a policy point of view where we encourage governments to be proactive, and not really at the national level. Yes, you need the national level, but much more importantly you need the local level. You need the mayors. You need the community leaders to be part of that solution. 

ROBBINS: Can I ask you a little more about that, especially about our hemisphere? 

POPE: Yeah. 

ROBBINS: So I think we tend to think that everyone’s coming here, but there are 20 million people who are displaced in our—in our hemisphere and most of them are not coming here, right? I mean, and both irregularly and legally, I mean, for the first time now most—many Latin American countries are net immigration sort of importers of labor instead of exporters of labor and residents. And in a world where historically most of our migration from Latin America had been from Mexico, over the last ten years it started to become from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras—Guatemala and Honduras—now it’s from everywhere, right? And when we—and so I think how do you think about that when what we are getting is not the majority of people, but a small subset, and there are so many more people displaced in this hemisphere? How do you think about taking on that challenge? 

POPE: So we’re sitting here at the Council on Foreign Relations, but I will tell you that we very rarely see migration policy embedded in foreign policy. And frankly, that’s where it better belongs. 

So you look at the movements of people across the hemisphere, it is unprecedented in terms of people moving particularly out of Venezuela right now. But you also look comprehensively at the labor migration needs across the hemisphere and you realize that there are many countries within the hemisphere that saw labor shortages last year. 

So a couple weeks ago I was in Mexico. We signed a partnership agreement with the Tent Foundation. The Tent Foundation is lead by the head of Chobani yogurt, and they—their goal is to bring together private-sector entities to make a commitment to hire migrants and refugees. They brought fifty of the top private-sector companies to the table when we announced that partnership. And it’s not because those private-sector companies are so necessarily good-hearted and looking to do something to help on the humanitarian angle; it’s because there was over a million-and-a-half jobs that went unfilled, particularly in sectors like manufacturing, agriculture, breadmaking and distribution, right? So there is a need. And the—we see the need in economies in Mexico, Panama, and Colombia, in Brazil, in Barbados. I mean, across the hemisphere there are needs that are going unmet. But rather than build out ways for people to access those jobs, we tend to focus on stopping the movement of people. 

So the pivot that I think needs to happen is to look comprehensively about how we enable better connection of people with opportunities. And when we’re providing foreign development assistance, provide it in a way that connects people to the opportunity. 

So the United States provides foreign development assistance all over the hemisphere, right, but the foreign development assistance of the United States, of every European country, of Japan and the Republic of Korea does not come anywhere close to the amount of remittances—$670 billion in remittances went back from working migrants to their home countries last year. If we start to think about how do we actually leverage the power of people moving and the power of people getting access to jobs through a regular system, we actually can improve the development outcomes. And that’s the idea that we’d like to see more governments embrace, because as long as you have migration policy only dealt within the homeland security or home affairs ministries you will never actually address what’s driving people to move in the first place, but more importantly unlock the tremendous economic potential and development potential that exists when we connect people to opportunity. 

ROBBINS: Right. So you referenced the recent—the recent reports. There was one out of the Fed looking at the recovery and why sort of—not realizing how much immigration we were going to have—we had more than we thought—and that was actually one of the drivers of why our economy had a soft landing and is strong. So there is evidence out there. It’s not influencing the political debate the way that you’re suggesting it should. And so the question is both how do we get it out there and then what does it look like. If we were going to design—if you were going to design a system for the United States and for other countries to really take advantage of this, what does immigration look like? 

POPE: So the best evidence—the best comprehensive evidence that we’ve seen actually comes out of the World Bank, right? So last year’s World Bank Development Report is on migrants and refugees, and it demonstrates across the board the better able we are to match people with opportunities, the better economies flourish. And that’s not just the economy where the migrant is going to live and work; it’s also the economy where she’s coming from. 

And the examples are pretty significant, right? Communities—the province or the state of Kerala in India, which saw a lot of outmigration in the ’70s and ’80s, is one of the most prosperous. And it’s tied directly both to the influx of funding, but also the exchange of skills. And interestingly, there, by the way, it’s not—the migration changes over time. So migrants increasingly are getting better-paid jobs. They’re sending back more money. Fewer people are out-migrating. So it ends up being this sort of virtuous circle. 

So the evidence exists overwhelmingly. But, obviously, it’s not breaking through. I think it’s much easier to talk about migrants as something nefarious. And you know, frankly, the fact that half the world is voting this year and migrants are not voting is one of the reasons, right? So it is much, much easier to lay at the feet of migrants everything that has gone wrong within a society, whether it’s crime, whether it’s access to jobs, whether—you know, you name it, right? We see—and I see it play out in this country on—you know, at a very, very high decibel, but it is playing out across the world. So I think some of it is the fact that we do not have the voices of those who are most affected in the midst of it. 

But I actually think a better approach is not for me to tell you why migration is good for economies or even you, Jeremy—although you’re really effective, so I’m not trying to silence you—but it’s more getting the companies themselves, it’s more getting the communities themselves. There are communities in Spain where the mayor will say: We’ve lost our entire population. All that’s left are old people. And we really need people to come and continue the revitalization of our small town or it’s basically going to disappear, right? And migrants can help do that. So these are some of our best, most effective spokespeople for better migration policies, because they need—they need to have the influx of people into their communities or into their business. 

ROBBINS: Great. So I want to—I want to open up in a—in a second to the Council members. 

But before, I want to ask you one more difficult question, which is sort of the underbelly of this that isn’t talked about a lot, though it is a decent amount in the election, which is: We’ve led several trips to the border. We do backpacking trips to the border. And when you go to the—we were in Nogales in Arizona and Sonora, and the second-highest country of origin of people who were arriving at the border that month in Nogales was Mauritania, which is not an easy way to get from Mauritania to the Arizona border. And what’s clear is that there are much more sophisticated smuggling networks than there have ever been, and that that’s driving it. And so, I guess, as you think about addressing the challenges of migration and certainly irregular migration, how much has the rise of these smuggling networks complicated both the policy and the politics of addressing—of doing this in a humane way, of managing the flows in a—in a way that actually is effective? 

POPE: So it’s really about the economics of this. It’s about the market, right? 

There are—there are two pressures. One is that people are desperate. They don’t have opportunities at home, right? So people are looking for opportunities. And with the rise of social media over the, you know, last ten, fifteen years, we have seen that the sophistication of using those social-media tools far outpaces what any government does in telling you that it’s a dangerous journey, right? 

So we know, for example, that TikTok has become one of the favorite ways of communicating about migration routes. People are communicating versus via WhatsApp groups, right? It’s very, very easy to get out pretty accurate information about how to move across the world at this moment in time. And frankly, governments tend to be pretty clunky in the way they communicate. And they actually don’t always tell the truth, right? People will say, don’t come. It’s dangerous.  

And it is in many cases extremely dangerous. But you also have smugglers who basically painted themselves as tour operators, right? And they’ll provide you sort of various levels of comfort in your journey from one place to the next, in helping to get people across the border. So one of these is about how we communicate. But the other is we just have to be realistic that unless we have better legal pathways for people to take, they will resort to smugglers if they are desperate to get out of their circumstances.  

Now, before we open it up, I want to take a moment, because we’ve talked a lot about migration from the south to the north. But the vast number of people on the move are actually moving within their region. So when we just look at the southwest border, it actually obscures a much, much more complicated movement of people. So, for example, half of the world’s migrants are from Asia. About 40 percent of them—or 40 percent are from Asia. But half of them are working in Asia. Most migrants from Africa are living and working in another neighboring African country. Same thing with Latin America. Most people are moving within the region that they’re from.  

So the other place where we’re looking for opportunities to engage is to ensure better migration outcomes in the region. So the African Union has, as part of its 2063 agenda—strategic agenda, is the free movement of goods. The free movement of goods needs to be accompanied by the movement of people. So again, thinking about where we’re going to engage as a matter of foreign policy, ensuring the fair, more just, equitable movement of people to achieve free trade within the African Union, is a far better investment than the billions of dollars that you’re going to put into building a wall or whatever it is that’s happening at this border.  

ROBBINS: That’s right. And just to put a pin on that, that of the more than 100 million people who are displaced right now, only about 33 million are displaced outside their country, right? The vast majority are displaced within their own country of origin.  

POPE: Right. Right. 

ROBBINS: All right. Well, at this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this is on the record. So let’s start with a question from the audience.  

Please, sir. 

Q: Ron Tiersky from Amherst College. 

There was an article on migration in the Economist magazine perhaps a month ago. It was a very good article. And at the end, there was a very striking sentence, which was, in some time pretty soon—I don’t remember exactly, ten years, twenty years—wealthy countries are going to be competing for migrants. So my question is, could you talk about the relationship between migration and the economic problems we know. But geopolitics, if you look at birth rates, the lowest birth rate in the world is now South Korea, and then Japan. And the European countries are a disaster except for the French, who are doing their part still. And China’s getting—just one more thing—China is getting older before it’s getting rich across the country. So the relation—the question is relationship between migration and geopolitics. 

POPE: So this—I mean, you’ve hit the nail on the head. And that the Economist article really put the point on it in terms of where we need—how we need to be thinking about migration. We don’t want to stop migration. Stopping migration would be a disaster for countries around the globe, wherever you sit. If you’re in sub-Saharan Africa or if you’re sitting in Portugal, especially because of the aging populations. And there’s been some great work actually done in the Foreign Affairs magazine by an economist, Lant Pritchett. Even with all of the innovations around AI and technology, the kinds of jobs that will be emerging cannot now be easily or effectively filled by technology. So we’re going to have a need for the moment of people.  

So it goes back to, what are the identifying—what are the key job sectors that we know. And the major issue that we see is many of those jobs are actually lower skilled jobs. So things like elder care, construction, manufacturing, service industries. And those jobs are not now easily accessed by communities who do not have sophisticated skills. So if you are an engineer, wherever you are in the world—or if you are a nurse, wherever you are in the world, or a doctor, you are very likely to receive job offers from multiple countries. There’s already a competition for your services. We hear all the time from the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Kenya, their nurses are leaving at pretty significant rates. And, by the way, for them, slightly alarming rates because they’re concerned about the depletion of resources there.  

But for people to fill a manufacturing job, solar panel manufacturing—by the way, we do not have enough people to do that work. There’s no LinkedIn for those communities. So our challenge, and where we’re encouraging governments to really make investment, is to ensure that people who kind of help fill those job opportunities have the opportunities to access them. And that will become more and more important as we see the youth dividend in places like many, many of the countries across sub-Saharan Africa. So there is a way to get better alignment of people and job opportunities. But the systems do not now exists to make that happen well. 

ROBBINS: Well, and I’d just add that there’s, well, it’s not just a communication, that you wouldn’t know or there’s no LinkedIn. There’s no line, right? I mean, we have 330 million people in our economy. There are five thousand green cards total for people who don’t have high education, right, and don’t have family ties, and are coming here to work. I mean, you think about for people—home health aides, or all these other things we’ll need. There’s just not only—not the infrastructure in terms of law or communication. 

POPE: And just one point, because you’re from Amherst, is that in terms of the high skilled migrants, which are less the communities we focus on, right now regularly in the United States, and the Republic of Korea, and Japan, and elsewhere, people come to these countries for training, right? There’s a lot of time, investment, resources, putting in to creating and building some of the best minds in various fields. And then people are not—do not have a pathway to stay. So you train them. They learn the culture. They learn the language. And then they go and they work somewhere else in the world. So that is another place where, just as a big picture policy matter, we need better pathways. 

ROBBINS: We fixed the number of high skilled immigrants in 1990, before there was really the internet and our economy was half the size. And there is global competition. People are already competing. And so it’s hugely important to get there.  

We have a question online. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Katherine Hagen. 

Q: Thank you. I’m enjoying this very much, from France where I’m dealing with the European Parliamentary elections.  

And the migration issue is certainly one of those that is coming up there. I appreciate what you mentioned about the success of the European Union to be more effective in dealing with asylum requests than the United States has been. But could you comment a bit more on the ways in which one could manage more effectively the process of dealing with asylum as the main avenue for the influx of the migrations that are happening, both in Europe and in the United States? And how you can deal with the political dynamics of the resistance to dealing with this issue, that we see in both Europe and the United States? 

POPE: So that’s a fantastic question, Katherine, because it really underscores how people on the move have grown increasingly reliant on asylum systems in the absence of other options. So while the European countries, many of them, have done better in terms of their timeline for reviewing asylum claims, the pathways to come and work in many, many countries across the European Union are insufficient to meet their demands, right? Both their labor demands, the demands of their private sector, and the demand from people on the move. And this is not to say—I mean, every government has the right to set its own policy. Every government can determine what they need. It doesn’t mean that every single person sitting in a poor country or less developed country is then entitled or should get a job in a more developed country. That’s not actually a good policy.  

But it does mean that we need better options for people, because in the face of insufficient options asylum is the most straightforward way. And I’ll tell you, that’s what the smugglers are banking on. Because that, you know, as we discussed, the communications network within the smuggling industries are far more sophisticated, far more straightforward. And that gives—that information is getting out to migrants around the world. Now, the downside of that, obviously, it undermines public trust in the asylum system. That’s from sort of the big picture point of view. One of the most alarming trends, that we now see public pushback on asylum and refugee processing, on accepting refugees into the country. Even though, by the way, refugees are the most vetted category of people to come into the United States. 

This conversation is affecting that commitment to providing a safe haven for those who have no other option. So from whatever angle, whatever political angle you’re approaching the issue, if you’re serious about coming up with better options, it does mean building out more safe, legal pathways for labor opportunities. 

ROBBINS: Take another question from the audience. Alex. 

Q: Thank you. This has been great. I’m Alexandra Starr with the International Crisis Group. 

I wanted to follow up a little bit on your comment about immigration and foreign policy. When we look at what’s happening in Central America, in particular—and I would describe it in some cases as almost the weaponization of immigration. What we saw in Nicaragua, for example, when Daniel Ortega allowed for those flights to come in from African countries and then people could make the overland trip to the United States. I’ve heard from people that there was some nervousness within the administration about potentially sanctioning the Nicaraguan government and imposing—like, particularly when it came to their agricultural products, beginning to sanction them and sort of, like, start pushing back against his more dictatorial policies within the government. Because there was a nervousness that that in turn could trigger more migration. So it seems almost like we’re looking at that part of the world through one prism. And I was wondering if you could comment on that, and if it concerns you. 

POPE: Mmm hmm. So let me take a moment just to reflect on the weaponization of migrants that’s happening globally. And there’s actually an interesting story in the New York Times not that long ago about the Russian Federation deliberately using migrants or moving people in order to destabilize countries within the Sahel, right? And we see the potential for destabilization as being quite significant. It happened along the border with Belarus. We’re seeing it in the context of Russia and Finland. We’re seeing it play out within the Americas. So again, this goes back to why we need to be thinking about migration in a much more comprehensive way. Because when we’re afraid to come up with policies, when we’re afraid to take it on comprehensively, it’s very easily used as a political pawn in these—whether it’s in the U.S. domestic policy—or, politics, or in broader contexts. 

I mean, I’m slightly obsessed with the country of Djibouti. I mean—(laughs)—if you—if you look at Djibouti, it’s a country of a million people. It’s in the Horn of Africa, surrounded by other countries that have experienced conflict instability, very severe climate impacts. Every year about 225,000 people pass through Djibouti, mostly on their way to the Gulf countries to get jobs in the Gulf. And that country has been relatively tolerant of the movement of people. But when I was last there just a couple months ago, they said the sheer number is starting to cause tension within their—within their communities. That it’s starting to put pressure on their communities and starting to create a backlash. And we all know the backlash around migration can actually lead to the loss of a government that is in power, right? It can very quickly spiral.  

Now, the reason I am obsessed with it is that 225,000 doesn’t sound like that much. But it’s basically the equivalent of seventy-five million migrants coming across the United States from Mexico to Canada. And you can imagine the backlash that would create in this country, and the tensions that that would exacerbate. So when we think about the issue as a whole, I advocate for greater support and engagement with the countries like Djibouti, which are a reasonably stable country in a neighborhood that is not so stable, because the movement of people, if not managed better—if there are not safer, more regular pathways to the Gulf, for example, if we’re not providing support to Djibouti as it manages these movements of people, could actually have a far more significant destabilizing impact in the Horn of Africa, right?  

So that’s a couple of steps to sort of explain. But the problem is, many policymakers don’t get that far in the analysis. They kind of stop at the first piece of it. So what we’re trying to do increasingly with our work, with our engagement, with the policies we’re working on, is to advocate for this much more—much broader framing. And then thinking about development, political and humanitarian assistance, in terms of that broader framing. 

ROBBINS: We’re going to go online for our next question. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next virtual question from Ken Roth. 

Q: Hi. Thanks very much. I’m the former director of Human Rights Watch, and I’m speaking to you from Geneva.  

And IOM, traditionally one of its purposes was to collect data about migration, which was obviously important to understand, you know, when are people are forced to leave, how can you protect them along the way, you know, when is it safe to send people back? And I’m wondering if that continues to be a priority for IOM. You haven’t mentioned it today. I’m asking in particular because I know in Syria your predecessor stopped the data collection despite huge humanitarian need, because he wanted to open up an office in Damascus, which never happened. I don’t think you’ve resumed that data collection. Is this is going to continue to be a priority for you? 

POPE: Ken, it’s really good to hear your voice. And I’m so pleased that you’re listening in. So thank you.  

So the data actually is one of the key pieces of our strategy for the next couple of years. And we just released our strategic plan. We have three key objectives. Number one is to is to save lives, right? It’s our humanitarian work we’re doing all the all over the world. Number two is to drive solutions to displacement. And number three is to facilitate more regular pathways. And the data is key on all three fronts.  

Number one, in terms of saving lives, the data enables us to better put lifesaving assistance to those communities who are most in need. And that is whether we are in Sudan or Chad, responding to the outflow of migrants, and returnees, and refugees. Or it’s in places across the Middle East. I mean, frankly, everywhere in the world. And I think, actually, there’s much more we can and should be doing in the Western Hemisphere to enable better policy outcomes. So the data is fundamental.  

But what I want to do, and where we’re putting resources, is move away from just the data painting the picture of how things are now, to using the data to better understand what the state of the world will be, and thus put resources and policy engagement around that piece. Now, that is increasingly important when we talk about the impact of climate change. If we stick with the Horn of Africa for a moment, the impact of drought over the last six seasons has been devastating, right? People who were herding or farming communities no longer had a way to make a living.  

Somalia is a country that already had faced fairly significant upheaval over the years as a result of the conflict. And what we saw was that increasing numbers of people displaced inside of the country and increasing numbers of people displaced across the border into Kenya. And I was in Dadaab, which is a refugee camp in the north of Kenya, just a few months ago. What I found striking was that 125,000 new migrants had come across, fleeing not Shabaab, not fleeing the political conflict, but fleeing the drought. And I spoke to some in particular who had been resettled back to Somalia but could no longer make a living because the drought meant that their livelihood had been completely erased. And what we know is that there is now data that would enable us to predict which communities will be on the move.  

So we recently partnered with Microsoft and a group called Planet that does data mapping on a climate—you know, looking at things like soil and water erosion. And they can tell you now the soil moisture levels in X community, and this community relies—is a pastoral community, are so low that people will have to move over the next couple of years. And we know that when people move in unplanned ways, sometimes they’re moving into other communities where there’s already a scarcity of resources. That fuels conflict. So our goal is to start to use our data to better predict, understand, and engage before people move, or as soon as they move, so that we don’t wait until we’re dealing with, you know, a billion-dollar and how many lives lost sort of crisis, which is much, much, much harder to respond to. And we instead work with communities to change the way they do their agriculture, to change their water infrastructure management, to build out better livelihoods, or perhaps to identify better, safer, legal pathways for them to migrate to. 

ROBBINS: Can I ask you just a predictive question on that? Because when you look at data to predict what will happen, there are a lot of countries that are—that are experiencing much higher per capita migration than the United States. And one thing that’s going to be very relevant in our political election this year is that you’re hearing, particularly President Trump, say that we’re full—that it’s too many people, this is hurting American workers, it’s—that we just can’t handle how many people are coming. And you look to the north, at Canada, that’s taking 3X the number of people we are per capita, and certainly a lot of them are high-skilled but they also take way more refugees and others. And so is there an ability to use the data to look at those countries and see what impact that has on their native-born workers, on their economy, on those type of— 

POPE: Yeah. There are—I mean, I would like us to, in the future, use the data as the primary driver of the policy discussion, as opposed to right now. And this is not unique to us. We’re building up the capacity. But around the world, people are making policy decisions based on the politics or anecdote, right? And because the demographic shifts are going to be so stark, because the demographic deficit across many of the world’s biggest economies will mean that those economies will no longer be able to innovate or meet their own development goals without migration, we want the data to help inform the way migration policy is developed, right? 

So there’s—there is a couple angles where we want to use our data. 

One, of course, is around the humanitarian. How do we get assistance to those communities that are most in need? How do we avoid duplication? How do we make sure that the support that’s being provided is best suited to that community? 

The second is, how do we use data to forecast when people will move and what interventions might enable them to stay home longer? 

And the third is using the data to understand and better address the emerging labor market needs and the emerging possibilities for meeting those needs. So, for example, I would love to see more governments invest in nursing schools in countries around the world, right, because we already know that nursing is a shortage that will continue to grow with the number of elders who we’ll see across the world. And you cannot—it is a bad policy to take all the nurses out of, you know, Sierra Leone or Kenya and leave them with nobody, right? That’s not what we want. So let’s think about how do we make those investments now in nursing in communities that are now reliant on rainfall agriculture and will not be able to rely on that into the future. 

But it’s that kind of—and the systems are not built to think this way. So, you know, I’m suggesting a model that doesn’t really exist. We tend to do humanitarian here and development here and migration management over here, and we very rarely bring all those people together into a conversation and come up with a comprehensive approach. But I think we not only need it now, but unless we do it—people are going to move no matter what. People are going to move. We can’t control that part. And unless we start to think that way about the problem set, we’re only going to see more chaos. We’re going to see more death. We’re going to see more exploitation. 


Q: You sell a very compelling narrative. And I’m wondering, if this is a narrative, it’s very, very different from the narrative that we hear from our government or from the Republican Party that’s seeking to displace our government. Do you think that the narrative that you’ve described here is understood and embraced by the Biden administration and they’re just not telling the story? Or do you think that they have a very different perspective from the one that you’ve sort of told us here? 

POPE: I think the politics of the moment have brought—have sucked everybody into a policy framework that is not actually in the best interest of the United States, right? So, again, everybody is focused on the border. And what’s happening on the border is not well-managed migration; what’s happening at the border is the result of year after year after year of a failure to put in place a system that will enable people to migrate more safely, more legally, and to meet economic/labor needs. 

But I started—you know, back in 2006, I was working on comprehensive immigration reform when President Bush was the president. And we heard—we knew that the system then did not meet the existing needs, but Congress was unable to come up with a system that worked. And what we’re seeing now at the border is the results of the failure to come up with a policy that makes sense for the American economy today. 

Now, it’s not that it’s not well understood; it’s just that it takes a range of stakeholders to get to a better place. And you can’t have a system where the U.S. Congress is refusing to play. They have to be part of the solution. And you need to have mayors involved. You need to have private sector involved. You need to have civil society involved. But ultimately, until people recognize the importance of this—and you know, whether that means more labor shortages, whether that means more numbers of people at the border—but until there’s a recognition that we have to come up with a better policy, this will continue to play out no matter what anyone’s intent is or how many resources they put at the border. 

ROBBINS: Yeah. We’ll go online for our next question. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Alison Renteln. 

Q: Hello. I’m Alison Renteln from the University of Southern California. I wanted to thank you for your important work. It’s so admirable. 

I wondered if we could talk for a minute about how the human rights framework applies to migration. The human right to leave a country doesn’t seem to be attached to a right to asylum. And I wondered if, in supporting your policies, you think you can make use of a human right to asylum as an emerging or crystalizing customary norm. And I’m also wondering if the theoretical framework of R2P—responsibility to protect—could also be used or invoked to support claims to give people access to host countries, and so, you know, to take it more to a global level than just what’s in the interest of the United States. 

And again, I really do admire the incredible work you’re doing. Thank you. 

POPE: Thank you so much. 

So there are a couple of things here. One is I just want to make really clear that the way the system operates now is not working. Last year was the deadliest year for migrants, for people on the move, right? More people died in the Mediterranean, more people died in deserts, more people died in jungles than any other year, and that’s just based on the information we know, right? We believe, actually, thousands more died whose deaths were not reported. So let’s just sort of start with that premise. 

But I actually think the primary failure here is not around the right to asylum. I think the primary failure here is the failure to build out solutions for people who will not have access or qualify to the asylum systems that exist. Because the 1951 Convention, as important as it is, right—the convention to—which basically lays out who is a refugee, who is protected, and who is—how states are required to meet those obligation(s)—that convention, if you look at the number of people moving today and why they’re moving today, is far too narrow. It does not cover, for example, someone who can no longer farm, and no longer has a livelihood at home, and is effectively starving, right, or has no prospect for a livelihood in their home country. That person has no legal remedy, so giving them a right to asylum is actually not an answer. And I think one of the failures of our global community as a whole in looking at the issue is to focus overly on persons who need asylum without taking into account which is a much bigger number of people who are on the move who will not be able to access those protections for whatever reason. 

Now, I recognize that expanding the definition of “refugee” is a political minefield, and I’m not actually advocating. That’s something states need to grapple with, right? But I do believe that we need to build out better solutions for people who are on the move who will not qualify for asylum, and that there the one area that is a clear gap are people who are leaving because of climate impact, whether it’s storms, flooding, desertification, sea-level rise. These are communities that will not have options right now absent interventions. 

ROBBINS: I think we’ll take one final question from the room, if there is one. All right. Well, then I will say thank you all for joining our—today’s session, and to Director General Pope for her leadership and participation today, and to the Silberstein family for generously endowing and sponsoring this lecture series. Please take note that the video and transcript of this lecture will be on the CFR website. And thank you all for coming. 

POPE: Thank you. (Applause.) 


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