A Tunisian fishing vessel with migrants on board, 2023 © Shutterstock

Migrant deaths must never be normalized
In conversation with IOM’s Deputy Director General for Operations, Ugochi Daniels, reflecting on the past, present and future of migration
1 Dec 2023

Ugochi Daniels was appointed as the International Organization of Migration’s (IOM) Deputy Director General (DDG) for Operations in 2021, and since then she has used her significant experience working for the UN in humanitarian contexts to lead many departments in the system.

IOM supports solutions for all aspects of migration by saving lives, preventing and ending displacement and facilitating regular pathways. DDG Daniels explains, “We see migration patterns depending on the interplay of various factors such as work, education, family reunification, safety, and protection (in the case of refugees and asylum seekers). People also have to migrate as a coping mechanism and end up displaced due to various reasons such as earthquakes, floods, drought, conflicts, etc”.

She highlights that “Our commitment to support migrants requires a collaborative effort with diverse stakeholders, including other members of the UN family, governments, civil society, the diaspora, host communities, academia, and the media, especially with operations in over 150 countries and over 20,000 employees”.

Regarding IOM’s ground operations, DDG Daniels emphasizes that, “We are very focused on helping people stay where they are if that is what they choose. If people are displaced, we want to help them return to their homes or seek opportunities to integrate elsewhere. When people choose to move, we work to support migration that is safe, regular, and orderly”.

In 2022, the worldwide count of internally displaced persons reached 71.1 million © Shutterstock

There is an increasingly intersectional nature to the situations that the IOM operates in, which requires a tailored approach to the operations on the ground in that context. DDG Daniels elaborates, “Our choice of partners varies depending on the situation, especially the root causes of migration in that context, which is why diverse partnerships are a must. Responding to migration in settings of development, humanitarian crisis or transition and recovery is multi-dimensional and requires multiple partnerships”.

She notes there is a great emphasis within the organization on data and evidence to provide analysis and inform how operations will respond to situations and which critical partners are needed. “Recent crises have increased migration in the last few years, and the world currently has the greatest number of people displaced internally that it has ever had. In 2022, the worldwide count of internally displaced individuals reached 71.1 million, primarily attributed to two key factors: 62.5 million due to conflict and violence and 8.7 million due to disasters. During the same year, the global refugee population surged to 35.3 million, a significant rise from 27.1 million in 2021”.

DDG Daniels insists that, “It is a time where we have the greatest need, from a humanitarian perspective. As specified in the UN’s global humanitarian response plan, there is currently a 60% gap between the funding requested to address the needs and the funding that is available”.

She adds, “Humanitarian needs will likely increase considering the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable and least capable to adapt and be resilient, causing migration numbers to increase, as per statistics from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the World Bank. They estimate that approximately 216 million people will be on the move due to the impact of climate change by 2050”.

The core funding for the IOM comes from its Member States, who pay an assessed contribution to the organization, as well as donors, who provide voluntary funding in addition to their assessed contribution. 

“Overall, 93% of IOM’s funding is dedicated to specific projects, with 7% allocated for the organization to decide how it will be used based on its strategic priorities. Currently, almost 70% of what the IOM does is respond to humanitarian crises, and we want to continue to save lives but also prioritize investment in prevention so that people are less vulnerable to the impact of climate change and can adapt. For those who can no longer adapt or choose to move as their adaptation strategy, we aim to facilitate their access to opportunities for regular migration,” says DDG Daniels.

The increasing migration numbers are inextricably linked to the sad truth that many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have stagnated or are off track, despite some progress being made. Development, or at least some progress towards development, is what enables people to stay in their current locations and develop resilience against the impact of climate change, but without this, it will continue to be a major cause of increased migration levels globally.

DDG Daniels explains that another challenge facing the IOM is: “The political discourse around migration. We see politicization of the issue and xenophobia. None of this is supported by what the data says about the positive contributions of migration”. 

Migrants rescued at sea after attempting to cross the English Channel, Kent, England, April 2022 © Sean Aidan Calderbank, Shutterstock

Given the constant-evolving nature of the crises impacting the world now, it is no surprise that the nature of the challenges facing the IOM has also evolved. DDG Daniels specifies that there are increasing security concerns due to the politically fueled narrative around migration. The narrative dictates that migrants pose a security threat, which only makes them more vulnerable. She adds, “If people can’t move safely, they are exposed to situations such as human trafficking or fall prey to criminal gangs who deal in human smuggling. Sadly, these situations are becoming more common among vulnerable people who choose to move irregularly”.

“Tragically, we know from IOM’s Missing Migrants Project (MMP) that this year is on course to be yet another deadly year for migrants. According to the MMP, there is strong evidence that many shipwrecks, especially on the Central Mediterranean routes are ‘invisible’ – boats in distress disappear with no survivors – and therefore go unrecorded. For example, MMP has recorded hundreds of human remains found on Libyan shores that are not linked to any known shipwreck. This is utterly shocking and heartbreaking. The humanitarian imperative to save lives has not been upheld when it comes to people who are only trying to seek safety or better opportunities for themselves and their families. Migrant deaths at sea or anywhere must never be normalized”.

So, what can be done? DDG Daniels says the solutions can be found “if countries recognize the power of migration”. She highlights that in 2022, the estimated remittances sent to low and middle-income countries amounted to $647 billion, illustrating the economic significance of migrants’ contributions. Amid labor shortages that are greater than ever and looming demographic shifts, an opportunity cost of more than $1 trillion today could grow into a $20 trillion opportunity by 2050.

She emphasizes, “Countries are aware that the remedy lies in migration and expanding opportunities for people to migrate regularly. Despite the massive potential that migration offers, it often faces headwinds like negative narratives, political challenges, and the notion that migration is a bad thing”.

“I was recently speaking with migrants, and they revealed that they don’t want to be identified as migrants. The terminology around migration has taken a negative turn which means they feel dehumanized and hunted. Paradoxically, the contributions migrants make in their home countries, the countries they transit through, and the countries where they are going to, is core to the solution that the global community needs for development (in developing countries) and continued socioeconomic growth (in developed countries) given the changes in their population structure”.

DDG Daniels highlights that IOM’s Director General, Amy Pope, is forward thinking about harnessing the benefits of migration to mitigate the challenges facing migrants in the current socioeconomic climate.

Coordinating IOM’s operations with other humanitarian stakeholders intervening on the ground requires intricate planning. DDG Daniels advocates that “The humanitarian response globally is managed through a very extensive coordination structure at the local, regional and global level. We lead or co-lead the sectors that organize the management of camps or settlements. While some may argue that this level of coordination can sometimes impede delivery, we work within the broader humanitarian community, including the UN system and NGOs”. She also brings up localization – working with local partners on the ground, saying, “I want to emphasize the important role this plays in our work, as it enables us to engage those that are hardest to reach and hardest to see during on-the-ground responses”.

DDG Daniels says that there are potentially great prospects for IOM. She speaks of the “triple win concept – where it can benefit the country of origin, the destination country and the migrants themselves”, if it is considered a genuine solution for many of the challenges the world has right now.

For now, DDG Daniels asserts that the organization’s vision is: “to serve migrants, our member states, and our work force through a people-focused, data-driven, strategic approach that allows us to deliver on the promise of migration, while supporting the world’s most vulnerable could not be more important in today’s world and for the future we want”. 

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
Read more articles about FOCUS ON