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Election at UN migration agency pits its European chief against his American deputy


GENEVA (AP) — He’s European. She’s American. He runs the U.N. migration agency. She wants his job.

International Organization for Migration director-general Antonio Vitorino of Portugal faces what could be a tight race against his Biden administration-backed deputy, Amy Pope, as member countries of the Geneva-based agency choose its chief for the next five years on Monday.

The election comes as migrants have been on the move like never before, driven from their homes by factors including conflict, economic distress and the growing impacts of climate change.

The U.S. and the European Union — both major funders of IOM — are facing challenges with migration. Critics fault the EU for failing to do more to prevent often-deadly trips by migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from north Africa to Europe by boat. The U.N. refugee agency and others have expressed concern about how changes to U.S. migration law will affect people trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States.

But IOM, which counts 175 member countries, is also grappling with mass migration crises far beyond — in places as diverse as Bangladesh, Ukraine, Sudan and among Venezuela’s neighbors in Latin America.

The organization has nearly 19,000 staffers working in 171 countries to promote “humane and orderly” migration.

Its job in many of its 560 field offices worldwide is to provide support — food, water, shelter, and help with government-imposed paperwork — to migrants. The agency also collects and shares vast amounts of data about flows of people to governments, and advises them on policy decisions.

To win under IOM rules, a candidate needs to garner votes from two-thirds of countries that cast ballots in closed-door proceedings. Tradition has been that IOM chiefs get a second term, but Vitorino has not lined up support from all 27 member countries of the European Union.

Vitorino swept into the job in 2018 after IOM member countries rebuffed a candidate put up by the Trump administration, which pulled the U.S. out of the U.N.’s main human rights body, shunned globalism and espoused an “America First” policy that rankled many.

Vitorino is a former EU commissioner for Home and Justice Affairs and think-tank chief, who cut his teeth early in politics as a Portuguese Socialist, much like U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Supporters credit Vitorino with doing more to hire and promote women within IOM, improve dialogue with African countries and help draw contributions that saw its budget grow nearly 20 percent between 2019 and 2021, to $2.5 billion, and staffing levels grow by nearly 40 percent from 2019 through last year.

The U.S. administration has thrown its weight behind the candidacy of Pope, a former migration adviser to President Joe Biden. It is seeking to claw back the job for the U.S.: Eight of the 10 IOM directors-general since the agency was founded 72 years ago have been American.

Pope, IOM’s deputy director for reform and management, is vying to become the agency’s first woman chief. She’s a former prosecutor and most of her career was spent working for the U.S. government.

She has touted her role in pushing through a budget reform that drew a $75 million commitment from governments to improve field delivery and risk management. Her backers say more change is needed to help IOM adapt to growing migration challenges and diversify funding sources.

Under Biden, the United States has sought greater engagement with the United Nations and is trying to slot Americans into top U.N. posts.

Last fall, Doreen Bogdan-Martin defeated a Russian rival to take the top job at the International Telecommunications Union — succeeding its Chinese chief. This year, Cindy McCain, the widow of former presidential hopeful John McCain, became head of the U.N.'s World Food Program.

Both candidates for the IOM job have been ramping up travel abroad, media appearances and social-media posts in recent months. Pope jumped into the race months before Vitorino, who let the suspense linger until Portugal announced his re-election bid late last year.