The UN migration agency that influences policies around the world has rejected the Trump administration’s candidate to lead it. It’s just the second time since the agency’s founding in 1951 that an American hasn’t held the top seat.
The Trump administration’s candidate, Ken Isaacs, is well-known globally as a humanitarian. He has overseen all international relief projects for Franklin Graham’s humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse as vice president of programs and government relations.
Isaacs gained unwanted attention during his candidacy for social media comments his critics called “anti-Muslim.” The Washington Post reported on the posts in a story along with an apology from Isaacs who called them “careless” and said, “I deeply regret that my comments on social media have caused hurt and have undermined my professional record.”
It’s not clear why UN diplomats representing 172 countries voted in favor of Antonio Vitorino, a Portuguese Socialist. He’s a former EU commissioner for Home and Justice Affairs, and just the second non-American director-general of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in its history.
Mark Hetfield, the head of HIAS, an international Jewish non-profit that advocates for refugees, said he thinks the vote may have been more of an international rejection of the Trump administration than a rejection of Isaacs, whom he knows professionally.
Hetfield noted the vote came the same week that the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration’s travel ban and right after major controversy over the administration’s enforcement of a family travel separation policy used since the Clinton administration, which it later reversed after the media and democrats suddenly made it an issue this spring.
The US has also stepped back from the international community recently. It pulled out of the UN’s Human Rights Council and the president criticized the World Trade Organization as “unfair” to the US. The Human Rights Council is notorious for being chaired by human rights abusers and its own unfair treatment of Israel.
“Clearly Ken made some very unfortunate tweets about Islam and that was certainly a factor, but this was really a vote about the Trump administration,” Hetfield said.
Keith Harper, the former US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council during the Obama administration, also sees the vote as reflection of international attitudes towards the US. The vote is a setback for US foreign policy said Hetfield. “It undermines our position and our ability to influence the migration policies of other countries and any international cooperation.”
The agency, known as the International Organization of Migration (IOM), has more than 10,000 staffers in more than 150 countries. It provides humanitarian aid to migrants and has been known more recently for tracking the deaths of migrants across the deadly Mediterranean waters between northern Africa and Europe. The agency also works to resettle immigrants accepted by foreign countries.
The organization has not escaped criticism, however. Current U.N. policy requires that migrants settle, or be housed in the first country they enter after leaving their own country. The IOM has broken its own rules by forcing many countries to house and admit for citizenship immigrants that travel thousands of miles, traversing numerous countries, in their efforts to reach Europe or the United States. If U.N. policy were followed the way it is written, Central American immigrants would be required to stay in Central America, or Mexico, and not be allowed and supported in their attempts to reach the southern border of the United States. The Trump administration, in essence, was criticized for trying to enforce the U.N.’s own rules.
The US is the largest donor to the IOM, followed closely by the European Union. Hetfield declined to speculate about whether the Trump administration will now retaliate and cut funding to the agency.