In Focus

Annual interview with ICMPD's Director General Michael Spindelegger

26 April 2023

Michael Spindelegger, Director General of ICMPD, on the war in Ukraine and its consequences for neighbouring countries, the European Union and the present and future of ICMPD.


In February 2022, Russia started the invasion of Ukraine. How has the war affected ICMPD as an organisation?

Like many other actors, we could not imagine that it would actually happen. Due to our strong presence in Eastern Europe, we observed certain developments of course. That they would lead to a full-scale war still came as a surprise to us, as it did to most other observers. As ICMPD, we were on the ground in Ukraine operating different projects and had to find out very quickly how we could continue our support for Ukraine, a country and partner under attack, for instance with its border management. Here we have had to intensify our efforts in the past few months in particular. The war is not only bringing suffering and destruction to the Ukrainian people, it is unfortunately also creating opportunities for organised crime across borders. We also quickly realised that Ukraine needs help in dealing with administrative challenges in countries that are hosting large numbers of refugees from the country. ICMPD has set up programmes to support Ukraine’s embassies in fulfilling their tasks for millions of people outside of Ukraine. Of course, providing support for Ukrainian refugees in EU countries is another major task for ICMPD.   

How is ICMPD involved in supporting Ukrainian refugees in EU Member States?

We have to think ahead. The EU granted applicants from Ukraine immediate access to temporary protection, which turned out to be a bold but wise decision given the large number of people seeking refuge. Now we have to ask ourselves what will happen after the three years of temporary protection have to formally end. We need to start a discussion on the end of temporary protection, on the integration of Ukrainian refugees in the host countries and also how we can organise the return and reintegration of Ukrainian refugees once the situation allows. Of course, we all hope that this will be possible soon. But ICMPD wants to facilitate the debate and provide guidance and concepts in preparing for these hopefully positive developments.

How did ICMPD manage to step up its programmes in support of Ukraine in 2022?

In close cooperation with a number of our donors, we managed to move resources from existing projects to new projects that would react swiftly to the fundamentally changed situation. Some of these were added on top on what had been planned before, while others replaced existing programmes. Thus, we worked closely with our Member States and Ukrainian counterparts to make this transition as swift and targeted as possible.

You took office as Director General of ICMPD in 2016, when the migration debate was at a peak in the EU in the face of the so-called refugee crisis. In 2020, the global pandemic shook the world and deeply affected mobility in all its forms. Since last year, Europe has been faced with war on its territory and the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. How are these seismic shifts reflected in ICMPD and the cooperation with the ICMPD Member States?

Of course, we have to react to all these developments as quickly and thoroughly as we can and are doing so together with our Member States, other partners, donors and supporters. At the same time, we need to stress that even in view of the immediate crisis that is commanding most of our attention and resources, we also need to keep in mind the longer-term developments and challenges. One of these is the demographic development in Europe. In some countries the lack of skill and labour is already a major challenge. As ICMPD, we are working on how to better manage legal migration as a future source of skilled labour in receiving states but also as a source of development in the sending states. The challenge is to organise legal migration as a partnership which benefits everyone – the people who migrate and the sending and receiving countries. It needs to be a partnership. ICMPD is working on different concepts to bring this to life. The same applies to the return of people who are obliged to leave the territories of the EU and our other partner States. This too can be best solved through programmes that ensure functioning reintegration of returnees but also benefit the countries and communities to which people return.

How open are EU Member States to more legal and labour migration?

We have noticed a shift in the debate but also a shift in policy in those countries that are already experiencing labour shortages. Germany, for instance, was at the forefront among EU Member States that are very actively developing new and legal channels for migrants to come to Germany for certain jobs. Last year showed that other European countries have started to follow this path as well. But let’s be honest here: it is a complex task and it will not be easy to make it function. It’s important to try different models and start an open discussion about what works and what does not work. This is where ICMPD and its projects can be very helpful.

What is special about ICMPD’s approach to labour migration?

We are convinced that it is extremely important to strongly involve the private sector and to engage in longer-term planning. As a country, you need to have a very good idea what kind of labour skills your private sector needs, and you need the private sector’s help and engagement in order to develop these specific skills in sending countries. For us, it is key that labour migrants already receive the necessary training and education in their home countries. This requires a lot of planning now so that it can start to work in the future.

What concrete role can ICMPD can play in better organising labour migration?

Ideally, ICMPD can function as the missing link between public institutions and the private sector. Developing functioning structures for training and recruitment between countries is complicated. As an organisation, we are very experienced in supporting the establishment of such structures. We can take care of the building of education and training systems in sending countries. Very recently, for instance, we started a new implementation phase of a project of this kind in Nigeria. It’s a new way to organise migration and it requires both receiving and sending states to get involved to a new degree and to be open to a learning process that involves trial and error but hopefully also success. Ultimately, it will be the only way to find out what works and what does not work.

How would you describe the role of ICMPD on a global level?

ICMPD has never had the intention to be a global player and to act worldwide. Our focus is and will remain Europe and the regions that surround it. It is not always easy to find solutions that work for all ICMPD Member States. But we are flexible enough to move ahead with certain projects even if they are supported by only a limited number of Member States who are willing to support and finance them. It is a good and practical approach to offer solutions to those who are willing to use them. There is no need for every project to work for every country or every region.

On which topics, projects or regions will ICMPD focus in 2023?

We all need to be aware of the rapidly changing environment around us and have to react accordingly. At the moment, naturally, the war in Ukraine is very much the focus when it comes to migration. It is obviously a major topic for the whole of Europe. But we must not lose sight of other important developments. Last year, nearly one million persons from countries other than Ukraine applied for asylum in the EU. That was the highest figure since the refugee crisis. The Western Balkans again became a major route of migration from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Syria and Iraq as well as from countries with visa-free arrangements like India or Tunisia. Cooperation migration governance in the Western Balkans will definitely be a priority in 2023. The disastrous earthquake that hit our Member States of Türkiye and Syria calls for utmost solidarity and all the help and support the international community can provide at every level. And we will do our best to do the same throughout next year. This inconceivable catastrophe is also likely to add to the migration and protection challenges in the region and beyond, which will require us to work on solutions together with Türkiye, our Member States, friends and partners. So, as an organisation, we have to be vigilant, we have to pay attention and we have to be able to react quickly to emerging situations and the resulting needs and try to be even faster than in the past in doing so.

ICMPD used to have an office in Afghanistan until 18 months ago, when the Taliban took over the country and international partners and organisations left Afghanistan. Do you expect more people to flee from the country in 2023? What about the developments in other world regions?

From the migrant information and counselling programmes we run in the region, we believe that only a small number of Afghans nowadays have the means to emigrate from the country. The overall political, economic and humanitarian situation is terrifying but also leaves people with little means to move abroad. However, the situation looks different in the neighbouring countries that host large Afghan populations. The worsening economic situation there and soaring living costs could prompt larger secondary movements from Pakistan and Iran towards Türkiye, the Western Balkans and the EU. All in all, however, I’m convinced that migration will remain a highly important and a hotly debated topic for the European Union in 2023 as well. We see continued challenges in the Western Balkans where we are strongly engaged as an organisation. The same applies to the second major migration route along the Central Mediterranean. I have mentioned our support for Ukraine and Türkiye already.

Another focus for ICMPD is Africa. Climate change is believed to significantly enhance migration within Africa but will also lead to more mobility from Africa to Europe. As an organisation we want to become more present and more active on this continent in order to provide support for functioning migration governance. To cite just one example, we had the honour to organise a migration dialogue between Niger and Nigeria to better manage the two countries’ common border. We hope to expand such activities in the future and will work to this end in 2023.

How are these changes and developments reflected in ICMPD’s organisational structure?

It goes without saying that we have to constantly expand our presence in the regions we are working in and have to build up and adapt our premises, our human resources and our managerial and administrative processes. One priority, for instance, is to build up IT and HR capacities in the regional offices to be more responsive to local environments and requirements. And I can proudly say that our colleagues in our various offices are stepping up to the task and managing this organisational transition with full commitment and great success. Our team for western Africa, for instance, is well established in its Abuja office in Nigeria and continues to constantly grow. Our focus on the Mediterranean is clearly expressed through our regional hub and our training centre in Malta, both of which have seen significant growth in recent years. Established only seven years ago, now 50 staff members live and work in Malta. For the Western Balkans and Türkiye, we are consolidating our programmes and staff resources in the Ankara and Istanbul offices. So, we are seeing organisational growth and expansion of activities in many of our priority regions and thus far have managed quite successfully to react with the necessary organisational reforms.

ICMPD has grown significantly in the last few years. How has this changed the organisation?

It has been a very rewarding challenge, yet still a challenge, to welcome new Member States, to introduce new functions and fields of expertise and to adapt the underlying managerial and administrative systems. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which changed the way we worked and how we organised our work from one day to the next. Again, we managed and in a way grew from the experience.

We have introduced flexible work arrangements that allow sufficient office time and opportunities to work from home. These arrangements deliver, they are widely accepted among our staff and managers, and they help us to maintain lean structures while getting everybody fully involved in internal communication and cooperation.

In 2022, ICMPD was the victim of a cyber attack. What has changed since then?

Luckily we were able to manage the attack well because we are experienced with crisis situations and therefore well prepared to deal with crisis situations in general. We optimised our IT architecture even further to provide the utmost security possible. We are linking this work with the ongoing digitalisation of our workflows and documentation to make them faster and more efficient. Again, we aim to pay particular attention to the needs of our colleagues working in the regions and on the ground.