Michael Spindelegger, Director General of ICMPD, about the tremendous impact that COVID-19 has had on global migration, about how ICMPD has had to adapt and about how ICMPD can help to build a well-functioning European asylum system.
This interview was conducted for the Annual Report 2020 and can be found in the ICMPD Annual Report 2020.
2020 was a very special year. How has the pandemic shaped the work of ICMPD?
It was without any doubt a big challenge. ICMPD’s core work is related to capacity building projects and migration dialogues in different world regions. This usually involves travelling and bringing people together, conducting trainings and conferences and all of this became impossible due to the pandemic. Thus, we had to adapt our working style quite quickly. At the same time, we agreed with our partners and donors to use some funds to provide immediate aid to some regions in response to the crisis. The creativity of our staff and their dedication in addressing administrative issues made this possible.
How did the pandemic change migration?
The implications were huge. Initially, the mobility restriction imposed by most States drove down migration numbers. But as soon as those restrictions were lifted figures went up again to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, the people who migrated regardless of the pandemic often chose different routes than last year. The central Mediterranean route, for example, became more important again. This shift resulted from the situation at the Eastern Mediterranean Route where large-scale arrivals prompted the Greek government to close external borders and suspend the admission of asylum applications. But it was also an indicator for the impact of COVID-19. An increasing number of citizens from North African countries tried to leave for Europe as a response to the crisis of tourism in their country. Also the route via Western Balkans was chosen more often. The biggest increase was recorded on the route via Mauretania and Morocco. We also have to realise that the economic downturn in the European Union impacts families and regions outside the EU. Global migrant remittances have reduced by 14 percent in 2020.
What kind of effects of the pandemic do you expect in the medium term?
Migration will pick up again as soon as borders controls are lifted and economic growth returns across Europe. Many migration projects were postponed because of the pandemic. Its economic impacts might lead to even stronger migration pressures. Forecasts are hard to make on migration but there are good reasons why the European Union should prepare for increasing migration flows.
Despite its New Pact on Migration and Asylum?
The New Pact is definitely based on more thorough and constructive discussions than previous attempts. It has undoubtedly brought quite some progress, but some big questions remain unsolved. There was no breakthrough regarding the “cardinal issue” of solidarity in terms of a distribution scheme of asylum seekers among European Union Member States or how they can better support each other on return. However, the New Pact on Migration has defined common goals. There will be a much stronger focus on migration partnerships with countries of origin and transit, which hopefully will offer these countries much more help to address the reasons that make people feel that they have to migrate even when it has to be in an irregular way. That is also an area where we as ICMPD can contribute a lot based on our expertise and experience.
What other priorities does ICMPD follow in the coming year?
We are working on projects to improve the situation of migrants and refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina where the situation is extremely challenging. We also try to contribute to good cooperation on migration between the EU and Turkey, which is not only an ICMPD member state but also faces particular challenges as host of the largest refugee population in the world.
It is five years since you became director general of ICMPD. What has changed?
Meanwhile there is broad consensus that we have to bring very concrete support to countries of origin in order to actually reduce migration pressures. It is also more widely understood that we have to invest in migration partnerships both to address irregular migration and to help people return to the countries they came from. Furthermore, it has become evident that we need to think about opportunities for legal migration and border controls that actually work at the same time. One does not work without the other. There is also a broader understanding in the EU that it has to work on better functioning asylum systems in the Member States that allow for much quicker decisions. Improvements have been made, but a lot remains to be done.
How has ICMPD developed itself during these five years?
Our staff has doubled and our budget for projects has tripled, which helps the organisation to thrive. With Turkey and Malta, two countries have joined ICMPD that play a key role in how we can manage migration in a responsible way. Last year Germany became a member which is important for many initiatives our organization is working on. We are working hard to be the preferred partner for the European Union but also for the non-European countries when it comes to questions of migration.
What are your next objectives on this way?
Our focus is on innovation, especially when it comes to multi-dimensional migration partnerships. This is where we can be of great help for the European Union. A major key for making migration partnerships work is to understand in which fields the partner countries need concrete help. Partnership is a more complex concept than just paying them to take back people. ICMPD can provide a broad set of ideas and contributions to make these partnerships work better in the future.
2021 has had a rather rough start. How does ICMPD plan ahead with so much uncertainty?
We focus on where we can help despite the pandemic. We will provide consultancy to Portugal and Slovenia which will hold the EU council presidency this year with a focus on return measurements. We will work together with the European External Action Service. As an organization, we will try to grow further. Greece and the Netherlands have already applied for a membership; Denmark has shown its interest. We hope that ICMPD becomes an even stronger voice on migration in the European Union but also the preferred partner for concrete initiatives and programmes.
If you could make a wish – what should happen within your next term to make migration better?
For ICMPD, I would like our organization to play a role in the development of a truly common European asylum system and good and stable migration partnerships with our partners outside of Europe. We should help to better protect European borders, which is a necessity for a functioning European migration system. And we should contribute to all policy initiatives that tackle root causes, address migration pressures but also develop opportunities for legal and labour migration.