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Palace coup

With migration vote against U.S. pick, Europe grips the helm of global agencies

Palace coup

A satirical EU flag is flown at a protest in Dresden against German Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration policy. (Alexey Vitvitsky/Sputnik via AP)

In some ways it’s no surprise the international community rejected Ken Isaacs, the Samaritan’s Purse vice president and Trump nominee to lead the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The Washington Post and others ran a steady campaign against Isaacs after digging up several of his tweets deemed anti-Muslim. 

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council only two weeks before the IOM vote telegraphed the president’s low regard for UN affiliates. Trump’s policies on refugees and migrants—plus his 2017 decision to remove the United States from the Global Compact on Migration, another UN-led effort—made electing an American this time around an uphill climb.

Still: An American has served as the IOM director general since the 1960s, and the United States is the largest funder of its $1.6 billion budget. Isaacs worked closely with UN agencies during the 2015 migration crisis and led aid efforts in the worst recent humanitarian disasters. According to one German news outlet, Isaacs “was seen as the natural successor.”

For inquiring minds looking beyond the anti-Trump narrative in every story, there’s more to this saga. To be sure, Trump’s chaotic rollout of executive orders banning refugees last year and the dramatic cut in U.S. refugee admissions gave cover to anyone looking to vote against Trump’s nominee. But the truth is, a lot of global leaders are looking for cover themselves.

Creating an open-door policy on immigration in Europe has led to a harsh backlash, and that should teach Americans about the dangers of erratic, irregular immigration policies.

Europe in particular has entered a new and fierce political crisis, and at root it’s about migration. Heads of state for two leading countries—Britain’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel—may need packing tape and twine before the year is out to hold their governments together. Creating an open-door policy on immigration in Europe has led to a harsh backlash, and that should teach Americans about the dangers of erratic, irregular immigration policies.

European leaders, newly desperate to stem the flow of illegal migrant vessels across the Mediterranean, have crafted deals with despots, paying Turkey, Libya, and Sudan large sums to hold migrants in abysmal conditions. European Union leaders want more offshore reception centers—called “disembarkation platforms” in EU-speak—to keep migrants out.

Blurred in such bureaucratic morass is the distinction between economic migrants and genuine refugees who flee their countries in the face of persecution and death. One fear voiced by insiders after the IOM vote is that international asylum procedures may be sidelined in favor of a European one-size-fits-all migrant policy. That could lead to victims of religious persecution (who are disproportionately Christian) losing grounds for asylum, becoming only a number in an overloaded system.

A better way for Western leaders might be to rethink isolation, to invest in reversing what’s driving mass migration in key places. Russia currently is the largest player on the future of Syria. Expect a Putin regime that loves to destabilize Western electorates to delight in using human trafficking to do the same. Absent Western engagement, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, a ruthless dictator and instigator of humanitarian disasters, somehow became a chief mediator in the latest so-called peace agreement in South Sudan.

In the end it was no accident IOM delegates voted in, after four rounds, António Vitorino as the next IOM director general. Vitorino is a Socialist Party politician and UN/EU insider. He served as deputy prime minister under Portugal’s António Guterres, the current UN secretary-general. Guterres headed the UN Refugee Agency before taking the top post, and in that post failed to foresee the 2015 migration crisis that saw nearly 1 million asylum-seekers arrive on European shores. 

Notably, insiders say, not one member of the European diplomatic corps communicated support or opposition to Isaacs before the vote—a dramatic break with protocol. And not one voted for Isaacs. With the IOM vote European leaders have pulled a palace coup over key UN bureaucracies. Overall, U.S. disengagement will make it tough for the United States to steer what it long has underwritten, including migration policy. Europeans want it that way, and the IOM vote was less about any Trump wall and more about walling off Europe.