Guest Column

For UN’s Migration Agency, Business as Usual With Myanmar Junta

By Paul Greening 10 January 2023

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) Myanmar Crisis Response Plan 2023, which was updated on Dec. 14, 2022, has all the right jargon and sounds impressive unless one thinks about it for two minutes. It is about the IOM searching for a total of US$37.2 million for Myanmar and raises some questions.

In “The Vision”, which is not really a vision, the only concrete contribution the IOM seems to claim is data on population movement. This is followed by general objectives, a section on the context, the IOM’s coordination and their capacity—i.e., stating the problem and why the IOM should be funded to help solve it. This is the standard proposal format. Not acquiring funding will have serious consequences. IOM jobs may be lost and it won’t look too good for chief of mission Dragan Aleksoski.

Looking at the first objective as an example one can see the devil is in the detail.

“Save lives and respond to needs through humanitarian assistance and protection USD21,800,000, 49,000 people targeted.”

This doesn’t state the type of humanitarian assistance or the geographical area that will receive this assistance. The plan’s breakdown of this objective doesn’t answer these questions either. To quote directly from the plan:

Basic Needs, including Food 5,000,000

Camp Coordination and Camp Management 500,000

Direct Health Support 8,700,000

Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Humanitarian Response 900,000

Protection 1,300,000

Shelter, Settlements and Non-Food Items 2,800,000

Provision of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Emergencies 2,600,000.

This raises questions as to who, where, how, what, etc. The “what” is answered in broad strokes in the following breakdown (again quoting directly):

Basic needs, including food

IOM Myanmar, in close coordination with relevant clusters and the cash working group, will assist IDPs [internally displaced persons] and vulnerable communities affected by conflict or disasters with targeted and tailored food, emergency livelihoods and/or cash assistance based on identified needs. This will include:

Provision of in-kind food assistance in locations where this is an identified needs of the community and IOM has a comparative advantage with regards to access, taking into account market access and the affordability, availability and accessibility of food.

Provision of multi-purpose cash assistance as part of a mixed modality approach in locations where this is the preference of communities, and where there is market accessibility, functionality and affordability of key items identified as part of needs assessment.

FUNDING REQUIRED $5,000,000

Neither here, nor anywhere in this document, is there any mention of the geographical area to be targeted or how the aid will be delivered and to whom. It is also difficult to think of where the IOM has a comparative advantage with regards to access. Furthermore, the IOM has a lack of experience of food aid in Myanmar. It is not exactly their mandate but most UN agencies compete for the same funds irrespective of whether they have a competitive advantage in a particular field.

Based upon Aleksoski’s two visits to Naypyitaw and his lack of any visit to the National Unity Government (NUG), one suspects that the IOM will continue to engage with (i.e., support) the junta in what they perceive as playing it safe. Aleksoski paid a courtesy call and presented his Letter of Accreditation to Union Minister for Foreign Affairs U Wunna Maung Lwin in Naypyitaw on September and then, as also reported in the New Global Light of Myanmar (NGLM), visited Junta Minister U Ko Ko Hlaing of the Ministry of International Cooperation in Naypyitaw on Dec. 20, 2022. “During the courtesy meeting, they shared their views on matters pertaining to the support of the IOM to the people of Myanmar in the field of migration and the update on the progress of IOM programmes in Myanmar.” (NGLM)

So, for the IOM chief of mission, it seems to be business as usual with the illegitimate mafia-like junta, treating them as the legitimate government and thus supporting their claim for legitimacy.

There are other questions to ask of the IOM and other UN agencies. What percentage of the money required goes to IOM overheads? From experience one would expect between 30 and 45 percent. What does “will support” mean, and if the IOM is just supporting, are they really necessary? What advocacy is the IOM doing to support displaced people, e.g., those facing deportation from Thailand? How many people have been deported from Thailand per month? Will the IOM publicly engage with the NUG and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), especially bearing in mind  the “Burma Act”? What is the IOM chief of mission’s justification for business as usual with the junta? Has there been any independent cost/impact assessment of the IOM’s work in Myanmar? The IOM needs to answer such questions. These questions have been emailed to Aleksoski but he is on leave so there has been no response. However, they were also forwarded to the acting chief of mission but still no response.

On Dec. 15, the United States Senate approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This includes the “Burma Act”, which advocates giving non-lethal assistance to and engaging with the NUG, EAOs and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). One presumes Aleksoski read this but still, a few days later, instead of visiting the NUG or EAOs, he reported to the illegal military regime.

The author has been informed that people from some UN agencies have met with the NUG and some EAOs as well as the junta and asked for all these visits to be kept confidential. The junta obviously doesn’t respect this and makes full propaganda use of the various and increasing UN visits. Surely by now the UN realizes that any meeting with the junta will be public and exploited by the military and so they should make NUG and EAO meetings public. The UN Country Team (UNCT) should take the lead on this.

Aleksoski has worsened the already terrible reputation of the UN with the people of Myanmar by engaging in business as usual with the junta. Some people are even refusing aid from what are seen as collaborators with the junta. The people of Myanmar see this engagement  with the junta as being for their own selfish reasons and not to support the vulnerable in the country. To try and change this perception, the UN must follow the Burma Act recommendations and engage and support the NUG, EAOs and PDFs with nonlethal aid, especially cross border [?]. The UNCT needs to take the lead on this and it needs to be monitored by the US and other donor countries. Unfortunately, UN agencies can’t be relied on to do the right thing for the people of Myanmar unless it is in their own interests.

Paul Greening is an ex-UN senior staff member with over 20 years’ experience in six Asian countries working for six UN agencies and four INGOs. He worked in Sittwe, Rakhine State for the IOM from 2017 to 2020 and since then has been involved in advocacy against the illegal attempted coup and supporting those who have suffered from it.  

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