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African Migrants gather at a the Illegal Immigration Authority in Tripoli

African Migrants gather at a the Illegal Immigration Authority in Tripoli on Aug. 17, 2017 ahead of being repatriated to their country of origin under a voluntary program coordinated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). (Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaked Email Suggests Trump Admin Pressuring UN Agency to Self-Censor on 'Political Sensitivities' Like Climate Crisis or Risk Defunding

Critics called the administration's reported threat to cut funding "deeply worrying" and "blackmail."

Jessica Corbett

Reporting by The Guardian Wednesday suggests that the Trump administration is pressuring the world's leading inter-governmental migration organization to self-censor on the climate emergency and other "political sensitivities" by threatening to cut funding for the United Nations-affiliated agency.

In a leaked email obtained by the newspaper, a U.S.-based official at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) informed colleagues last month that any activities funded by U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) must not conflict with "anything that seems at odds with the administration's take on U.S. domestic/foreign issues." Sensitivities included the climate crisis, sustainable development goals, and global compact for migration.

The U.S. provides about a quarter of the Geneva-based IOM's $2 billion annual budget; $18 million of it comes from PRM, The Guardian noted. In the email, the unidentified IOM official warned that "PRM is very willing to cut funding in areas that it deems are not in line with U.S. foreign policy objectives."

The agency official added in the email that "documents related to program activities, especially those that will be published online, may require prior review and approval by the donor" and requested that colleagues share relevant documents "in enough time to make any necessary adjustments in coordination with PRM."

Although "there is no indication that messaging on projects funded by other donors will be censored, or that there will be any operational impact on existing programs," IOM sources and further communications reviewed by The Guardian indicate that "the agency is avoiding direct references to climate change in documents for projects funded by other U.S. government entities such as USAID," the newspaper reported.

The IOM "recognizes and respects the priorities and limitations of its donors, including the U.S.," an agency spokesperson told The Guardian. A State Department spokesperson said that "the U.S. government supports organizations such as IOM, to conduct program and activities that are consistent with our foreign policy goals and objectives."

The Trump administration's stances and actions on the supposed "sensitivities," from President Donald Trump vowing to ditch the Paris climate accord to detaining migrant children in "cages," have provoked fierce condemnation from the international community. Just this week, Trump baselessly smeared people fleeing islands in the Bahamas that were devastated by Hurricane Dorian—providing yet another indication of how his administration will handle a global refugee crisis that experts warn will worsen as temperatures continue to rise and the world endures more extreme weather.

The leaked email "raises some serious questions about the autonomy of IOM, its sensitivity to positions adopted by the U.S. administration, and its ability to function as a member of the U.N. system," Jeff Crisp, a research associate at Oxford University's Refugee Studies Center who was previously at the U.N.'s refugee agency (UNHCR), told The Guardian.

The decades-old IOM—which became a related organization of the U.N. in 2016—works with international partners to provide migration-related guidance and services to governments, internally displaced persons, refugees, and migrant workers. According to the agency's website, since IOM's founding in the wake of World War II, "it has broadened its scope to become the leading international agency working with governments and civil society to advance the understanding of migration issues, encourage social and economic development through migration, and uphold the human dignity and well-being of migrants."

An unnamed source who recently left the agency told The Guardian he was "very concerned... that IOM is acquiescing to this kind of pressure."

"I've seen a response [to the email] from at least one regional official who explicitly asked staff not to directly refer to climate change or the global compact on migration in a range of reports or proposals that would be sent to the U.S. government," the source said. "While I understand that IOM are simply doing what they think is strategically necessary to protect funding for important projects, senior officials should be mindful of the fact that there's a slippery slope here."

The Guardian's report quickly elicited similar concerns from readers. Lawyer Denise Spinney, who described the threatened funding cuts as "blackmail," wrote on Twitter: "Who gains? Fossil industries. Who loses? The poor and vulnerable."

Invoking George Orwell, writer and environmentalist George Monbiot warned that IOM may not be alone in receiving such threats from the Trump administration. He tweeted, "This is happening throughout institutional life."

The climate action movement Extinction Rebellion—which also responded on Twitter—declared, "The governments of the world must #TellTheTruth by declaring climate and ecological emergencies, working with intergovernmental organization such as the [IOM] to communicate the urgency for action."

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