Justin Forsyth to rein in migration hate politics

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Justin Forsyth, the new deputy head of the U.N. children’s agency, is determined to rein in the politics of hate over migration following the murder of one of his closest friends during Britain’s polarised debate about leaving the European Union (EU).

Justin Forsyth - UNICEF
Justin Forsyth, Chief Executive of Save the Children UK, talks to internally displaced Somalis at a camp in Hodan district of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.

Justin Forsyth’s friend and former colleague, British parliamentarian Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed in northern England in the run-up to Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the EU by a man who witnesses said shouted “Britain first”.

Cox, who once worked with Justin Forsyth at the charity Oxfam, had spoken of the positive impact of immigration during the Brexit debate, while “Out” campaigners blamed EU membership for uncontrolled migration to Britain.

“The whole refugee migrant crisis has become a lightning rod for populist politics,” Justin Forsyth, deputy chief executive of UNICEF since May, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a stopover in Nairobi after visiting South Sudan.

“We see the rise of the right wing in Europe so it’s so important … to keep bringing the humanity of the story alive and keep the public on side,” Forsyth said.

If not, Europe would see a rise in “isolationism and some very dangerous forces”, he said, pointing to the backlash in Germany against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome one million migrants.


Forsyth’s first overseas trip after moving to U.N. headquarters in New York was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis.

He spent a day watching the Italian navy rescue migrants, coming from Libya in overloaded rubber boats, from drowning.

“They (the boats) collapse in the middle and the women fall through these (decking) boards and they drown in about two feet of water and they are trampled to death,” he said.

Justin Forsyth wants to step up UNICEF’s assistance to children who survive the journey, 90 percent of whom are travelling alone.

Child migrants endure horrendous ordeals before reaching Europe, he said, recalling a Nigerian girl who told him she was held in an underground prison in Libya and raped every day for eight months.

“The bit at sea is terrible … but by far the worst bit is the route from northern Nigeria through Niger in the desert into Libya or through Eritrea,” Forsyth said.

“It’s like modern day slavery,” he said, referring to the abuse migrants face at the hands of smugglers and traffickers.


A prolific user of Twitter, Justin Forsyth wants to revolutionise UNICEF’s use of social media and technology to raise money and advocate for children’s rights.

“The old fundraising model is reaching its limit,” he said, describing the use of television adverts to recruit support.

“The real holy grail on this is digital and nobody has really cracked that yet — amazing content which captures the emotion of what is happening on the frontline.”

Justin Forsyth gave Japanese government officials a virtual reality tour of Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan at a recent meeting.

“It’s much more powerful than me talking to them for half an hour,” he said. “What our supporters want is to feel they are with us on that frontline.”

Justin Forsyth, a special adviser between 2004 and 2010 to British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has a strong track record of fundraising.

He increased Save the Children’s income by one third during his five year term to 390 million pounds ($515 million) in 2015.

He intends to continue to build unusual private sector partnerships, even though deals with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and The Sun newspaper, famous for its topless Page Three girls, ruffled feathers at Save the Children.

“What I feel passionate about is harnessing their core business … to achieve change,” he said.

While Forsyth acknowledges that UNICEF needs to be more diplomatic than a charity, he is excited about its credibility, scale and ease of access to senior government figures.

“You give up a little bit in terms of the edginess of campaigning and advocacy but you gain a lot also by these other influencing strategies,” he said.

Reporting by Katy Migiro
Editing by Katie Nguyen
The Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.



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