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 By Professor Guy S. Goodwin-Gill

Although banners and leaflets may suggest otherwise, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is not a United Nations agency, and neither has it ‘entered’ or ‘joined’ the UN.  It remains an inter-governmental organization, still outside the system, but in a ‘closer relationship’ since the General Assembly’s adoption of resolution 70/296 on 25 July 2016.  Nevertheless, IOM is certainly a player in migration policy and practice today. Its budget for 2018 exceeded $1.8 billion, its staff is around 11,000 and it operates through over 100 offices worldwide. Its future alongside the UN also seems assured, and IOM will coordinate the Network on Migration and provide the secretariat that will aim to enhance the UN’s ability, ‘to deliver effective system-wide support in the implementation, follow-up and review of the Global Compact on Migration.’ 

Is attention to the precise nature of IOM’s standing or status just institutional nit-picking or are there substantive issues of concern ahead in pursuing the goal of better managed, more humane and rights-oriented ‘migration management’?

IOM’s report for 2017 provides extensive metrics on the organization’s activities across the board – resettlement and relocation, assisted voluntary returns, border and identity management, counter-trafficking, protection and assistance for ‘migrants in vulnerable situations’, and so forth.  It also seeks to locate the organization within a framework of principles: adherence to international standards and fulfilment of migrants rights; evidence and whole-of-government approaches; and partnerships. Drilling down, however, confirms what IOM’s own Constitution declares  – that it is primarily a service organization; it ‘responds to requests for specific services’.  This is not to underestimate the value to member governments of these services; on the contrary, as Canada noted in reviewing its membership in 2011, it relies on IOM to provide transportation, health and orientation services, and finds them to be both high quality and cost-effective. 

The problem, or one problem, is that the IOM Constitution is more or less devoid of those principles which might provide any sense of a protection mandate. The interests of States are front and centre, and the migrant, considered as a bearer of rights and duties, does not appear. Of course, ‘protection’, in one form or another, is likely to be an aspect of any work with, for or on behalf of migrants. Being there can count for something, but the question is, whether ‘protection’ acquires real meaning in context, or is simply trumped by State interests or the implicit contingencies of projects which are State-initiated, State-driven and State-assessed.

In debate in the United Kingdom House of Lords in 2000, Lord Avebury spoke of IOM’s involvement with a group of Afghan asylum seekers whom the UK Government was keen should return. The Government had told him that IOM would be there to look after the arrangements for those who requested repatriation, but that ‘it was not the duty of the IOM to satisfy itself that the decisions had been well-informed and made without coercion.’ He noted that some of the asylum seekers had indeed been pressured, but that IOM officials had no right to interfere with the tactics used by the immigration authorities. 

Four years later, the House of Lords EU Committee looked at the Government’s use of IOM for ‘voluntary returns’. It heard evidence from the IOM Head of Mission in the UK regarding the organization’s ‘pragmatic’ character, and of how it did not consider itself bound by international human rights obligations. In the view of the Committee, if it undertook voluntary return work as an agent of the Government, then it should formally acknowledge that it was indeed so subject. 

Article 2(5) of the 2016 UN-IOM Agreement now finds the IOM undertaking, ‘to conduct its activities in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations and with due regard to the policies of the United Nations furthering those Purposes and Principles and to other relevant instruments in the international migration, refugee and human rights fields.’  Is this enough to spur change in a self-proclaimed ‘non-normative organization’?  Here, there is still some doubt.  IOM’s 2017 Report is revealing as to the methods of working expected by its Members: ‘supporting’ governments in aligning their migration laws with international standards,  or promoting its ‘global commitment on the centrality of protection’, ‘primarily through support to relevant line ministries and state authorities.’  The advocacy role on individual rights, always expected of UNHCR if sometimes lacking, is conspicuous by its absence.

Moreover, and despite IOM’s manifold engagement across the broad field of migration-related activities, institutionally the organization seems hide-bound by history.

Looking back

In addressing the General Assembly at the September 2016 Summit, the then IOM Director General, William Swing, enthused, though not entirely accurately, about the fact that, as he put it, ‘For the very first time in 71 years, the UN now has a migration agency.’ He thought the occasion more one of formalizing an old relationship, recalling that, ‘After all, we were ... all born together, in 1951, along with our traditional partner, [UNHCR] to bring Europeans ravaged by the Second World War to safe shores and new lives.’  The reality was quite different, however, driven far more by the politics of the day.

In the late 1940s, as Communist governments were establishing themselves in eastern Europe, Congress authorised US involvement in an international conference to develop ways of alleviating what was euphemistically called ‘the problem of excess population in certain European countries’. The International Refugee Organization (IRO) was winding down, and in addition to the residual case load in need of solutions there were German expellees to deal with, as well as the continuing stream of new refugees from Eastern Europe. 

The Department of State therefore invited the Belgian Government to convene a conference in Brussels in November 1951, where the US presented its plan. This involved taking over 12 of the IRO’s ships, and moving some 115,000 migrants during one year from Germany, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Greece. The cost was estimated at $34 million, and the US was prepared to contribute $10 million. 

A new organization was proposed, away from the UN and the principle of universal participation. Membership would be open to all non-Communist governments, it would be provisional, flexible and temporary, administrative expenses would be kept to a minimum and maximum resources would be allocated to operations. The US insisted that the proposed committee would not trespass on the activities of another existing organization, but refugees would be within its mandate and when the High Commissioner asked to be granted the special status of a non-voting participant, he was rebuffed. The US representative argued that this would only stimulate other claims, for example, from the International Labour Organization (ILO), and if that were accepted, it would cause real embarrassment to the US Government.

The Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe (PICMME), or ICEM (the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration), as it later came to be known, was thus to be an instrument of US and western foreign policy. The US invested heavily, its contributions conditioned by Congressional intent that no US funds were to be, ‘allocated to any international organization which has in its membership any Communist, Communist-dominated or Communist-controlled country, to any subsidiary thereof or to any agency created by or stemming from such an organization.’  As George Warren noted at the time, ‘This stipulation effectively killed a five-year plan for resettling Europe’s surplus population then under discussion within the International Labour Organization.’ 

Nor was the political slant confined to membership of the Committee,  but extended also to the question of who to move. According to the Brussels Resolution, that would be those migrants and refugees who are attached to the principles subscribed to by the democratic governments involved. 

ICEM’s first Director, Hugh Gibson, noted that both the Brussels Resolution and the antecedent US legislation reflected the ‘determination of the founders and of the present Member Governments of the Committee not only to safeguard it from ever furthering or assisting the spread of communism but actually shows their intention of counter-acting communism by means of assisted, duly controlled international migration.’ 

His remarks were prompted by the question of security clearance for each and every migrant whom the Committee might move to the Western Hemisphere. George Warren suggested to Gibson that security clearances – which Congress required be made to a ‘reasonable standard’ – might be contracted out to the Department of State ‘on a cost-recoverable basis.’ Noting that each State member retained its sovereign competence on matters of admission,  Gibson pushed back against involving the Committee or its administration in determining security clearances, although some assistance might be provided to governments.  He suggested that the issues be discussed between delegates at the next session of the Committee, in ‘an informal and private meeting’, avoiding a public discussion or even discussion in plenary. 

Moving ahead

So much for history, perhaps, but cultural origins and attitudes can persist, and it is helpful to be reminded of IOM’s provenance, the purposes for which it was established, and its role as a strategic instrument in the pursuit of western policy.  Communism may no longer be the target, but new forms of securitisation have rapidly established their place, leading many governments to look for novel, and sometimes legally questionable, ways and means by which to manage the movements of people. The IOM has a wealth of experience in the provision of migration services in accordance with its Constitution, but even though it creates no new obligations, the Global Compact on Migration has a strong rights orientation and it is not at all clear that the organization’s traditional role and ways of working can be integrated into a ‘closer relationship’ with the UN. The General Assembly, for example, has consistently noted that the protection of migrants engages a very full spectrum of relevant issues. 

As an international organization, of course, IOM is bound by international law, whatever it may have thought in the past, and there is no a priori obstacle to its institutional responsibility or to the individual liability of its personnel.  The challenge, here as elsewhere, is in making accountability real, for example, in circumstances where IOM has been contracted by one or more governments to assume responsibilities in areas of sovereign competence, such as the ‘externalization’ of border management, off-shore processing, or ‘voluntary returns’.  To be sure, IOM sees itself as ‘a principled, accountable and transparent organization’,  including to affected populations, but the activity ‘metrics’ suggest that this may be little more than window-dressing. 

Whatever IOMs’ current aspirations, it seems likely that history and culture will remain implacable obstacles to its evolving into an effective migrant protection agency. Given also what member States expect of it – services – even a radical constitutional shift might fail to find sufficient support, or even be adequate to the purpose. Nonetheless, IOM will remain a player in the international field. As the frequent agent of its member States, it will often be responsible for the good faith implementation of their international legal obligations. Beyond project specifics, however, and insofar as it would seek to build concretely on its ‘closer relationship’ with the UN, then IOM must necessarily recognize that, as an agent now of the broader international community, it is subject to protection oversight by agencies having specific mandate competences – the ILO in the protection of migrant workers, UNHCR in the protection of refugees and the displaced, UNICEF in the protection of children, OHCHR across the broad field of human rights.

For example, IOM places particular emphasis on protecting and assisting ‘migrants in vulnerable situations’, understood as covering those at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation.  But this term is neither self-identifying nor self-applying; there is ample scope here for category overlap, and the danger here is that those constructing the dialogue may so shape the policy and political framework that underlying protection needs are overlooked, the systemic reasons for risk are ignored, and that responses end up being driven by nothing more than an over-inflated attention to symptoms.

Protection is an overarching principle, however, as well as a complex of general international law and obligation; in practice, this will mean coordination and cooperation among agencies having responsibilities to those displaced and moving between States, but also accountability to audit against relevant international standards. In this operational context, a hierarchy of authority based on established mandates, practice and precedent, can hardly be excluded. 


Paper prepared for Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre Workshop, ‘IOM: The UN Migration Agency?’, Oxford, 2 February 2019.

The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.