How will joining the UN change IOM?

Kristy Siegfried

Migration Editor

Last month UN member states unanimously adopted a resolution that will see the International Organization for Migration become a “related organisation” of the United Nations, at a summit in New York on 19 September.

The news may confuse many people who assumed it already was. IOM staff can often be seen working alongside UN staff responding to humanitarian emergencies, and the organisation has “permanent observer status” at the UN General Assembly as well as headquarters down the road from the UN offices in Geneva. In some countries the organisation’s vehicles have even been labelled IOM-UN.

In fact, IOM is a quite separate intergovernmental organisation, established in 1951 to help resettle people uprooted by the Second World War. It started as the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe, and went through several more name changes before settling on its current incarnation in 1989.

Changing with the times

Although it’s been around for nearly as long as the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and now employs nearly as many people (more than 9,000 in 150 countries), it has, until recently, had a much lower profile. Instead of a lofty, human rights-framed mandate tied to a UN convention, the organisation was tasked primarily with ensuring “the orderly flow of migration movements throughout the world”, as its 1953 constitution puts it. At the time, this was more a question of logistics than the high-stakes political dilemma it has become today.

IOM’s evolution from a purely operational agency to one that has successfully positioned itself as the leading organisation working on migration, with an annual budget of more than $1.4 billion, has been driven by the rise of migration itself as a pressing, global issue. But IOM’s rapid growth over the last 15 years – in 1998 it had a budget of just $242 million and 1,100 staff – has left it with a lingering identity crisis.

On the one hand, it has retained its boots-on-the-ground approach to migration management, sometimes implementing projects that purely humanitarian agencies would shy away from. On the other, it has increasingly focused its resources on providing humanitarian assistance to migrants caught up in conflicts and natural disasters and advocating for their rights.

“There are people with different visions working in the organisation,” said Megan Bradley, a researcher from McGill University in Canada working on a study about IOM’s humanitarian work. “That’s reflected in some people using a rights-based framework and others who see the organisation as being there to serve its member states, and recognising that those states have a bunch of competing interests.”

Who is it working for?

IOM’s vague mandate, combined with a funding model that is entirely project-driven and dependant on voluntary contributions from its 165 member states, means it is often faster and leaner than other donor-funded organisations, and has the flexibility to respond in circumstances where agencies with narrower mandates cannot. For example, when thousands of migrant workers became stranded in Libya during the uprising there in 2011, UNHCR’s hands were tied because they were not refugees, but IOM was able to evacuate them. IOM has also filled a gap in terms of providing humanitarian aid to people displaced by natural disasters – another group not fully covered by UNHCR.

At the same time, IOM’s broad mandate and lack of core funding opens it up to the accusation that its choice of projects is driven by the priorities of donor countries rather than the best interests of the migrants themselves.

In a recent article, Julien Brachet of Oxford University’s International Migration Institute criticised IOM’s work in Libya and the Sahara, which has included assisting in the voluntary return of migrants and running awareness campaigns about the dangers of migration. He argued that IOM is merely implementing Europe’s policy of externalising border and migration controls to deter migrants from reaching its shores.

“The rhetoric of humanitarian intervention can easily become a fig leaf that allows the implementation of migration policies that, in Europe, are increasingly criticised by several associations and NGOs,” he wrote.

Questionable returns

IOM’s role in facilitating the voluntary returns of irregular migrants who don’t qualify for refugee status has come under particular scrutiny. The organisation administers “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” schemes in a number of European states, but also in places like Morocco and Niger that are transit countries for migrants trying to reach Europe. While clearly preferable to forced return (IOM usually provides a cash grant or reintegration assistance to returnees), researchers have questioned how genuinely voluntary the returns are – considering the alternative is often detention or deportation.

Bradley said IOM’s role in returns has to be understood in the context of a refugee regime that has a narrow definition of who counts as a refugee. “I think it’s important to try to understand the way member states and other agencies use IOM to do the work that no one else wants to do.”

Perhaps more damaging to IOM’s reputation has been its involvement in Australia’s disastrous programme to resettle refugees from its offshore asylum-processing centre on Nauru to Cambodia. Only five refugees agreed to be resettled to Cambodia, where IOM was contracted to provide them with support services.

"Australia, as a member state, asked our office in Phnom Penh to help resettle these people. Very few people on Nauru expressed an interest and, in retrospect, it didn’t work out. Almost all of them eventually decided to go home,” IOM communications chief Leonard Doyle told IRIN when asked about the programme, which has now been terminated.

“We’re not in the business of lecturing member states or trying to be unhelpful in order to make a point,” he added.

Time to change?

Susan Martin, former director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, predicted that becoming part of the UN may push IOM to rethink its pragmatic approach.

“It will feel peer pressure from the convention-based mandate organisations to take a purer stance when questions of legal protection arise,” she told IRIN.

Bradley agreed, and noted that many people working within the organisation are already pushing for this. “[They] argue that if it wants to grow, they have to get beyond the approach of taking up whatever work member states want them to do, and they have to develop as a humanitarian agency dedicated to human rights principles.”

Under the leadership of former US ambassador William Lacy Swing, who took over as director general in 2008 and is now serving his second five-year term, IOM has already been moving towards a more rights-based approach, which has helped it to forge a closer relationship with the UN.

Doyle credits Swing with greatly increasing the organisation’s visibility and advocacy on behalf of migrants.

“What Ambassador Swing has done is taken a very media-shy and introverted organisation that was seen as a service provider, and he’s turned it into an outward-facing organisation that’s willing to speak up,” he told IRIN.

Doyle said the decentralised structure and funding model that allows IOM to be “lean and effective” won’t change after it joins the UN.

What will change, said Martin, is that IOM will have “a seat at the table”, for example at the UN Chief Executives Board for Coordination, where major decisions are made that affect the UN system.

“It means an organisation with specialised knowledge of migration will be there when discussions on these issues arise,” she said. “For the UN, this closes a major gap in the institution's ability to address the last remaining global issue not firmly on their agenda.”

Doyle hopes that the IOM will bring “some of the nuance about migration that we know from years of doing it” and lead discussions about how to address issues ranging from human trafficking to xenophobia.

“Migration is now front and centre as one of the great political challenges of our era,” he said. In the absence of a specialist UN agency working on migration, “there is a vacuum that needs to be filled.”

(TOP PHOTO: William Lacy Swing, IOM's director general. Mark Garten/UN)

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