International Organization for Migration (IOM)

Published July 15th, 2021 - written by: Inken Bartels

The “IOM Agadez Transit Centre” in Agadez, Niger. Photo: Christian Jakob

Basic data and brief characterization

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an international organization with a history of global expansion and growing influence on the formulation and implementation of international migration policy. It was founded in 1951 by the United States (U.S.) and Western European states to provide logistical support for the resettlement of displaced persons after World War II. By the end of the 20th century, however, the IOM had expanded both its mission and the scope of its activities. Today, with 173 member states across the globe, the Geneva-based organization is not only instrumental in developing and disseminating the concept of migration management, it also oversees its implementation worldwide. Projects are largely focused on the Global South but funded by states in the Global North. After decades of institutional independence, the IOM joined the United Nations (UN) in 2016 as a “related organization.”

Economics and governance

The IOM was founded in 1951 as the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe (PICMME) by the U.S. and the Western allies. The organization purpose was to pursue the allies’ geostrategic interests and thus counterbalance the activities of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), whose humanitarian work was considered too neutral by Western states during the Cold War (see Georgi 2019). PICMME’s initial task was to assist member states in managing the logistics and transport of displaced persons in post-World War II Europe. In the course of the following decades, the organization repeatedly updated its mission and broadened its geographic focus. It was renamed four times until 1989, when it became the International Organization for Migration, a permanent institution outside the UN system with a global mandate. As an independent international organization, it was thus accountable only to its 173 member states (as of July 2021). Although the IOM joined the UN in 2016 as a “related agency,” its work is not defined by any international legal or normative framework (as, for example, UNHCR’s work is defined by the Geneva Convention). Thus, the IOM does not have a formal international protection mandate and its constitution does not refer to the fundamental rights of migrants (see Pécoud 2018). Despite all this, the IOM was entrusted by its members in 2017 to develop and implement the “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.”

As a migration management service provider, the IOM’s funding is decentralized, with the organization securing its finances primarily through the project-based acquisition of funds. Key decisions and policy guidance are decided at the IOM’s headquarters in Geneva. However, the IOM operates with national offices around the world that not only implement the decisions made in Geneva, but also coordinate projects at the national and local levels alongside acquiring the necessary funding. Project-based funding means that national offices are constantly busy expanding their activities and developing new projects in order to secure the financial resources necessary to operate each office. IOM projects are largely funded by the U.S. and European Union (EU) member states or their respective development agencies working on the ground. Increasingly, the EU is also providing funding directly as part of large grant programs.

In the wake of neoliberal policies and economic restructuring in the 1990s, the IOM grew from a small, exclusive organization with member states from the Global North to the most prominent globally operating migration organization. Its continued growth, reflected in the size of its membership, the number of national offices and projects, and the scope of its funding, reflect the organization’s global expansion over the past decades. Today, the IOM presents itself as “the migration agency”, acting as a major producer and important source of information, data, advice, and technical assistance to its member states and other actors. Its stated goal is to contribute to “orderly and humane migration management.” Since the 1990s, the IOM has been instrumental in developing this concept programmatically, disseminating it discursively, and implementing it in practice (see Georgi 2019). It not only acts as a think tank for new migration policies, but also offers states a range of concrete services to implement these on the ground. In doing so, the IOM prizes its projects as particularly (cost-)effective, professional, and flexible services. The IOM thus embodies a neoliberal policy of international migration management based on the maxim that well-regulated migration contributes to the well-being of both states and migrants.

The IOM office in Morocco is located in an affluent neighbourhood between embassies. Migrants themselves are rarely seen here. Photo: Inken Bartels

Around the turn of the millennium, the IOM established itself as a central actor in international migration politics. Since then, it has simultaneously cooperated and competed with other international organizations (IOs), such as UNHCR, the International Labour Organization (ILO) or the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), for global influence and international funding. In addition, the IOM also become an important cooperation partner for migration management projects in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, especially by implementing humanitarian interventions in scenarios where people are increasingly displaced as a result of environmental disasters and worsening climatic conditions. In this role, the IOM is often responsible for distributing international funding to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In many countries of the Global South, the IOM coordinates the migration-related activities of various governmental and non-governmental actors and trains their staff in dealing with vulnerable migrants, victims of human trafficking, or returnees. With its international expertise on migration, the IOM defines discourses, global standards, and practical knowledge that are often perceived as unbiased and objective, encouraging states of origin and transit to cooperate in migration and border control projects. These activities allow the IOM to rally support from states – and especially weaker states – in the Global South for its migration management policies and programs while formally respecting their sovereignty. In this way, it offers its powerful member states a “soft” instrument to align the migration policies of countries in the Global South with their interests (see Geiger and Pécoud 2014). The underlying goal is to make these governments understand migration as their own problem and to encourage them to claim responsibility for its control.

Migration movements

According to the IOM website, the organization’s activities are focused on migrant movements “in their diversity and complexity”. The IOM supports migrants “in need,” particularly in the form of humanitarian aid. The IOM’s target groups, referred to as beneficiaries, explicitly include internally displaced persons (IDPs), returnees and victims of human trafficking, while refugees and asylum seekers are not part of its focus as they are explicitly addressed by UNHCR activities.

The IOM has continuously expanded its list of so-called beneficiaries in response to shifting political challenges. In the early 2000s, for example, the IOM added “victims of trafficking” in Eastern Europe to its list of categories guiding the development of its policies and projects, staking out a new sphere of action and influence not covered by UNHCR’s mandate.

In North Africa, the IOM has also started to address marginalized youth from so-called regions at high risk of emigration through information campaigns designed to raise awareness about the dangers of “irregular” migration and human trafficking. Using music festivals, theater workshops, or film projects as platforms in regions seeing high emigration, the IOM offers young people opportunities to learn about migration and alternatives to leaving their home countries. Its goal is to educate potential emigrants about the dangers of “irregular” migration so that they can make “informed decisions.” In addition, the IOM is increasingly working with role models in these societies to highlight people’s options and perspectives “back home.” The IOM’s information campaigns are thus based on the assumption that better knowledge about the dangers of “irregular” migration will discourage young people from making the crossing to Europe. By integrating this target group and increasingly implementing social and educational projects for marginalized groups in their respective countries of origin, the IOM’s mandate has now moved beyond managing migration in its established sense.

These examples show how broad and diverse the groups targeted by the IOM’s activities are. This flexibility allows the IOM to tailor its projects to specific contexts and to align the various interests that need to be taken into account when implementing a project. In doing so, the groups identified by the IOM and its donors in the guidelines of each project form the basis for selecting the beneficiaries of a project. Moreover, aligning its definitions of target groups with the strategies of its donors helps the IOM to position itself as a flexible service provider vis-à-vis other, more bureaucratic UN implementing agencies.

EU projects

For the EU and its member states, the IOM is a key cooperation partner, a trusted and reliable service provider that is capable of establishing and maintaining stable relations with states in which projects are to be implemented (see Korneev 2014). From an EU viewpoint, cooperation with the IOM is particularly attractive because the organization operates as a seemingly neutral, independent actor in states of the Global South. From the perspective of these states, in turn, working with the IOM brings access to funding, opportunities to strengthen international cooperation, and incentives to implement standards without having to negotiate and cooperate directly with the EU. However, the IOM is more than just a forum or an instrument of powerful states. Internationally, it has a political and discursive authority that drives up demand for its services, while at the same time it is proactively involved in the dissemination of its migration (control) projects.

In other words, the IOM plays a crucial role in externalizing European migration control. Though the organization is not directly involved in the militarization of Europe’s external borders – unlike the European Border Agency (Frontex), for instance – it acts as a pivotal cooperation partner and executing agency of European migration and border control projects by encouraging states outside Europe to learn about and prospectively adopt its global mission and concrete migration management practices (see Andrijasevic and Walters 2010). This “soft” strategy of outsourcing takes on various forms, such as knowledge and information exchange formats, training for security personnel, government officials, and NGO representatives, etc.

In North Africa, for example, the IOM opened offices in most state capitals in the early 2000s and began to make a name for itself – initially primarily by providing logistical support for “voluntary return” and conducting information campaigns. However, with the political upheavals of 2011, it established itself as a prominent advisory body in the introduction of new national migration policies in many North African states.

The IOM’s mandate beyond Europe’s external borders was most recently bolstered by the “EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa” (EUTF), established at the 2015 Valletta Summit on Migration. Building on a new discourse aimed at “fighting the main causes” of migration, the EU is attempting to tackle the “evil of unregulated cross-border migration [...] at its roots” in Africa (Kipp and Koch 2018, p. 18, our translation). One third of EUTF funds formerly earmarked for development purposes are allocated to international organizations, first and foremost the major UN agencies working in the field of migration and refugee politics (see Bartels 2018). The IOM received almost 375 million euros from the EUTF (as of August 2018).

In North Africa, as much as half of the EUTF money earmarked for the region goes to the IOM. Much of it is to be used to implement projects in Libya aimed at “strengthen[ing] international protection and [stepping] up assistance, including its humanitarian dimension.” Specifically, the money will be used to improve local migration management, and create access to so-called “protection and assistance centers” for migrants. At these sites, migrants are to be categorized into different groups according to humanitarian, economic, and security criteria, which will determine their further access to rights, services, and mobility opportunities.

Some movements in Europe had been pushing to make Libya a safe(r) terrain for migrants well before the outcry over slave-like living conditions in Libyan camps in December 2017. While political debates were initially dominated by outrage over the appalling conditions in the camps, European governments nevertheless held on to their idea of returning those rescued in the Mediterranean to Libya and one day outsourcing asylum procedures there. This is hardly a new idea: Suggestions to set up refugee camps in North Africa, variously referred to as Transit Processing Centers or Regional Protection Areas, have been brought forward by European politicians since the early 2000s. So far, such plans have failed to materialize mainly due to the persistent refusal of North African states to allow such transit, protection, or asylum centers to be built on their territories. EUTF funds are now being used in a more financially powerful and concentrated effort to create such locations along the main migration routes in the name of international protection and humanitarian aid. These are to be set up quickly, primarily by IOs already active in the regions, without further consulting African states. The IOM has gained extensive experience managing camps and related logistics in Tunisia and Niger, especially excelling in its advisory services on “voluntary return” schemes. To what extent the increasing number of so-called “protection and assistance centers” and the provision of humanitarian assistance by IOs along migration routes will lead to transit countries in North Africa being designated as “safe third countries” remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the IOM will be able to secure, strengthen, and expand its active presence thanks to the almost 90 million euros it receives from the EUTF for its projects in North Africa (see Bartels 2018).

The role of NGOs

NGOs cooperate and compete with the IOM. As an IO, the IOM is able to absorb large amounts of funding. From the perspective of donor countries, it is often more convenient to fund one large IOM program than to go to the trouble of distributing funds among many smaller projects implemented by NGOs. As the coordinator of large migration management programs, the IOM redistributes funding to NGOs acting as local implementation partners.

However, especially for humanitarian projects, the IOM competes directly with transnational NGOs to secure international funding. While NGOs have to prove their expertise, donors are often already aware of the IOM’s work as a result of previous cooperation in other countries or projects.

What are the economic motifs? Who profits?

The IOM’s work on the ground is often at odds with the argument it uses to justify and promote its migration management activities, which is that they benefit sending and receiving states as well as migrants.

The first to benefit are states in the Global North, who are able to “outsource” their global migration control ambitions to the IOM without drawing public criticism. They promote the IOM’s migration management services, aiming to bring “irregular” migration under effective state control worldwide, preferably without producing too much upheaval, or criticism, or too many deaths. In North Africa, IOM projects build on expert knowledge and innovative participatory methods involving (potential) migrants in order to control unwanted migration movements. The intention behind such projects is to stabilize the crisis-ridden European border regime and provide it with a fresh normative framework and legitimacy. In the long run, IOM projects thus reproduce the unequal distribution of mobility opportunities without directly resorting to physical violence and/or overt means of repression which, as it were, are the condition of their effective implementation. By providing humanitarian aid and educational campaigns to prevent migration, IOM projects also offset the brutal effects of migration control and normalize more visible forms of violence employed at Europe’s external borders (see Bartels 2021).

States of transit and origin also know how to use IOM projects to their advantage. These states bring their own strategies and interests to the table when negotiating with the IOM. Far from being passive recipients of the IOM’s services, they actively support the implementation of programs for their own purposes, which may include financial gains, international contacts and cooperation, or expert knowledge.

Finally, the IOM, too, pursues its interests – self-preservation and expansion, for example – vis-à-vis states. (However, this is easier to achieve vis-à-vis states in the Global South than vis-à-vis their donors from the Global North). By proactively producing and disseminating knowledge, for instance, the IOM is able to create a particular reality or “problem” in international political as well as media discourses that calls for specific actions that the IOM can provide. Because it is widely perceived as an impartial expert, the IOM can promote a dominant view of migration and its “appropriate management” while creating or sustaining demand for its own services.

Who loses and in what way?

The primary losers of the IOM projects appear to be the migrants whose human rights are disregarded or violated. One of the actions the IOM performs in the context of its humanitarian projects and programs supporting “voluntary returns” is to categorize and group migration movements in transit countries. It filters out migrants on the basis of flexible categories, thus realigning their mobility options before they ever have the chance to claim asylum in Europe. In this way, the IOM’s work on the ground creates new forms of differentiated inclusion based not on political rights, but on humanitarian criteria such as migrant vulnerability. In North Africa, for instance, the IOM prioritizes its assistance to women, minors, the sick, trafficking victims, and migrants in need, thus fueling a global trend to frame the protection of migrants and refugees not as a rights issue, but as an act of mercy. The organization establishes and promotes new hierarchies of legitimate claims to international mobility and protection, and must bear responsibility for the impact of its activities.

What kind of resistance is there?

Migrants are not passively managed objects, but appropriate and/or resist forms of management and discourse suggesting a lack of alternatives. Since the success of IOM projects largely depends on the migrants’ voluntary participation, their implementation remains a particularly fragile process of negotiation. Thus, while the IOM's migration management activities are based on a belief in controllable migration, its practical implementation remains subject to unpredictable struggles.

For example, migrants pool and share their knowledge about the humanitarian categories that make them eligible for participation in the “voluntary return” assistance program and attempt to meet their criteria in order to benefit from the IOM’s services. Other migrants refuse to participate in the program because it fails to give them the rights they demand. When funding was cut in 2012 and the “voluntary return” program in Morocco was put on hold, migrants gathered in front of the IOM office in Rabat demanding its continuation. In Tunisia, at about the same time, migrants protested against the lack of alternatives to the program and publicly questioned its “voluntary” nature. The North African context thus shows that IOM projects are subject to both appropriation by and open resistance from migrants.

Migration statistics

The IOM is one of the leading producers of migration statistics. Academics, journalists, policy makers, and activists concerned with migration routinely use the IOM's material as a source and sometimes contribute to its research and policy programs. Migration statistics, in particular, are considered to have scientific authority. However, these data are neither objective nor neutral, but the result of contested data practices, decisions about categories, indicators, and units of measurement. Statistics do not represent pre-existing reality, but construct and solidify it. In this sense, the IOM’s migration statistics also contribute to the very existence of “migration” by making the phenomenon visible and quantifiable. Just how contested the production of migration statistics is is exemplified by the IOM's Missing Migrants Project, which counts migrant deaths, thus meeting a long-standing activist demand to make visible the loss of life, but at the same time depoliticizes these figures and places them in the service of humanitarian migration management (see Heller & Pécoud 2019).

World Social Forum 2013, Tunis: Activists draw attention to drowned migrants in the Mediterranean. Photo: Inken Bartels

For reference and further reading

Bartels, Inken. 2021. The International Organization for Migration in North Africa: Making International Migration Management. Routledge.

Geiger, Martin, and Antoine Pécoud. 2014. “International Organisations and the Politics of Migration.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 40 (6): 865–887.

Georgi, Fabian. 2019. Managing Migration? Eine kritische Geschichte der Internationalen Organisation für Migration (IOM). Berlin: Bertz + Fischer.

Heller, Charles, and Antoine Pécoud. 2020. “Counting Migrants’ Deaths at the Border: From Civil Society Counterstatistics to (Inter)Governmental Recuperation.” American Behavioral Scientist 64 (4): 480–500.

Kipp, David, and Koch, Anne. 2018. Auf der Suche nach externen Lösungen. Instrumente, Akteure und Strategien der migrationspolitischen Kooperation Europas mit afrikanischen Staaten. In: Migrationsprofiteure? Autoritäre Staaten in Afrika und das europäische Migrationsmanagement, Anne Koch, Annette Weber and Isabelle Werenfels (Hg.), 8-22. SWP Studie 3. Berlin: Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit.

Korneev, Oleg. 2014. “Exchanging Knowledge, Enhancing Capacities, Developing Mechanisms: IOM’s Role in the Implementation of the EU–Russia Readmission Agreement.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 40 (6): 888–904.

Pécoud, Antoine. 2018. “What Do We Know about the International Organization for Migration?” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44 (10): 1621–1638.

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