The International Organization for Migration (IOM)

Inken Bartels, July 2021

Basic data and brief characterization

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an international organization with a history of global expansion and a growing influence on the formation and implementation of international migration policy. The IOM 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, the IOM had expanded its activities geographically and in terms of content. Today its membership is global in scope, with 173 member states. 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 implemented in the Global South, but funded by states in the Global North. After decades of self-imposed 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 was intended to pursue the allies’ geostrategic interests and thus counterbalance 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 its member states with logistics and the transportation of displaced persons in post-World War II Europe. In the course of the following decades, the organization repeatedly changed its areas of responsibility and expanded its projects geographically. It was renamed four times until 1989, when it became the International Organization for Migration, a permanent institution with a global remit outside the UN system. 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 bound by any international legal or normative framework (as, for example, UNHCR’s work is bound 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.”

The IOM’s funding is decentralized and organized on a project-by-project basis. As a migration management service provider, the organization finances itself primarily through project-based acquisition of funds. Overarching 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 and acquire the necessary funding for them. 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 for the continued existence of each office. The IOM projects are largely funded by the U.S. and European Union (EU) Member States or their development agencies in some countries. 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 selected member states from the Global North to the most prominent global migration organization. The growing number of member states, national offices, projects, and funding amounts over the years illustrate the organization’s global expansion over the past decades. Today, the IOM presents itself as “the migration agency” and acts 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 practically (see Georgi 2019). It not only acts as a think tank for new migration policies, but also offers states various concrete services to implement them in practice. In doing so, the IOM presents its projects as particularly (cost)effective, professional, and flexible. The IOM thus exemplifies a neoliberal policy of international migration management that follows the maxim that well-regulated migration contributes to the well-being of states and migrants alike.

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

At 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, International Labour Organization (ILO) or International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) for global influence and international funding. In addition, the IOM also gained importance as a cooperation partner for migration management projects in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, especially through the implementation of humanitarian interventions in the context of increasing displacement 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 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. As an international expert on migration, the IOM disseminates seemingly objective discourses, global standards, and practical knowledge that is often perceived as neutral, and encourages states of origin and transit to cooperate in migration and border control projects. These activities provide the IOM with the opportunity to engage (especially weaker) states in the Global South in its migration management policies and programs, while formally respecting their sovereignty. In this way, it offers its powerful member states a “soft” instrument to influence migration policies of Global South states in their interest (see also Geiger and Pécoud 2014). Its goal is to make these states understand migration as their own problem and to take responsibility for its control.

Migration movements

According to the IOM website, migratory movements “in their diversity and complexity” are the main target group of its activities. The IOM offers its support to migrants “in need,” particularly in the form of humanitarian assistance. The IOM explicitly includes internally displaced persons (IDPs), returnees and victims of human trafficking among its target group. Only refugees and asylum seekers, as an explicit target group of the UNHCR, are not among the addressees of its projects.

The IOM has continuously expanded its target group and adapted it to changing political circumstances. In the early 2000s, for example, the IOM established “victims of trafficking” in Eastern Europe as another category on which to base the development of its policies and projects. With this category, it delineated a new sphere of action and influence, distinct from the mandate of the UNHCR.

In North Africa, the IOM also defined “marginalized youth from regions at high risk of emigration” as another target group for its information campaigns aimed at raising awareness about the dangers of “irregular” migration and human trafficking. In the form of music festivals, theater workshops or film projects, the IOM offers young people in regions characterized by high emigration the opportunities to deal with migration and learn about alternatives. Its goal is to educate potential emigrants about the dangers of “irregular” migration so that they can make an “informed decision.” In addition, the IOM is increasingly working with role models in its own society to show migrants an alternative path and perspective “back home.” The IOM’s information campaigns are thus based on the idea that increased knowledge about the dangers of “irregular” migration would discourage young people from crossing to Europe. With this target group, the IOM has expanded its scope beyond migration in the narrow sense and increasingly offers social and educational projects for marginalized groups in countries of origin.

These examples show how broad and diverse the IOM’s target group is. This openness and flexibility helps the IOM to specify its projects contextually and to adapt them to the various interests that need to be taken into account when implementing a project. In doing so, the target group defined in each of the projects’ guidelines with the donors forms the basis for selecting the beneficiaries of a project. Moreover, this adaptation of the target groups to 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.

Projects of the EU

The IOM is an important cooperation partner for the EU and its Member States. From their perspective, the IOM acts as a trusted service provider that adheres to agreements and is able to establish and maintain stable relationships with states in which projects are to be implemented (see Korneev 2014). For the EU, cooperation with the IOM is particularly attractive because the organization can act as an apparently neutral, independent actor in states of the Global South. From the perspective of these states, in turn, the IOM offers the opportunity to obtain funding, enter into international cooperation, or 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. It exerts international political and discursive influence that increases demand for its services and proactively participates in the global dissemination of its migration (control) projects.

The IOM thus plays a central role in the externalization of European migration control. Even though the organization is not directly involved in the militarization of Europe’s external borders like, for example, the European Border Agency (Frontex), it plays an important role as a cooperation partner and executing agency of European migration and border control projects by encouraging states outside Europe to learn and, prospectively, implement its global mission and concrete migration management practices themselves (see Andrijasevic and Walters 2010). This “soft” outsourcing is done through various formats of knowledge and information exchange, and the training of 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 work outside of Europe’s external borders was most recently strengthened by the “EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa” (EUTF) established at the 2015 La Valletta migration summit. The EUTF is framed by a new discourse of “fighting the root causes” of migration, with its help the EU is trying 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 in the field of migration and refugee politics (see Bartels 2018). The IOM received nearly 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 “improving international protection and humanitarian assistance to people on the move.” Specifically, the money will be used to establish “migration-friendly services,” improve local management of migration, and create access to so-called shelters for migrants. At these places, 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.

Since before the scandalization of slave-like conditions in Libyan camps in December 2017, there have been voices in Europe advocating to make Libya a safe(r) terrain for migrants. While political debates were initially dominated by outrage over the inhumane conditions in the camps, European governments nevertheless held fast to their idea of returning those rescued in the Mediterranean to Libya and one day outsourcing asylum procedures there. This is far from a new idea: since the early 2000s, the idea of setting up refugee camps in North Africa under different names such as Transit Processing Centers or Regional Protection Areas has repeatedly surfaced in European politics. So far, this has failed mainly because of the consistent 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 places 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 region, without involving African states. The IOM has been already working in the logistics and management of camps in Tunisia and Niger, always and especially excelling in its advisory services on “voluntary return.” To what extent the increased establishment of so-called shelters and the provision of humanitarian assistance by IOs along migration routes will have a longer-term impact on the assessment of transit countries in North Africa 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 with the nearly 90 million euros it receives from the EUTF for its projects in North Africa (see Bartels 2018).

What role does which NGO play?

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 the funds among many smaller projects implemented by NGOs. As the coordinator of large migration management programs, the IOM redistributes funding to NGOs acting as its local implementation partners.

However, especially in the implementation of humanitarian projects, the IOM also competes directly with transnational NGOs for international funding. While NGOs have to prove their own expertise, the IOM is often already known to donors through cooperation within other countries or projects.

What are the economic interests? Who profits?

The practical work of the IOM often contrasts with how it justifies and promotes its migration management as equally profitable for sending and receiving states and migrants.

First and foremost, states in the Global North benefit by being able to “outsource” their global migration control ambitions to the IOM without coming under public criticism themselves. They promote the IOM’s migration management, with the goal of bringing “irregular” migration under effective state control worldwide, preferably without producing too much turbulence, criticism, and deaths. In North Africa, IOM projects build on expert knowledge and innovative methods based on the participation of (potential) migrants to gain control over unwanted migration movements. These are intended to help stabilize the crisis-ridden European border regime, providing it with new normative orientation and legitimacy. In the long run, IOM projects thus support the existing international inequality of mobility opportunities without directly resorting to physical violence and/or overt means of repression, which, however are, as it were, the condition of their effective implementation. With educational prevention campaigns and humanitarian aid, IOM projects also compensate for the brutal effects of migration control and normalize more visible forms of violence 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 negotiation processes with the IOM. Far from being passive recipients of the IOM’s services, they actively participate in the implementation of programs for their own purposes, such as financial gains, international contacts and cooperation, or expert knowledge.

Finally, the IOM may also pursue its own interests – for example, in self-preservation and expansion – 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). For example, through its proactive knowledge production and dissemination, the IOM is able to create a particular reality or “problem” in international political as well as media discourses that require specific actions that can be provided by the IOM’s services. Because it is widely viewed as a neutral 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 losers of the IOM projects seem to be above all the migrants whose human rights are disregarded or violated. Within the framework of humanitarian projects and programs to support “voluntary return,” the IOM categorizes and sorts migration movements in transit countries. It filters migrants according to flexible categories and thus realigns their mobility options before they can even enter a European asylum procedure. In this way, the IOM’s practical work introduces new forms of differentiated inclusion based not on political rights but on humanitarian criteria such as migrant vulnerability. Thus, in North Africa, the IOM prioritizes its assistance to women, minors, the sick, victims of trafficking, and migrants in need. The IOM’s work thus promotes a global trend to transform the protection of migrants and refugees from a question of rights into an act of mercy. The IOM thus establishes and promotes new hierarchies of legitimate claims to international mobility and protection, and is responsible for their material consequences.

What kind of resistance is there?

Migrants are not passive objects of their management, but take ownership of it and/or resist its appropriation and suggested lack of alternatives. Since the IOM projects are largely dependent on the voluntary participation of migrants to be effective, their implementation remains a particularly fragile process of negotiation. Thus, while the IOM’s migration management is based on a belief in controllable migration, its practical implementation remains subject to unpredictable struggles.

For example, migrants gather and share their knowledge about the humanitarian categories eligible for participation in the “voluntary return” assistance program and attempt to meet these categories in order to benefit from the IOM’s services. Other migrants refuse to participate in the program because it does not give them the rights they demand. When funding was cut in 2012 and the implementation of the “voluntary return” program in Morocco was unclear, migrants demonstrated in front of the IOM office in Rabat for 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 the projects of the IOM experience both appropriation by and open resistance on the part of the 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 database and sometimes participate in its research and policy programs. Migration statistics, in particular, are considered to have special 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 countable. How contested the production of migration statistics is is exemplified by the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, which counts migrant deaths and thus fulfills a long-standing activist demand to make them visible, but at the same time de-politicizes the death figures and puts them in the service of humanitarian migration management (see Heller & Pécoud 2019).

World Social Forum 2013, Tunis: Activists draw attention to the dead 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.


The cover picture shows the “IOM Agadez Transit Centre” in Agadez, Niger. Photo: Christian Jakob

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