The International Organization for Migration: A Key Player in Global Migration Policy

In Comparison with other international organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, little attention has been paid to the International Organization for Migration so far. Yet, since its foundation in 1951, the organization has managed to gradually increase its influence in global migration policy.

An International Organisation for Migration (IOM) employee watches a migrant boat as it comes ashore at Lhoknga Beach, Aceh, Indonesia, in June 2016. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

The short-term aim of the recent EU-Turkey agreement is to curb the flow of refugees and unauthorized migrants toward Europe. Since its entry into effect on March 20th, 2016, people landing in Greece from Turkey are being gradually returned. For each ‘returnee’, a Syrian refugee in Turkey is then resettled in the EU, albeit at a slower rate.[1] Controversy has quickly tainted the agreement as prominent international agencies and NGOs continue to question its legality and feasibility. Whereas the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refuses to partake in its implementation, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) proves much more actively involved.[2] IOM staff are taking charge of resettling refugees from Turkey to Europe performing pre-departure health checks and arranging all domestic and international transportation. In some cases, the IOM is also providing pre-departure cultural orientation and pre-embarkation sessions to resettlement candidates.[3] These are only some examples of how international organizations play a significant role in migration policy; and while agencies like UNHCR and the International Labour Organization (ILO) are familiar to the public eye, a key but rarely scrutinized player is the IOM.[4]

The organization known as the IOM today was founded in 1951 as the ‘Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe’ (PICMME). It was first thought of as a logistics agency tasked with organizing the emigration and forced displacement brought on by World War II and later the Eastern Bloc’s collapse. As PICMME underwent a series of name changes, so did its mandate and the scope of its operations. Today, under the IOM name, this intergovernmental organization counts 162 member states, with an additional nine states and 118 international and non-governmental organizations enjoying observer status. The evolution, expansion and growing global role of the IOM is also reflected in the organization’s financial situation: the IOM’s annual budget increased from USD 242.2 million in 1998 to over USD 1.4 billion for 2015. It operates from more than 400 field locations and relies on approximately 9,000 staff members working on roughly 2,400 projects across the globe. At the executive helm stands a Director General, who is elected by the IOM Council. Each member state is represented by an equally weighted vote on the Council, which shapes the organization’s overall policies.[5]
The concept of ‘migration management’ lies at the heart of the IOM’s strategy. Its aim is to maximize the benefits that migration may bring to countries of origin, countries of destination and migrants themselves. The IOM pursues this ‘triple-win’ through numerous activities, which fall under four broad categories: forced migration, migration facilitation, migration regulation, and development.[6] The German government’s programs on 'assisted voluntary return' (Reintegration and Emigration Program for Asylum-Seekers in Germany (REAG) and Government Assisted Repatriation Program (GARP)), for example, are organized by the IOM. They are offered as a humane and more incentive-based alternative to forced deportations. The assistance provided to migrants who opt for REAG/GARP often consists of counselling, plane tickets, as well as a small allowance. In fact, since the programs’ inception in 1979, the IOM has assisted more than half a million migrants in their ‘voluntary’ remigration from Germany[7]; a fact almost unknown to the public, including politicians and migration experts.

The IOM’s ambitions, however, go beyond logistical aspects. Occasionally, it operates more like a development agency, pursuing a stronger role in labour markets. Its MAGNET II project, for instance, targets rejected asylum seekers and irregular migrants returning from Europe to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Here, the aim is not purely return-related. Prior to their departure, returnees receive information on the Iraqi labour market, its key sectors as well as their training and job opportunities. Upon arrival, they are actively matched by the IOM with potential employers. Between 2014 and 2016, the project assisted 170 returnees, with 86 finding employment and 63 receiving vocational, IT and language training.[8]

Yet despite its expansion in size and its evolution from a logistics to a migration agency, the IOM still operates outside of the United Nations (UN) system. There have been repeated calls to strengthen the relationship between the two organizations. The IOM Council has asked the Director General to investigate options for improvement and the UN Secretary-General is seeking the approval of the General Assembly to enter into negotiations over a new legal relationship.[9] Nevertheless, while moving closer to the UN may seem like progress, it also brings shortcomings. In fact, what distinguishes the IOM from organizations like UNHCR, is that in the absence of an international legal mandate, its legitimation has been largely practical. The IOM’s survival strategy has consisted of convincing donors that it is best capable of delivering certain projects and policies in exchange for funding. Contributions from member states make up roughly three percent of the organization’s annual budget, whereas the remaining and much more significant proportion is collected as grants and fees in exchange for IOM services.[10] Moving closer to the UN system may impose a legal straitjacket on the IOM limiting the type of activities that it can develop and market to donors.

This text is part of the policy brief on "Actors in National and International (Flight)Migration Regimes".
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Council of the European Union. (2016). EU-Turkey Statement, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18-eu-turkey-statement/ (18 March 2016).
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2016). UNHCR redefines role in Greece as EU-Turkey deal comes into effect, http://www.unhcr.org/56f10d049.html (26 May 2016).
International Organization for Migration (2016). Syrian Resettlement to Europe Picks Up Following EU-Turkey Agreement, https://www.iom.int/news/syrian-resettlement-europe-picks-following-eu-turkey-agreement (26 May 2016).
Geiger, M., & Pécoud, A. (2014). International Organisations and the Politics of Migration. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40(6), 865-887.
International Organization for Migration (2015). Organizational Structure, https://www.iom.int/organizational-structure (13 May 2016).
International Organization for Migration (2014). Our Work, https://www.iom.int/our-work (13 May 2016).
International Organization for Migration (2016). REAG/GARP-EN, from http://germany.iom.int/en/reaggarp-en (03 May 2016)
International Organization for Migration (2016). MAGNET II 2014-2016, https://www.magnet-project.eu/magnet_project/magnet_ii_2014_2016/#magnet_ii_final_meeting (13 May 2016)
Rother, Stefan. (2016). Will the International Organization for #Migration ( #IOM ) move closer (in)to the United Nations system?. The GFMD, Migration, Development and Human Rights, https://gfmd2010.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/will-the-international-organization-for-migration-iom-move-closer-into-the-united-nations-system/ (13 May 2016)
International Organization for Migration (2015). Organizational Structure, https://www.iom.int/organizational-structure (13 May 2016)

Farida Hassan, Martin Geiger

Farida Hassan

Farida Hassan is a Master of International Affairs Candidate at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin.

Martin Geiger

Dr. Martin Geiger is Assistant Professor of Politics of Human Migration and Mobility at Carleton University, Ottawa, and Corresponding Member of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) at the University of Osnabrueck, Germany.

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