To the world, it appears that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is a humanitarian organization. It provides emergency relief to migrants and displaced people. It conducts research on global migration and promotes the rights of migrants on its social media platforms.
Last year, IOM was formally welcomed into the United Nations family as a “related organization.” On the surface this made sense. The U.N. has a refugee agency, UNHCR, why not a migration agency? But this elevation of IOM contains a strong element of “blue washing” – the use of humanitarian language and branding to mask more controversial projects.
The U.N. partnership is problematic because IOM, unlike the refugee agency, does not have a rights-based protection mandate. This has made it an attractive tool for Western states seeking to outsource their border-control policies, especially to third countries and non-state actors.
As an IOM chief of mission in Jakarta, Indonesia, once explained to Human Rights Watch: “IOM is not, strictly speaking, a humanitarian organization.”
It is no coincidence that this admission came out of Indonesia. IOM has recently faced criticism for its role in E.U. actions in Libya, where it has received tens of millions of dollars to bolster a system intended to prevent people departing for Europe – and this is part of a longer history of controlling migration. In fact, IOM has been helping Australia manage its border controls in Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific since the turn of the century.
Some of the things the IOM is busy denying it is doing in Libya are things it has already done in Indonesia. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) recently accused IOM of complicity in the torture and arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centers. In response, IOM’s E.U. office tweeted: “IOM does not sponsor prisons. Alternatives needed to Libyan detention, but we work to improve conditions.”
In the early 2000s, IOM ran Australia’s infamous offshore detention centers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, before they were dismantled in 2007 – only to be reintroduced in 2012, this time without IOM involvement.
The organization has also supported Indonesian detention centers on Australia’s behalf. In 2000, IOM, Australia and Indonesia signed a Regional Cooperation Agreement, under which Indonesian police and immigration officials would intercept refugees and asylum seekers thought to be intent on traveling irregularly to Australia. Those intercepted are detained in 13 detention centers across the Indonesian archipelago, where IOM provides “migrant care management” to those detained. While Australia claims that it does not directly fund immigration detention in Indonesia, it earmarks funds using the obscure label of “providing care and maintenance to intercepted irregular migrants in Indonesia.”
With Australian funding, IOM has also refurbished a number of detention centers in Indonesia, increasing their capacity and improving living conditions within them. Likewise, IOM has recently refurbished a number of detention centers in Libya.
While IOM claims to advocate for alternatives to detention in both Libya and Indonesia, it continues to provide support to these detention centers. It provides human rights training for detention center guards, yet there are concerns regarding the effectiveness of such training. Detention of refugees and migrants in Libya and Indonesia clearly breaches the prohibition against arbitrary detention and inhuman treatment under international law.
IOM’s role in the return of intercepted refugees and migrants is a further source of concern. In Libya, IOM has received $57 million from the E.U. for its Assisted Voluntary Return and Repatriation program. It has set a target of 15,000 returns from Libya in 2017, with more than 8,000 returned so far.
Likewise, Australian funding has enabled IOM in Indonesia to repatriate more than 5,000 migrants and refugees since 2000. The main countries of origin for returnees are Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran – countries that are key sources of refugees who arrive by boat in Australia.
IOM’s return program presents a number of legal and ethical issues. Refugees stranded in Libya and Indonesia often have no other option but to return home. With increasing interceptions at sea preventing them from reaching their intended destination and experiences of detention, abuse, torture and rape if they remain, many may be forced to return.
UNHCR’s handbook on voluntary repatriation makes it clear that for a return to be voluntary, a refugee must have the legal right to remain in the host country, must be free from detention and must have their rights respected. “If, however, their rights are not recognized, if they are subjected to pressures and restrictions and confined to closed camps, they may choose to return, but this is not an act of free will.”
This is in contrast to IOM’s definition of voluntariness, which includes the notion of “voluntary under compulsion” as a legitimate form of voluntary return. This involves people who are “unable to stay, and choose to return at their own volition.” So far in 2017, IOM has returned 5,854 people directly from detention in Libya. Such returns cannot be classified as voluntary.
If returns are not voluntary, and the individual has not undergone a fair refugee status determination, there is a real risk that a person will be exposed to harm upon return. This is a violation of the non-refoulement obligation under international refugee law.
IOM sees its role in the international migration regime as promoting “humane and orderly migration.” By prioritizing “orderly” migration, it helps states reduce irregular migration, closing borders and migration routes to refugees who have but few options to find safety. As states increasingly turn to the “U.N. migration agency” to outsource their border policies, IOM’s activities deserve closer scrutiny.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.