IOM will join UN System today – but without any rights-based mandate #UN4RefugeesMigrants

iom-logoAt todays UN High-Level Plenary meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants in New York, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) will become a “related organization” of the United Nations. This begs the obvious question: What difference will it make? The answer seems to be: Foremost an official “seat at the table” for the organization – but, at least in the medium-term, no obvious move towards a clear rights-based mandate comparable to organizations which are full members of the United Nations system. The IOM council has stated so itself, by stressing that theirs is a “non-normative organization” – a term well worth pondering upon… Actually, scholars have identified a number of norms underlying the IOM such asupholding state sovereignty and the current system of border controls, viewing people as essentially sedentary and over all, the “management of migration” as a technocratic process conducted in a top-down manner. These assessments should not belittle the fact that there are IOM projects on the ground with a focus on protection and humanitarian aid – but this focus might shift from a project-to-project base. Since the vast majority of the financing of the organization is project-based (leading to comparisons of the organization to a “private firm”), IOM seems to be not particularly picky in what kind of assignments it accepts. These include Australia’s program to resettle refugees from the widely criticized asylum-processing centre on Nauru island to Cambodia which ended as an embarrassing failure (see for example here: and ) There has also been a long-standing debate on how “voluntary” the participation in the “voluntary return programs” of the organization actually is.

This status will not change after UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon and William Lacy Swing, the Director General of the IOM, will have signed the agreement today. The IOM Council Resolution 1309 made it clear that IOM should not change its essential nature even when moving closer to the UN system:

IOM is the global lead agency on migration and is an intergovernmental, non-normative organization with its own constitution and governance system, featuring a predominantly projectized budgetary model and a decentralized organizational structure. The Organization must, in addition to these features, also retain the following attributes to which its Member States attach importance: responsiveness, efficiency, cost-effectiveness and independence

In other words: IOM will remain a “cost-effective” (and thus competing with civil society organizations) service provider for states and is not bound by international human rights standards. The Agreement however mentions that IOM will respect the UN Charter.

Due to objections from other agencies, in the final agreement IOM was not called “the global leading agency on migration”, but as having a “leading role”.

(more on these turf wars see here: )

What remains unclear to me, is how IOM will actually fit inside the existing UN framework. The mandate of the UNHCR might be outdated and in disjunction with current realities, but there is still an overlap with several of IOMs activities. As a resourceful colleague has reminded me, for this reason one of the proposals of The Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) in 2005 had been to merge IOM with UNHCR as WORM (World Organization for Refugees and Migrants)….

Looking at the two new “global compacts” envisioned at this week’s summits (more on these to come in a separate post), it seems that UNHCR will be primarily involved in the refugee compact, while IOM will contribute to the migration compact. But since non-refugee movement of people is mostly labour migration, why not give the International Labour Organisation (ILO) a leading role here? The ILO has set several standards on migration and can build upon its decent work agenda (which might be exactly the reason why states prefer IOM…)

Obviously, it would be far too simplified to paint IOM solely as the “bad guys” , in this picture competing with “good guys” such as the UNHCR– there are at least 50 shades of grey in global migration governance and institutional jealousy and small-mindedness seem to prevalent. For example, Alexander Betts shows in this opinion piece, how “the UNHCR has been keen to preserve its de facto monopoly as the lead U.N. agency working on refugees.: Fearing mandate competition, the UNHCR pushed back against a wider, jointly run refugee conference with a specific focus on Syria and the Mediterranean”:

The struggle for the “global leading agency on migration and refugees” thus will certainly continue after today, with one of the main differences being that there will be more arenas and areans to struggle in…


See also:



About Dr. Stefan Rother

Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institute at the University of Freiburg -- Freelance journalist -- You can find my CV at the links below:
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