The IOM – Complicity in Human Rights Failures in Migration

A Report Produced for the Tamil Information Centre November 17th, 2009

This paper addresses the issue of the activities of the IOM in Sri Lanka and internationally, in the context of the challenge it has presented to the safeguarding of human rights in migratory policy and practice.

The primary concern with regard to the organisation’s role and function in migration is the lack of a protection mandate, despite the involvement of the organisation in the movement, processing and assistance in resettlement or voluntary returns of millions of vulnerable people. The UNHCR is uniquely mandated to ensure physical protection of refugees, stateless persons and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The IOM has no such binding obligation. However, as the IOM expands its mandate and becomes an increasingly dominant player and “member of the team”1 in international migration, the lack of focus on protection presents itself as a major problem. The danger has emerged that the agency is viewed as an alternative source of aid, advice and services for governments, without the necessary adherence to human rights obligations and the protection of the physical well-being of refugees, asylum seekers, or displaced persons. The organisation asseverates that its foundation is in the principle that humane and orderly migration benefits both migrants and society. 2 It has been observed that the organisation, along with the UNHCR, straddles the line between humanitarian action and migration.3 As essentially the leading international organization in the field of migration, IOM works at the behest of its Member States, in partnership and cooperation with partners in the international community, including governments, NGOs, inter-governmental organisations and other stakeholders in the field. IOM's funding is primarily in the form of voluntary contributions for projects, from international bodies and donating countries. It charges Member States a 5% administrative cost for each project, which constitutes the remainder of its budget. IOM’s stated goals are:
1. To

assist Member States in meeting the operational challenges of migration management. 2. To advance general understanding of migration issues, through research and publications, conferences and interdisciplinary and inter-agency dialogue. 3. To encourage social and economic development through migration. 4. To uphold the human dignity and well-being of migrants. The IOM has experienced massive growth in membership, field locations, projects and staff numbers in the past ten years.4 The
1 2

Cohen, R. & Deng, F. (2006), Masses in Flight (Washington DC: The Brookings Institute) IOM Official Website 3 Migration in an interconnected world: Report of the Global Commission on International Migration, October 2005 4 IOM Official Website

lead position of the organisation in the migratory field imposes a certain level of responsibility in basing their projects and activities on the adherence to international refugee and human rights doctrine. The organisation was founded in 1951, considered as a competitive opponent and counter-agency to the UNHCR by some.5 It came into being in response to the logistical demand for orderly migration and resettlement of the millions uprooted and displaced by the Second World War. Since this original mandate, the IOM has gradually expanded its mandate and is now involved in managing and regulating migration, supporting development, and providing emergency and other services in cases of forced migration. While its programs have undoubtedly constituted a phenomenal source of support to populations, individuals, government and countries in crisis, the organisation has been recognised on many occasions as ethically redundant. It has been seen to willingly discard stated humanitarian principles in favour of pursuing well-funded projects in conjunction with governments. The International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) has noted the organisation’s continuous entrepreneurial expansion of its mandate as an effort to “follow the money.”6 As Liz Fekete has asserted, only the UNHCR speaks the language of refugee protection. States, on the issue of refugees, prefer to protect themselves as far as possible from the burden of incoming migrants.7 Given that the IOM works closely with, and at the invitation of, its Member States, it follows that their ‘management’ of refugees can amount to creating and implementing restrictive policies and merely controlling and limiting the influx of refugees.8 The human rights of the ‘managed’ populations have appeared to be of little concern to the organisation, despite its assurances to the contrary. The IOM is repeatedly active in situations where the treatment of refugees and displaced individuals is highly questionable and sometimes unmistakably deplorable. IOM’s role, orchestrated by its Member States (as it is basically a state-funded provider of services), can in some cases result in breaches of the human rights of the migrant populations involved. The most publicised and illustrative example in recent years is the IOM’s role in Australia’s ‘Pacific Solution’ in 2001. Hundreds of migrants were refused entry to Australian territory and instead, after weeks of uncertainty, stranded on crowded boats, transferred to be housed in detention centres on the Pacific island of Nauru and
5 6

IOM Watch, ICVA, referenced in Morris, T. ‘IOM: Trespassing on Other’s Humanitarian Space’ Speaker’s Corner, 7 Fekete, L, (2005), The Deportation Machine (London: IRR) 8 Duvell, F. (2006), ‘Crossing the Fringes of Europe: Transit Migration in the EU’s Neighbourhood’ Working Paper 33 (UN: University of Oxford, Compas)

Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The IOM-run “migrant processing centres” were condemned by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as detention facilities.9 The human rights watchdog concluded that this arrangement was a breach of Australia’s international obligation to protect refugees as the detention was arbitrary, the refugees had no access to legal representation, and the IOM, without a protection mandate or relevant experience, could not be entrusted to provide adequate protection to these vulnerable parties.10 HRW urged the IOM to avoid future occasions where its activities served to undermine and infringe the UNHCR’s protection mandate.11 The agency is viewed by many NGOs and academics as an ethically unsound alternative to engagement and agreements with the UNHCR, available to governments on invitation. For example, in the context of Darfur, it has been suggested that the squabbling disorganisation of the UN agency response to the crisis allowed the government to “cut a side deal with IOM,”12 which was less favourable from a protection and accountability standpoint. The Libyan authorities have also distanced themselves from cooperation with UNHCR and have failed to demonstrate a move towards a human rights based asylum policy, as agreed in “ad hoc dialogue.” In contrast, they signed an agreement to cooperate with IOM in 2005, undoubtedly swayed by the lack of the protection element within their mandate.13 Amnesty International (AI) and HRW voiced their disquiet with the organisation in 2003 in a joint press release. They asserted that “IOM’s presence should not have the effect of prolonging untenable state policies and practices which themselves fail to comply with international human rights standards. Such policies range from uncertain border control and deterrent measures, to arbitrary and unlawful detention, to encouraging premature return to countries of origin.” “AI and HRW are also concerned that IOM should not provide an alternative agency for states where they prefer to avoid their human rights obligations.”14

HRW (2002), ‘By Invitation Only: Australia’s Asylum Policy’ HRW (2003) - The


International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Human Rights Protection in the Field: Current Concerns Submitted by Human Rights Watch, IOM Governing Council Meeting 86th Session, November 18-21, 2003, Geneva


Ibid. Charny, J. R. (2005), ‘New approach needed to internal displacement’ Forced Migration Review Supplement


Hamood, S. (2008), ‘EU–Libya Cooperation on Migration: A Raw Deal for Refugees and Migrants?’ Journal of Refugee Studies, January 23rd

Duvell, F. (2003),








Various other human rights organisations have spoken out against the IOM’s practices, including the Roma National Congress, who accused them of carrying out the “dirty work in the shadow, in an extra-legal space,” at the request of States.15 The Jesuit Refugee Service severely criticised the IOM’s part in the deportation of 2.5m Burmese migrants from Thailand, as the organisation could not maintain contact with the deportees once they had been transported across the border into Burma.16 From these examples, a trend becomes clear. The IOM acts at the behest of its State parties – its main concern being the fulfilment of a contract and the attainment of funding rather than humanitarian principles. Activities such as registration of IDPs and the technological advancement in population information systems, introduced and championed by the IOM, cause concern for the erosion of protective safeguards against government repression.17 HRW and AI have called on IOM to be aware of refugee protection norms and international human rights standards in all activities. HRW identify the absence of a standard of accountability within the IOM as a major problem to be tackled.18 The organisation needs to develop mechanisms within which the results of their activities can be appraised from a human rights perspective, to ensure their adherence to protection norms and human rights obligations. In public statements, the IOM has acknowledged itself as a stakeholder in protection issues and accepted responsibility to “ensure that migration policies are implemented humanely and effectively, consistent with international standards.”19 In practice, the IOM has yet to prove itself as legitimately determined to follow through on its rhetoric. The IOM has been repeatedly warned and questioned by human rights organisations regarding the design and execution of ‘voluntary returns’ programmes. In the context of host countries’ hostility to asylum seekers and refugees, the desired result is the repatriation of refugees to their home20 countries at the earliest possible moment. The perception of immigration within the sphere of criminality is a State-created phenomenon, founded in selfprotection in reaction to the perceived threat of refugee overcrowding.21 The IOM have contributed to this discourse through
15 16

Ibid. See also 17 Cohen, R. & Deng, F. (2006), Masses in Flight (Washington DC: The Brookings Institute) 18 HRW (2003) - The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Human Rights Protection in the Field: Current Concerns Submitted by Human Rights Watch, IOM Governing Council Meeting 86th Session, November 18-21, 2003, Geneva 19 Ibid. 20 The focus on ‘home’ itself has been criticised as a xenophobic and racist notion. See, IOM Watch. 21 Duvell, F. (2008), ‘Clandestine Migration in Europe’ Social Science Information Vol. 47 (4).

the use of sensationalist language,22 to increase the likelihood that States will consider their services. The IOM is heavily involved with returns schemes internationally, and has drawn severe criticism for its role. Various programs have been condemned as lacking an actual element of choice, of failing to provide full information of the situation in the country of origin, and of failing to provide the support structures necessary to achieve sustainable livelihoods for the refugees involved.23 Transporting asylum seekers, refugees or IDPs to resettlements or as part of repatriation schemes could amount to complicity in forced relocations, especially as it is difficult to determine the voluntariness of these movements.24 The issue is particularly evident in cases of returns from detention centres, such as in the ‘Pacific Solution’ and in Belgium.25 The IOM may not have the expertise or humanitarian concern necessary to correctly gauge whether conditions in the chosen location are safe or ready to receive returns.26 Examples of disputed returns programmes include those arranging transport and incentives to return migrants to Jordan, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. War-torn and volatile regions such as this must be carefully assessed by an experienced body in terms of security and protection. The IOM is incapable of such an assessment without tight coordination with the UNHCR, which has not happened in the past. The UK has also been accused of implementing coercive and irresponsible programmes in partnership with the IOM. In an expose in the Times, a reporter posed as an asylum seeker and visited the IOM offices in London “to see just how desperate the IOM and the Home Office are to get me – along with the estimated 1m failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants – to leave Britain.”27 Illustrative of the IOM and British government’s eagerness to rid the country of burdensome migrants, a faux failed asylum seeker and



Dumper, M. (2006) in Palestinian Refugee Repatriation: Global Perspectives (Oxfordshire: Routledge) ; HRW (2003) The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Human Rights Protection in the Field: Current Concerns Submitted by Human Rights Watch, IOM Governing Council Meeting 86th Session, November 18-21, 2003, Geneva ; Amnesty International (2004), ‘Darfur: What hope for the Future? Civilians in Need of Protection’ AFR 54/164.

IOM representatives have recognised this in the past. See Richard Perrouchourd (IOM, 1994) in ‘Return Migration: Observations on the mandate and activities of IOM’ : “it is sometimes difficult to evaluate whether a decision to leave a country is voluntary or not, given the pressures or incentives that might play a preponderant role in the decisionmaking process.”

HRW (2003) - The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Human Rights Protection in the Field: Current Concerns Submitted by Human Rights Watch, IOM Governing Council Meeting 86th Session, November 18-21, 2003, Geneva

Cohen, R. & Deng, F. (2006), Masses in Flight (Washington DC: The Brookings Institute) ; HRW (2003) 26

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Human Rights Protection in the Field: Current Concerns Submitted by Human Rights Watch, IOM Governing Council Meeting 86th Session, November 18-21, 2003, Geneva

drug seller who told IOM representatives of his hopes to use IOM’s scheme to set up a business illegally transporting people to Britain, was assured that the IOM would be happy to help. IOM indicated its intention to increase cooperation and dialogue with international NGOs and human rights organisations as part of the ‘Cluster Approach’ generally taken to crises, at the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Standing Group Committee(IASC) and the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM). The Commission suggested in its 2005 Report, ‘Migration in an Inter-Connected World’28 that IOM be brought into the UN system and designated as the lead agency on voluntary migration. A merger of some kind between the IOM and UNHCR was suggested, noting concerns regarding the possible dilution of UNHCR’s protection mandate. Despite the obvious negotiations and changes necessary, the focus ought to be on increased cooperation, information-sharing and attaining the benefit of each others’ expertise. Competition between the agencies encompasses a waste and illallocation of resources, desperately needed in the field. At the very least, communication and agreements between the organisations should be organised so as to ensure that the UNHCR is fully appraised of situations wherein protection issues might arise. As things stand, the UNHCR should always carry responsibility for protection and must take the lead in such circumstances. Protection is beyond the mandate of most other organisations and they have been recognised as incapable of providing same.29 Although the IOM has portrayed failings in ethics in the past, it must be recognised that it continues to grow and expand as an organisation. Reasonably, we must focus on mechanisms to ensure accountability, monitoring and guaranteed adherence to human rights and refugee laws and norms. The Office of the UNHCR recommends that organisations such as the IOM pay increased attention to improving the reporting of protection problems, through their work in the field where they are ideally placed to recognise and communicate the issues arising. 30 The UNHCR has been limited by resources in its attempt to strengthen its protection role.31 Changes in inter-agency monitoring and referral systems may prove to represent a solution. The Terms agreed in the 1997 IOM-UN


Vivek Chaudhary (2007), ‘Take the money and run – illegal migrants go ‘home’ on handouts’ The Sunday Times, December 16th.


Global Commission on International Migration (2005), ‘Migration in an Interconnected World’ 29 UNHCR (2006) The State of the World’s Refugees (Oxford University Press ) 30 Ibid. 31 Fagan, P. R. (2006), “UNHCR and Repatriation” in Palestinian Refugee Repatriation: Global Perspectives (Oxfordshire: Routledge).

Memo of Understanding must be altered and specifically outlined to guarantee the delivery of proper protection standards. Sri Lanka In Sri Lanka, the IOM has recently signed an agreement with the government to facilitate the transport of IDPs from Menik Farm ‘welfare village’ to districts which have been assessed as safe for return.32 The organisation has been present in Sri Lanka since the tsunami created a dire need for assistance in 2001. The IOM’s activities in relation to the IDPs created by the Civil War include the provision of health care, temporary shelter, drainage and sanitation facilities within Menik Farm; supporting and strengthening government capacity and local authorities in preparation for the return of IDPs; supplying safety equipment to government demining units; and logistics and IDP registration. The organisation has stated its intention to aid the local authorities in providing protection. In the context of Sri Lanka, it is vital that protection issues be carefully and diligently monitored. The UNHCR must be consulted at all stages of the process and ideally, have a physical presence in the areas of return. Presence is important in monitoring protection and acting as a deterrent for further human rights abuses.33 However, it cannot be assumed to be effective where human rights abuses are systematic,34 such as the case may be in Sri Lanka. An agreement between the UNHCR and IOM in the specific case of Sri Lanka should be drawn up, including assurances from the latter organisation to efficiently communicate protection issues to the UNHCR where they fail to be present and to conduct their activities solely within the principles of international human rights law and refugee protection norms.


IOM (2009), IOM Works with Government of Sri Lanka, Partners to Return IDPs’ IOM Press Briefing, November 10th. 33 UNHCR Good Practice Guide for IDP Camps

Cohen, R. & Deng, F. (2006), Masses in Flight (Washington DC: The Brookings Institute)