Migration Management and the IOM

I was once asked the question why my criticism of the migration regime is limited to nation states, borders, capitalism, hegemony etc. After all, the “International Organization for Migration” (IOM) is a truly nasty organization that deserves to be the target of resistance as much as the other entities. Obviously there have been, and still are, many people who have grappled with the IOM, collecting information and data and criticizing it. But I felt called out and wanted to research the IOM as another agent who influences how migration policy is being made by states.

I see the racial profiling of people with dark skin by the police as a systematic practice, not because I think all police are Nazis, even though many can be found amongst their ranks, but because of the frequency and the obvious motive to make these peoples’ lives in Switzerland hell. This systematicity gained further significance for me when I read that this practice is part of a concept that has gained in popularity in the last 20 years. This concept is called “migration management” and is now the consensus amongst liberal states of how to deal with migration. The IOM plays an important role in the propagation and realization of the concept which they call a “global strategy”. This article is an attempt for readers to familiarize themselves with the IOM’s concept and to share certain thoughts about it.

Migration Management

“Migrations Management” was developed by the IOM to radically modernize the measure of control over the movement of persons a state can have. They do that by seeking to implement a universal administration in the various countries and the different forms of migration. These forms are divided into three categories (legal, illegal, and forced migration), despite the many personal reasons for leaving a country.

This concept is a reaction to western countries’ perceived loss of control of the state led control mechanisms over migration in the 80s and early 90s. Catalysts for migration which western states felt like they could not handle were the civil wars in Afghanistan or Angola, neoliberal reforms like the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that were instituted by western states, economic exploitation, political repression or the legitimate wish of finding better or simply different living conditions. Among those who were against a complete isolation from all kinds of immigration was the IOM. Instead they spoke of the opportunities of migration if states managed to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of migration. The implications behind the terms “positive” and “negative” follow neo-liberal logic to a tee. Migrants are split into two groups in respect to their economic exploitability; the “useful” and the “useless”. Those that serve the capitalist mode of production as cheap labor or highly educated specialists are considered useful. Those that find no place in the economy and are consequently criminalized are identified as useless. The latter are at the mercy of the hunting instinct of the cops and border patrol and are jailed or violently deported. Migration is not a danger for the IOM, if anything it can be a lucrative and should therefore be encouraged.
To reap the benefits from the wanted and ward off the unwanted people effectively the IOM stipulates that order must be brought to the subject of migration on an internationally coherent scale. The core of “migration management” is a categorization with which a state can neatly classify human beings:

1.Legal migration that should be supported:

Highly qualified labor, tourists, and students are economically beneficial immigrants and receive visas and further privileges relatively easily.

2. Illegal migration, which should be reduced:

A person not considered a “refugee” in a accord with the Geneva Convention, is criminalized. This person is economically undesirable, has no opportunity for legal work or domicile and has to live in constant fear of incarceration and deportation.

3. Forced migration, which should be protected:

The state should offer help to “refugees” that are officially recognized as such. This way the self-given humanitarian image can be retained by western liberal states.
The IOM is the biggest enforcer of “migration management” on the international playing field and all their programs correspond to this concept. The underlying logic of organizing migration along economical lines is the same in all programs.
The IOM trains border guards for a perfect border regime, conducts “voluntary return programs” – read deportation, helps states in the global mediation of highly qualified migrant labor, and operates scare campaigns with the aim of discouraging potential migrants.

The power and influence of the IOM over the migration policy

The IOM is funded by its member states. However, while all members’ funding goes towards the administrative branch, funding for the operational branch, which is responsible for the execution of the IOM’s migration programs, is optional. According to the list of member states that have funded the operational branch in 2016, the USA is by far the biggest depositor with 533 million US dollars followed by England, Canada, Germany, Australia, Sweden, and the EU, who is not a member. Switzerland contributed 6,699,200 US dollars to IOM programs. These are all states that have a marked interest in reducing migration and would profit the most from the organization’s programs. Welfare states such as these have accumulated their wealth through exploitation, oppression, and the destruction of habitats in other countries whilst having the arrogance to declare their standards and values as universal and forcing them onto others.

An “International Organization” (IO) is supposed to facilitate the cooperation between nations, at least that is often the justification for their existence. This line is parroted by the IOM: “IOM works […] to promote international cooperation on migration issues,[…]”. If this is what cooperation is, then so the wolf negotiating with the sheep over access to the water trough. In my opinion, an IO like the IOM is an instrument used by western states to assert their values and standards. The results of such alleged cooperation reflect the current power relations among nation states. For instance, Western Nations can exert pressure on the migrants’ countries of origin to adjust their migration policy according to the standards of “migration management” without being accused of violating their right to sovereignty. This happens, for example, at the IOM’s “African Capacity Building Centre” (ACBC). The ACBC acts as consultants to African states for questions concerning “migration management”. In effect, they offer training programs to standardize border controls, combatting human trafficking, and passport controls.
There are those who see the IOM as a completely autonomous agent with its own degree of power, independent from the interest of various nations. While I personally do not think that the IOM is purely an instrument, speaking of the IOM as an autonomous agent frees nation states from any responsibility and allows them to delegate migration programs that are in violation of international law or UN conventions to the IOM. This way they can preserve the image of a humanitarian country that upholds human and constitutional rights while simultaneously raising an admonitory finger at others without losing credibility. There are plenty of examples that western states do not give a shit about the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” or international law, but like to hide the fact if the occasion arises.
There are enough men and women in academic circles who are devoted to the question whether IOs are just instruments or autonomous agents. I do not really feel like taking a stand on the issue and subscribing to a theory just to think that I can explain how the world works.

“Voluntary Return”

The more I read about the international level of migrations and its agents the more I see it as a cynical playing field for various agents (statesmen and -women, IOs, NGOs, economical stakeholders). All of this however, have real-world implications on the lives of people who are slowly being erased in this theoretical mess. Maybe they will appear more clearly in relation to the IOM if I introduce one of the IOM’s programs, the “voluntary return”:
Deportation is considered as a state-authorized handling of people who are not citizens but are national territory. It is popular practice in western states because this way they can ban migrants who do not meet the criteria for asylum from state territory. Despite its legitimacy, it is often not the most elegant practice for a humanitarian country such as Switzerland, for it is forced and violent and results in unpleasant stories and pictures.
The IOM offers a much better sounding alternative: “Voluntary return and reintegration”. The basic idea here is that with financial incentives and technical support, migrants will assist in their own deportation. According to the IOM, this way “migrants, who cannot or choose not to remain in the host country, have the opportunity for a humane return to and reintegration into their home country”.
They advertise it as a “win-win situation”: With the financial return assistance migrants have a positive outlook in their country of origin and the state has a cheap alternative to “forced repatriation”.
In Switzerland, migrants receive 500.- for a voluntary return at the “Empfangs- und Verfahrenszentrum» (EVZ). After three months of staying the amount is raised to 1000.-. Additionally, it is possible to receive a 3000.- assistance package for a so called “integration project” in the country of origin. To help set up a bakery or a kiosk, for example.

Instead of conducting these voluntary returns by themselves, the IOM offers their services to states and receives contracts like a business. Switzerland also employs the IOM’s service. For instance, the “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration Program” for Nigeria that exists since 2005 is financed by the “Staatssekretariat für Migration” (SEM) and conducted by the IOM Bern. This program has a lot to offer: Return consultation in Switzerland, preparation of all necessary information and documents for a return, the organization of the return and the reintegration on the country of origin.
Even if the IOM speaks of a “win-win situation”, what Switzerland stands to profit is so big that it is hard to identify what the migrants win exactly. “Voluntary Return” is economically very lucrative for Switzerland. While a migrant costs 4000.- at worst for a “voluntary return”, a level 4 deportation costs between 8,000 and 10,000.-. On top of that, each day of detention pending deportation costs another 140.- and can culminate in 70,000 for the maximum 18 months.

There are countries that do not allow their citizens to be returned by “forceful repatriation”. “Voluntary Returns” are often the only possibility left for a deportation. People who come from such countries are left with no choice but to accept a “voluntary return”. The means to achieve this are manifold: up to 18 months in detention pending deportation, fines (high ones at that), prison sentences due to “illegal immigration”, banning from all kinds of work, around 8.- of emergency relief assistance per day, sleeping quarters in civil protection facilities often subterranean and the list goes on. It is funny how the voluntary and deliberate aspects are so highly praised with this program.
This system so full of freedom of choice even allows for the migrant to be made responsible for their own deportation. After all, Switzerland gives them the opportunity to leave out of their own free will and top it off with some cash. Urs von Arb, state secretary for migration, shows his regret that there are people who do not want to benefit from this offer and force him to make use of “forced repatriation”:

But unfortunately, there are people who do not want to leave voluntarily. So we say, listen, we’ll book you a flight. But they still refuse. They won’t be accompanied to an airplane by the police. So the police says, they must be deported on level four.

Does this mean that a level 4 deportation is voluntary return too? Or does the word voluntary in “voluntary return” refer to the decision to “voluntarily” forgo physical violence or to “voluntarily” give in to the pressure exerted by the authorities and the state apparatus of violence? Either all kinds of deportation are voluntary making the word meaningless, or all deportation is recognized for what it is: violent, forced and inhumane practices decreed by the state against people who have the wrong passport.

Yes, the IOM is a nasty organization

It is important to me that the IOM is included in the list of enemies in the fight against the migration regime. Their migration programs organize deportations, improve border security, produce “deterrent films” about Switzerland and much more absolutely shitty things. My main criticism of the IOM connects to that of nation states, of capitalism, sovereignty etc. One thing is clear to me, the IOM is very useful to western states for increasing their control over another aspect of international politics. They try to achieve this control over the migration policies of other countries not just through developing aid or other power games but also by giving qualifying their way of thinking as universal. With the development and propagation of the concept of “migration management”, the IOM dictates what kinds of migration exist and how they are supposed to be handled. “Migration management” is a concept developed by western states that all states should adhere to. It is offered as the only solution to effective handling of migration to the advantage of all parties. And as this definition of migration becomes more hegemonic in politics and our collective understanding, it becomes more natural to lock people in camps and to kick them to the streets because of some faulty paperwork.

For the author this text is a try to present one more actor of this hated migration regime. But it`s also some kind of revenge against the time spent in lecture and seminar rooms. Through academic papers and university lectures, the author got to know a little bit the game of the international politics. The rules of the game and the existence of the players hardly never got criticized but rather learnt as given.

further information

– Andrijasevic, Rutvica / Walter, William (2010): The International Organization for Migration and the international government of borders. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol. 28. Pp. 977-999.
– Ashutosh, Ishan / Mountz, Alison (2011): Migration management for the benefit of whom? Interrogating the work of the International Organization for Migration. Citizenship Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, Pp. 21-38.
– Geiger, Martin / Pécoud, Antoine (2014): International Organisations and the Politics of Migration. Journal of Ethnics and Migration Studies, Vol. 40, No. 6, pp. 865-887.
– Hanimann, Carlos (2010): Im Grenzgebiet des Rechts. WOZ, Nr. 28/2010.
– IOM Bern: http://www.ch.iom.int/
– IOM: https://www.iom.int/