A fake friend

Andrea D'Cruz looks at the truth about the International Organisation for Migration

December 11, 2008
4 min read

A quick scan of the vast leaflet selection of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is an essential activist lesson in that old saying ‘Never judge a book by its cover’. The IOM styles itself as a humanitarian project, claiming to have ‘helped over 13 million migrants, in the belief that migration – if dignified, orderly and voluntary – is of benefit to the individuals concerned and society as a whole’.

The organisation says its mission is to ‘ensure the orderly and humane management of migration, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced people’.

But the experience of migrants in the UK – and across the European Union – most readily translates the acronym IOM into ‘International Organisation against Migrants’ (a slogan now adorning the banners of the many groups currently protesting against the institution).

Established in 1951, the IOM has 125 member states and offices in more than 100 countries, including the UK. It takes pains to stress that it is not part of the government, yet it is 80 per cent state funded and undoubtedly plays the good cop to the Home Office’s bad cop.

While the Home Office brandishes the sticks of detention, destitution, and deportation, the organisation serves up the carrot of monetary incentives for return, a pleasingly value-for-money strategy compared with the costly appeals process. The IOM is essentially the shinier side of the same anti-migrant coin. It is the invisible – but no less solid for it – wall of Fortress Europe.

IOM UK runs two ‘voluntary’ return programmes – the Voluntary Assisted Return and Reintegration Programme (VARRP) for asylum seekers, and another for irregular migrants (those who have overstayed their visas or were smuggled or trafficked into the country). It arranges transport ‘to the home doorstep’, as well as offering ‘reintegration assistance’ in the case of asylum seekers.

Denise McDowell of Greater Manchester’s Immigration Aid Unit (IAU) – a charity that provides independent legal advice on immigration and asylum issues – is adamant in her refusal to refer her clients to the IOM. ‘Our view is that it is too closely tied to government funding and the Home Office. It has no credibility as an independent organisation,’ she says.

‘They want to return people as much as possible, but most of the people we work with cannot be and do not want to be returned. They tempt vulnerable people with a huge amount of money, but the price people may end up paying is their life or their health when they go back to a dangerous place.

‘People get given IOM literature in letters from the Home Office, and when they go to sign on for their benefits. They are not simply waiting for people to come to them; they promote themselves directly to the most vulnerable people. It is coercion.’

These problematic practices are starkly evident in the case of Iraqi refugees, as explained by the No Borders network, who have been at the forefront of the IOM counter-propaganda campaign.

‘The claim that the system they operate is voluntary in nature is undermined by the UK’s policy of withdrawing even minimum financial support from those Iraqis who fail to

sign up for voluntary return,’ says No Borders. ‘Faced with the alternative of destitution, several thousand Iraqis have returned.’

In Iraq, the IOM’s own representative states: ‘The situation for those returning is grim and isn’t necessarily an improvement from when they were displaced.’ Despite this, the IOM in the UK still encourages Iraqis to return home. Worst of all, those who volunteer to return are required to sign a waiver that reads: ‘The IOM has no responsibility for me and my dependants once I return to Iraqi territory, and I hereby release IOM from any liability in this respect.’ This shields the UK government from any responsibility for what happens to those who return.

In spite of its proclamations that it exists to serve society, the IOM’s practices – which include migration warning systems, the advocacy of migration-hostile policies, the training of border police and troops, and the operation of detention camps, including Australia’s notorious Nauru camp – are an exercise in global migration management in the service of governments and the wider neoliberal project.

Indeed, for all the shiny, happy, repatriated faces gleaming out of its glossy pamphlets, the IOM is a baleful manifestation of an ethno-nationalistic, profit-over-people ideology that dichotomises ‘foreigners’ and ‘the indigenous population’, holds national identities to be static, and assumes people ‘belong’ in their land of origin – unless of course it serves certain economic interests.


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