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.
#229 No Return to ‘Normal’ ● Sir David King blasts the government ● State power, policing and civil rights under Covid-19 ● Hope and determination in grassroots resistance ● Black liberation and Palestine ● The future of ‘live’ ● Pubs, patriotism and precarity ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Lyn Caballero describes her experiences as a migrant domestic worker and explains why domestic workers are campaigning for immigration policy change
With casual xenophobia a comedy circuit blight, No Direction Home is a welcome tonic. Here, five troupe members explain the uses and power of laughter – and tell us some jokes
Border closures and travel restrictions caused by the pandemic have made family reunification difficult for refugees. But, as Luke Butterly reports, these rights have been eroded over a number of years
The response to the pandemic has allowed us to imagine a world without immigration detention centres, writes Rachel Harger
Hundreds of lives are at risk as the government resists calls to release people held in immigration detention. Annahita Moradi reports
Following Labour’s manifesto pledge to educate the public on the histories of empire, slavery, and migration, Kimberly McIntosh explains the dangers of colonial nostalgia in the national curriculum