The IOM and the culture of expulsion


The IOM and the culture of expulsion

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Written by: CARF


The aftermath of September 11 has been felt in Europe not just in terms of anti-terror legislation, but also in an acceleration of plans to fast-track the expulsion of migrants. And at the centre of any expulsion plans is found the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a little-known but hugely important international organisation of member states which is unaccountable to national parliaments.

In July, the British government was offering thousands of Afghan asylum seekers up to £2,500 as an inducement to return home voluntarily. And it made clear that the IOM would be involved in the process. But how voluntary is voluntary? How philanthropic are such policies? And should NGOs be co-operating with the IOM? As the organisation opens its first London office, the European NoBorder network, which has been monitoring the activities of the International Organisation for Migration, warns anti-racists in Britain what is about to happen here and asks them to join October protests which will be taking place across Europe.

After piloting, from a Brussels office, a project to return refused asylum seekers from the UK, the organisation deemed the removal of 490 people so ‘successful’ that a full-scale operation has now been launched here. The IOM has quickly established a number of ‘voluntary return’ schemes and it also accommodates Home Office seminars in countries as far as Kazakhstan, Kirgystan or Tajikistan on topics such as preventing ‘illegal’ migration or the use of fraudulent documents. Such schemes either rely on co-operation with the Home Office directly or with academics or NGOs like Refugee Action. Some partners have a record of supporting asylum seekers and refugees, as Refugee Action does, or lobbying for women’s rights. At first glance, some of these programmes, such as supporting victims of female trafficking, assisting those without funds to return home and so on appear perfectly worthy. But are they? Alarm bells began to ring a year ago when the Roma National Congress exposed the crucial role the IOM played in expelling the Roma from Western Europe. We took a closer look at the IOM, its history, politics and policies.

Global migration management

The IOM, which currently has 93 member governments with another 36 with observer status, was founded on a US initiative in 1951 and expressed cold war politics and the Truman doctrine. Initially named the (Provisional) Inter-Governmental Committee on Migration in Europe, it was based on economic assumptions, in contrast to the humanitarian principles of the UNHCR. Unlike the UN, which is based on international law and agreements, the ICME/IOM is a membership organisation and is therefore not accountable to any democratically elected body but only to its member states. Although international organisations such as UNHCR, UNICEF and the WHO have observer status, as do international trade union, religious and welfare organisations, they have no voting power. Since 1989, the IOM has been transformed into a transnational agency for the global management of migration within the economic framework of the New World Order. Its individual programmes reflect the neo-liberal ideology which rationally selects the ‘useful’ workers in IT, medicine and construction and treats autonomous migrants, ‘sans papiers’ and their support networks as public enemies.

Border intelligence

The organisation has rapidly extended its influence, opening 19 regional offices, over 100 field offices, a number of other agencies like the Technical Co-operation Centre in Vienna and several temporary bodies which cover the globe. Through its outposts, it aims to detect migration routes and patterns, to give advice to governments and to train border troops on new technologies. It advises the EU on border management, and has recommended border control in Turkey as a fundamental tool to fight irregular migration. The IOM runs pilot projects to help neighbouring countries adjust to EU policy requirements, and has arranged trips to the US-Mexican border for Ukrainian immig-ration officials to learn about the use of fences, trenches, high-tech equipment to catch illegal immig-rants. It runs information campaigns and seminars in places such as Sangatte, Macedonia and Azerbaijan, targetting professionals and migrants.(In Sangatte, it showed a ‘video nasty’ on Britain, which succeeded in persuading 17 would-be asylum seekers out of 17,500 to return home!) Though they are often described as measures to prevent the trafficking of women, the overall aim is to discourage westward migration. Since its foundation, it has affected an estimated 11 million people, and in 2000 alone it facilitated the movement of about 450,000 people, negotiating a 60 percent discount for flights with certain airlines.

Voluntary returns?

Though the IOM claims to support only voluntary returns, the German experience of 75,000 people returned in 2000 shows that these are frequently disguised deportations – often of rejected asylum seekers who, deprived of all benefits, are left destitute and desperate enough to sign an agreement for their ‘voluntary’ return. Northern Iraq, Kosovo, Angola, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sierra Leone – the list of destination countries itself raises doubts about the voluntariness of returns. And the IOM is central to plans for the speedy return of migrants agreed by the EU in July which provide none of the human rights safeguards of previous legislation.

The Roma National Congress has already expressed its grave concerns about the IOM’s role in involuntary removals. The Campaign to Compensate Victims of Nazi Slave Work has criticised it for the delay on reparations payments, for which it has been paid millions of dollars by the German government, the Polish prostitutes’ organisation La Strada has stopped working with the IOM and activists in Poland and Ukraine are angry about its role in implementing new border regimes. NoBorder believes that any honest NGO should terminate any collaboration.

The European NoBorder network has launched a campaign ‘Against the global migration regime – for freedom of movement’ with a focus on the IOM, and calls for an International Day of Action between 11-13 October. Protests are already planned in Ukraine, Poland, Finland, Austria, Germany, Belgium etc.

Related links

No Border IOM campaign

Roma National Congress


For further info or to contact the campaign, email: iom@noborder.org


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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James Whitfield
James Whitfield
18 years ago

The question of who should investigate complaints against Metropolitan Police officers, raised by Saleh Mamon, is an important one. It is also an exceedingly old one. I feel that the author should have pointed out that at the time the police officers abused their authority (July 1995)the Police Authority for the Met was the Home Secretary (who was at that time Michael Howard). Since then there have been a number of changes. The Greater London Authority’s Metropolitan Police Authority [MPA] has, since July 2000, assumed the role that was formerly that of the Home Secretary and the Met have introduced two-day training courses for its staff on cultural diversity. In its Action Plan for the period 2002-05 the MPA has asserted its intention to: develop a complaints procedure and monitor this for accessibility for those who wish to pursue specific issues and complaints on policing practices and/or performances. Two significant areas of specific relevance to be reviewed were to: * Publicise information to improve public access to complaints (to be done in year one), * Secure transparency (MPA and MPS) in dealings with complaints re race and equality issues (to be done in year two). It would have been particularly interesting to have discovered what progress, if any, has been made in these areas, and what steps were being taken by the MPA to ensure the effectiveness of the Met’s diversity training programme. James Whitfield

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