IOM Member States endorse the decision to join the UN system. Photo: IOM

Will IOM joining the UN system result in better migration management and protection of migrants?

Last week the membership of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) approved a motion to join the United Nations. “We expect to soon have a seat and a voice at the UN table and the UN will soon have a dedicated migration agency,” said IOM Director General William‎ Lacy Swing.

But what will this mean for migrants around the world? One in every seven persons on the planet is now a migrant and 65.3 million of these are forced migrants and refugees.

Discussions about the IOM joining the UN go back a long time but were accelerated with the prominence of migration governance in the newly minted Sustainable Development Goals. Back in 2005, the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM), appointed by then-Secretary General Kofi Annan, recommended the IOM become a part of the UN system as a “global agency for economic migration,” leaving UNHCR as the key institution dealing with forced migration. This put the IOM at odds with the International Labour Organization (ILO), already a UN specialised agency, which claimed to have the monopoly on mobility. At the UN High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in September 2013 it appeared the IOM had beaten the ILO in the battle over who would become the central agency for migration.

Unlike its long-time rival the ILO, the IOM currently has no formal mandate for the protection of migrants. Established in 1951 it acts primarily as a service provider to its member states and donors. The IOM’s mandate is to help ensure the orderly and humane management of migration, promote international cooperation on migration issues, assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems, and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced persons (the latter being the mandate of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency).

Although the IOM itself argues that protection of migrant rights is central to its mission, many non-governmental organisations, including Human Rights Watch and the International Catholic Migration Committee, have criticised the IOM in the past as being too state-centric in its operations, yielding to the agenda of governments with too little regard for migrants themselves. Assisted voluntary return programmes of the IOM have been criticised for not being genuinely voluntary, particularly when it involves migrants kept in detention centres.

However, the IOM does have a wealth of field experience in running programmes that have a strong emphasis on human rights and protection. It has worked for example on migrants’ health, the prevention of human trafficking, and has led migrants’ rights training programmes.

Upon acceptance into the UN family, the IOM would need to be given a formal legal protection mandate, guided by the core international human rights treaties, including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. And IOM’s staff, both at headquarters and in field offices, would need to be trained in human rights; it already has experience and expertise conducting such trainings.

The IOM certainly seems up to the task of being the “global agency for economic migration” from an operational point of view. The new UN agency currently has over 9,500 employees in 450 offices world-wide, which assisted an estimated 20 million migrants in 2015.

Whether this will result in better global management of migration flows, the protection of migrant workers against exploitation by employers and recruitment agencies or a more effective fight against smugglers and traffickers worldwide, only the future can tell.

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