No.42-September 2016

by Nicholas R. Micinski and Thomas G. Weiss

International Organization for Migration and the UN System: A Missed Opportunity 


The decision to make IOM a “related agency” at the September high-level meeting on refugees and migrants merely delays institutional reform in the hopes of building consensus later for a global compact for migration. The UN needs a lead agency for migration.

In preparation for the September General Assembly summit, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) explored becoming part of the UN system after working for 65 years side-by-side. The logic was straightforward: to complement ongoing UN work for migrants and to transform IOM into the world organization’s lead agency for them. No such norm-setting and operational transformation, however, took place with predictable implications for both UN humanitarian and development organizations. Yet another reform opportunity was missed. Plus ça change…
IOM and the UN have worked closely for decades: In 1992, IOM became a permanent observer in the General Assembly. In 1996, the UN and IOM signed a formal cooperation agreement. In 2013, they updated their relationship through a memorandum of understanding (MOU). The recent push represents a failed attempt to fill an obvious hole in and improve the global governance of migration.
Based on more than 60 interviews with staff of IOM, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the European Union (EU) during the summer of 2016 along with participants at the September 2016 high-level gathering in New York, this briefing laments the latest in a long history of non-decisions by member states. It may be decades before another opportunity arises to institutionalize migrants’ rights within a specialized agency in the UN system.

Why join the UN?
The United Nations requires a lead agency for migrants rather than relying upon UNHCR as a catch-all agency for all issues related to both the push (refugees and internally displaced persons, IDPs) and pull (migrants) of people on the move. One senior IOM official said, “Migration is too big to not have a placeholder in the UN.” UNHCR officials expressed hope that once IOM was part of the UN system, they would have an equal partner for negotiations and implementation. “In order to maintain the integrity of the asylum system, you really need to know what you are doing with people who do not qualify [for refugee status] and be able to offer outcomes and solutions to these people,” said a senior UNHCR protection officer. “That is not UNHCR’s role, but someone needs to do it.”
More controversially, the UN also requires an authoritative voice to define the human rights of migrants and protect them. The SDGs recognized for the first time the importance of migrants to development, but do not adequately address involuntary migration. The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul recognized this task as central to both humanitarian and development operations, but participants failed to rally support for serious change to the humanitarian system. Disappointingly but predictably, the new UN-IOM agreement emphatically denies IOM a norm-setting function and preserves its role as a subcontractor for member states. The result: vulnerable migrants still have no champion within the UN system.
International conversations and negotiations require a dedicated analytical capacity and advocate for migration’s benefits—particularly the migration and development (M&D) nexus, temporary labor migrants, and diaspora remittances. IOM has enormous expertise and experience in M&D, and, crucially, has labored to overcome its image as a tool of western member states, especially the United States. Joining the UN could broaden IOM’s support base and strengthen its legitimacy as an actor in sensitive political environments. IOM could and should be responsible for mainstreaming migration and development policies with a presence in both the UN humanitarian and development systems.

What will change?
While the IOM’s joining the UN system was meant to be a major outcome of the September meeting, the agreed text basically extends the previous IOM-UN relationship. IOM already follows UN staff rules and security regulations, and it participates in the UN pension plan. In addition, IOM also is present in consultations, submits reports, and makes recommendations when requested.
Many practical coordination and programming advantages would result from converting IOM into a specialized agency, and thus we are hoping to keep this issue alive as discussions continue. Such status is “generally meant to acknowledge the leading role of specialized agencies in their respective domains”—a contentious change for UNHCR and UNDP whose work often overlaps with migration. Government inertia and protection of organizational turf explain most UN decisions, and the September 2016 outcome is no exception.
The agreement designates IOM as a “related agency,” which preserves it as “an independent, autonomous and non-normative international organization.” IOM will participate in all UN coordination mechanisms, such as the UNDG, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, and the Global Migration Group. As IOM was already participating in all but the UNDG and CEB, the agreement is not making radical changes. While IOM will now enjoy a seat at the high table of UN policy making, it was hardly lacking influence earlier—particularly in coordination mechanisms, regional task forces, and joint response plans.
IOM, most likely, was not designated as the lead agency for migration related issues because of lobbying by UN organizations that are competing for resources and relevance. The agreement does not spell out how expenses are to be apportioned on joint projects. The door is left open for future accords, for example on key protection of confidentiality and data sharing because UNHCR maintains extensive databases of registered refugees and asylum seekers. There are risks with sharing data—for example, information about individuals fleeing persecution should not be shared with countries of persecution—but also such benefits as cost savings and family reunification.
Interviews with key staff suggest that IOM is keen to maintain independence and not lose direct influence in countries where they have labored for decades. IOM staff resemble other parts of the UN system in not wishing to be subject to UN resident coordinators and additional oversight and reporting. At the same time, staff appreciate that joining the UN system could free up IOM to advocate and mainstream migration best practices.
Finally, overlaps between IOM and UN responsibilities should be resolved. Both IOM and UNHCR gather extensive data on migrants and refugees, often on the same people.  In future, all UN agencies (including IOM) should resolve who is collecting which data and submit them in a uniform and centralized way. Another potential downside is the transaction costs for participation in UN coordination mechanisms.

Major challenges
Because IOM is merely a “related agency” of the UN system, the UN and IOM must confront three major differences that were postponed: definitions, relationships to member states, and workplace cultures.
Despite the lack of clarity in September, the UN and IOM should address these tensions directly in the interest of crafting more cohesive and effective responses to the challenges of global migration.
Different Definitions
The first major challenge is how IOM and the UN system define refugees and migrants. UNHCR uses the strictest definition of refugees as persons who have fled their country because of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The language of the 1951 Refugee Convention specifically excludes IOM’s bread-and-butter: economic migrants who flee to improve their situations.
IOM considers refugees one sub-category of migrants. To a greater extent than UNHCR, the IOM deals with “mixed migration flows” that include refugees, economic migrants, unaccompanied minors, forced migrants, or trafficked persons. Now that IOM is part of the UN system, it is unclear which agencies will lead and are primarily responsible for emergency and development responses for mixed migrant populations. Kicking the can down the road does not address these essential management and policy issues.
Different Member States
IOM and the United Nations have different memberships and different relationships with them. There are 148 states that are signatories of either the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, while IOM has 165 member and eight observer states. Notably missing from the refugee conventions are several states with major displaced populations: Eritrea, India, Jordan, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. In June 2016, China applied to become a member of IOM, while Russia remains an observer.
If IOM and UN operations become more synchronized, gaps in membership could become obstacles to rapid responses in emergencies, including Security Council decisions. Alternatively, the world organization could benefit from IOM’s more inclusive membership for migration issues—bringing into the fold states that previously preferred to manage migration outside the UN system.
In contrast to UNHCR, the IOM maintains that it is not and will not become a norm-setter. This tenuous position is hard to fathom because all UN organizations seek to extend customary law through best practices. More importantly, because the UN has a comparative advantage in global norm-setting, it requires a legitimate but currently missing voice on migration. IOM should set norms as an integral part of the UN system.
Different working cultures
IOM and the UN have distinct working cultures. UNHCR’s mandate is to protect the rights of refugees and hold states accountable to international human rights standards. IOM has thrived on the “projectization” of its operations. IOM projects operate on full-cost recovery through government contracts. In practice then, IOM is a subcontractor for member states with insufficient expertise or experience in such issues as assisted voluntary returns. In other cases, IOM has few resources for pre-emptive policy planning.
In addition, IOM is not consensus-based—projects reflect individual member state’s interests. IOM is not used to “shaming and blaming,” which is a necessary component of the international tool-kit when states violate the fundamental rights of migrants.
IOM has the potential to add to the performance and reputation of the UN system. While the September 2016 high-level meeting was an important moment of international cooperation on migration, it was a missed opportunity for IOM and the UN.
Parallel to the IOM negotiations, UN Special Advisor Karen AbuZayd spearheaded discussions about a Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration and a Global Compact on Refugee Responsibility-Sharing. The lack of meaningful movement on such crucial issues shows that the United Nations—both for humanitarian and development purposes—requires a dedicated agency capable of leading on the rights of migrants and championing the benefits. The IOM should be that entity.


Download 'International Organization for Migration and the UN System: A Missed Opportunity' in pdf      

Nicholas R. Micinski is Research and Editorial Associate of the FUNDS Project at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and a PhD candidate in Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center. Previously, he worked in the NGO sector in London for five years on refugee and social enterprise issues.
Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center; he also is Co-director of the FUNDS Project and of the Wartime History and the Future UN Project. A 2016 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, past president of the International Studies Association (2009-10), and chair of the Academic Council on the UN System (2006-9), his most recent single-authored books include What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (2016); Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action (2016); Governing the World? Addressing Problems without Passports” (2014); Global Governance: Why? What? Whither? (2013); and Humanitarian Business (2013).



Photo on homepage: IOM Director General William Lacy Swing and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sign the agreement making IOM a "related organization" at the UN Summit on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, New York, 19 September 2016. UN Photo

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