The role of IOM and the Global Compact for Migration

Asher Hirsch

The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) has just been adopted this week in Marrakech, ahead of next week’s introduction in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly of the Global Compact for Refugees. While the focus of the media has been on the number of states withdrawing from the GCM, less concern has been expressed about the content on the GCM itself, and how it may work to undermine refugees’ access to protection.

While the GCM has a number of positive Objectives on addressing xenophobia, ensuring the human rights of migrants and using detention as a last resort, there are a number of Objectives, which strengthen states’ border control agenda.

A key concern with the GCM can be found in its full name, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This agenda is echoed in the mission statement of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the lead agency for the GCM, which seeks to ‘enhance the humane and orderly management of migration’.

However, promoting ‘orderly and regular migration’ means stopping irregular migration.

This is clearly exemplified by Objective 11 of the GCM, which commits states to ‘manage our national borders in a coordinated manner, promoting bilateral and regional cooperation, ensuring security for States, communities and migrants, and facilitating safe and regular cross-border movements of people while preventing irregular migration.’

In a world of unequal access to regular migration pathways, many people, especially refugees, will be excluded from these ‘safe and orderly’ options. The number of ‘regular’ pathways is unlikely to ever meet the needs of 25.4 million refugees. Indeed, most refugees must flee via irregular means in order to be protected. People must be able to leave situations of grave danger regardless of whether formal permission to enter the country of refuge has been received.

However, the GCM actively seeks to reduce irregular migration and makes it harder for refugees to cross borders in order to find safety. This pushes people to seek out more difficult and often deadlier routes. As fences are erected and borders are closed, finding safe access to protection becomes harder and harder for refugees.

The parallel Global Compact for Refugees is equally silent on refugees’ right to freedom of movement and the right to seek asylum, and instead focuses on cooperation to keep refugees where they are or help them return. While there is a weak statement that UNHCR will work with states to increase the pool of resettlement places around the world, this increase, however welcome, is unlikely to ever meet the needs of all refugees. As such, people will continue to be forced to take matters into their own hands and seek safety by irregular means.

Another elephant in room during the development of the GCM has been the role of IOM, which joined the ‘UN family’ in 2016, despite not legally being a UN entity. As I have argued previously, IOM’s promotion of itself as the ‘UN Migration Agency’ masks its more controversial activities of ‘migration management’.

While simultaneously developing the GCM, IOM has returned thousands refugees and irregular migrants back to war zones, helped states increase their border controls, and supported detention and containment policies in key transit states bordering the global north.

The GCM provides IOM with the opportunity to sell itself as the key expert on migration, while it also works with states to reduce the number of refugees and other irregular migrants at their borders. This ‘blue-washing’, through being affiliated with the UN, allows IOM to promote itself as a humanitarian organization while also providing technical expertise to states on how to close their borders to unwanted migrants.

NGOs involved in the GCM should push back on IOM’s state-centric migration management paradigm and actively call for policies that enhance, not hinder, refugees’ safe access to protection.

Asher Hirsch is a Senior Policy Officer with the Refugee Council of Australia and a PhD Candidate at Monash University.

The project is co-funded by the European Union under the Eramus+ Programme - Jean Monnet Activities (599660 EPP-1-2018-1-AU-EPPJMO-NETWORK). (Network partners: The University of Melbourne; Deakin University; Monash University; Bologna University of Geneva and the University of Gothenburg). The author has also received support from Monash University’s Network of Excellence Scheme.