Migrants board the bus headed toward the processing center in Amman, Jordan. Photo by: International Organization for Migration / CC BY-NC-ND

Advocates and experts are watching closely to see how the International Organization for Migration will advance the concerns and well being of migrants two months after joining the United Nations as a related agency.

The 65-year-old organization tasked with overseeing global migration joined in hopes of accessing and influencing decisions in the U.N. coordination system, putting migration concerns at the forefront of crisis response. One of their first concrete tasks will be to spearhead a new Global Compact on Migration that could help lead to safer, more regular migration and foster better national policies and cross-border management.

It will be no easy task. Despite agreement among member states to form the migration compact, funding is lacking and there is little political will to address the issue immediately — even as it has become more pressing. The number of migrants globally soared to 244 million in 2015, up from 222 in 2010. A reported 5,238 migrants have died or disappeared so far this year, a 20 percent increase from the same time period last year. Meanwhile, the IOM is still navigating its role within the U.N. system.

“The IOM joined as a related agency, not under the U.N. mandates, so it is an issue of figuring out what that actually means,” said Monami Maulik, advocacy coordinator with the Global Coalition on Migration, representing migration-focused regional networks and advocacy groups. “How does it navigate its leadership roles, does it change some of its operations on the ground?”

Those questions are now complicated by new political realities, including tighter border controls in Europe, growing anti-immigrant movements in countries such as Hungary, France and Austria, and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, who campaigned on a promise to limit some refugee arrivals and crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Even this summer, Maulik says, “it was clear that member states did not want to discuss migration or economic migrants.” She sees little political will to push for greater openness at a time when many countries are already struggling to adhere to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The new setup

After 65 years, the IOM is part of the United Nations

The International Organization for Migration sealed a deal to become part of the United Nations. We spoke with IOM chief William Swing about what it means for the organization's budget, staff and priorities.

The IOM’s official entry into the U.N. system has been a long time coming, says Susan Martin, a professor emeritus on international migration at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service who has worked on and off with the IOM for more than 30 years.

“In the last 10 years the IOM has moved closer and closer to the U.N. system and had almost become a U.N. agency, in all but the legal reality,” Martin told Devex. “But there were some major problems with not being officially part of the U.N. system.”

The IOM, with only “permanent observer” status, lacked a solid policy voice within the U.N. system. Even as the organization worked closely with U.N. agencies in the field, they were not able to use their expertise to lead U.N. initiatives such as the new compact, or to push a migration-focused agenda.

When the IOM joined the U.N. system, William Lacy Swing, the migrant organization’s secretary-general, described the transition as a “minimalist agreement.” 

Becoming a U.N. partner agency is unlikely to seriously impact the organization’s mission — or fundraising model. The IOM has long worked collaboratively with U.N. agencies, and the entry is joined just by one new staffer in New York, officially.

With a projected 2016 budget of more than $820 million for operations and about $44 million for administration, the IOM operates differently from other U.N. agencies. It relies solely on voluntary contributions to support its 10,000 staff, 95 percent of whom operate in the field. The organization works mostly on a funding by project basis.

A few things have changed, however. The IOM is now literally paying for a seat at the table that costs upward of $1.7 million a year. That covers its fees to the U.N. Chief Executives Board for Coordination, where all U.N. agency executive heads routinely convene.

“Our entry into the U.N. is about giving us access to U.N. coordination in which we were not represented before,” said Ashraf El Nour, the IOM’s permanent representative to the U.N, during a recent interview in his office. “The migration dimension should not come as an afterthought. It should be brought up earlier and become part of the response.”

A pressing issue

The IOM’s joining comes at a time when migration is in the international spotlight and at the top of the U.N. agenda, El Nour says. But migration isn’t new, he points out.

The movement of people “is as old as humanity itself, and migration in fact is inevitable because of a combination of root causes and push factors that force people to move,” he said. “There are many strong realities, like lack of jobs and opportunities in parts of the world, so there is always a reason for people to move.”

During the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants this September, member states agreed to the so-called New York Declaration, launching two new “compacts” — one for refugees, being undertaken by the U.N. refugee agency, and another for migration.

Advocates hope the latter compact on migration will provide migrants basic human rights protections. Migrants, unlike refugees, are not protected by international law. This permits countries to deport migrants who arrive without any legal papers.

“What we would like to see, generally, and what we don’t have a specific policy for is a global recognition by member states that people, when in flight, or those who are forced by natural disaster, or conflict, have rights and dignities and generally are given  respect for human rights throughout that process,” said Sarnata Reynolds, a policy adviser on global migration and displacement at Oxfam International.

Despite the name, the compact itself will not launch as a new organization, but rather, a “U.N. conference, just like any other U.N. conference,” El Nour said, referring to the many other U.N. events and conferences hosted in any given year.

The compact could take a similar form to the recent Habitat III meeting in Quito and the subsequent New Urban Agenda that came out of the conference on urban issues and sustainability. In the case of migration, governments will convene at a major meeting in 2018 and then aim to approve an agreement for safe and orderly migration.

The migration compact will be a nonbinding agreement, but getting human rights language into the document could influence national guidelines and policies as it becomes de facto, “customary” international law.

“It is not going to create any new laws or binding conventions, but if it is successful, then it might create an institutional framework,” said Evalyn Tennant, the project development coordinator with the Global Coalition on Migration. “We would love to see negotiations move in a direction where states could shift away from an increasingly militarized trend of border management and figure out ways to better regulate migrant flows.”

Martin sees governments “moving in the direction of recognizing these rights issues and they are not going away,” she said. “They need help, but more in a practical way of how to balance the rights of migrants with the state prerogative to control and manage migration.”

This migration compact could also create a country-led framework that may eventually lead to funding for migration. “We need activites, we need projects,” El Nour said. “Funding for sure is a key element of the implementation.”

Yet it could take years before any funding — likely in form of contributions from governments or the private sector — becomes available. The U.N. General Assembly will meet on the Global Compact on Migration in December and vote to establish a pathway for regional negotiations and regional conferences that will lead up to the migration compact conference — at an undetermined location — in mid-2018.

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.