Human rights watchdogs condemn IOM

Franck Düvell

10.May.03 - In a remarkable move Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch jointly challenge recent politics of the IOM. It follows an earlier joint motion by Human Rights Watch, International Catholic Migration Committee, and the World Council of Churches, passed to a UNHCR conference in June 2001. This came at a time when others too, such as the Roma National Congress, Jesuit Refugee Council and even UNHCR staff in the field to some extend expressed concerns about this organisation. It is the more relevant as all EU member states, amongst 93 others, are also members of the IOM. Several European states commission the IOM through its Technical co-operation program to extend European border control and migration management technology towards its neighbouring countries and use the IOM to establish and to implement so-called voluntary return programs, meanwhile there have been steps to involve the IOM in the EU return policy in a central role. However, the following criticisms raises serious doubts whether this organisation can be perceived an adequate partner to the European Union or humanitarian NGOs.

"…As organizations committed to the promotion and protection of human rights, however, we also come to this meeting with concerns about the human rights impact of certain IOM operations. In particular, we are concerned that IOM's work in certain contexts is adversely impacting upon basic human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including for example the right to be free from arbitrary detention and the fundamental right to seek asylum."

Though not outlining what both are referring to, it seems clear that they mean IOM's practices in Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and possibly Cambodia. In all these countries Human Rights Watch and Jesuit Refugee Service highlighted cases of severe violations of human rights and the Geneva Convention by the IOM or in course of its operations.

"We are conscious of the fact that IOM is playing an increasingly prominent role in the reception, assistance, and return not only of migrants, but also of asylum seekers, refugees and the forcibly displaced. Given that IOM does not have a protection mandate for its work with refugees and displaced persons, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recommend that IOM should refrain from taking a lead role in situations which fall squarely under the protection mandate of other international organizations, such as UNHCR …".

Human Rights Watch, International Catholic Migration Committee, and the World Council of Churches criticised in detailed:

"We are concerned that given IOM's active involvement in interception programmes - often in situations where UNHCR is not present - it does not have an explicit mandate nor the expertise to identify and protect those in need of international protection. Neither are there adequate safeguards in place to ensure that those in need of refugee protection have access to UNHCR, or the appropriate authorities, and to full and fair refugee status determination procedures."

Whilst all these statements only refer to refugees, the Jesuit Refugee Service also criticises the IOM's role in dealing with the 2.5 million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, many of them undocumented. IOM, with its emphasis on 'orderly migration' traditionally plays a crucial role in returning unauthorised migrants. Whilst IOM 'assists in the registration' leading to a monthly rate of up to 66,000 deportations, which has already 'drawn criticism from human rights groups', JRC complaints that IOM, once they have crossed the border does not care for the returnees.

AI and HRW also apparently refer to IOM's policy on Technical Cooperation, that is saying "countries face increasing migration pressure …IOM's Technical Cooperation offers governments and other agencies the technical, intellectual and strategic tools to enhance their migration management capacities". AI and HRW criticise

"IOM's presence should not have the effect of prolonging untenable state policies and practices which themselves fail to comply with international human rights standards. Such policies range from certain border control and deterrent measures, to arbitrary and unlawful detention to encouraging premature return to countries of origin". "AI and HRW are also concerned that IOM should not provide an alternative agency for states where they prefer to avoid their human rights obligations …".

The authors may again have had in mind Australia policy of a 'Pacific Solution', Indonesia, Cambodia or any other country, which do not offer an adequate system of refugee protection or which are not even signatories to the Geneva Convention such as Nauru.

The Roma National Congress in Germany (RNC), whose members are directly concerned by IOM policies, in an angry statement goes a little further,

"The organisation is known to us as a stooge, which for years is handling the deportation of Roma and Sinti, so-called returns, which can't be done by individual states, the dirty work in the shadow, in an extra-legal space. It is a mercenary organisation".

RNC also alleges, that the IOM circumvents European data protection standards and exchanges information with states whom the RNC considers persecuting states. It is criticised that data collected in course of the IOM's involvement in compensating victims of the Nazi slave worker scheme is partly processed by private businesses, such as the US-American based AB-Data, who have no mandate and therefore do not comply with refugee protection legislation.

In a somewhat desperate call AI and HRW remind IOM member states,

"In coming to this Council meeting, Member States cannot leave their other obligations at the door [such as] international responsibilities for the protection of the human rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers". "We urge IOM Member States to ensure that these international obligations are reflected in both IOM policy and its work in the field. This means that the Governing Council should urge IOM to refrain from or immediately cease engaging in any activities that have the effect, either directly or indirectly, of obstructing enjoyment of basic human rights by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers".

Human rights activists and academics alike expressed some need to more systematically monitor IOM's activities and to press for changes in their politics and policies.

Sources: Human Rights Watch, International Catholic Migration Committee, and the World Council of Churches, NGO Background paper on the Refugee and Migration Interface. Presented to the UNHCR Global Consultations on International Protection Geneva, 28 - 29 June, 2001; Statement by Amnesty International & Human Rights Watch to the Governing Council, International Organization for Migration in Geneva, 2-4 December 2002; Human Rights Watch (2002): Report, in:; HRW, (2003): World report 2003, New York, in:; John Pace, Amnesty International, in MacDonald, S., The Pacific Solution, BBC, 30.9.2002; Cynthia Buiza, 2002, The devil and the deep blue sea. The Plight of Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand. JRS Special Report, JRS Asia Pacific; Interview with Rudkow Kawczynski, RNC representative, 14/10/02 Hamburg; AB Data, Press Release, 11/3(2002; IOM (2002): Service areas. IOM: Geneva); Rudkow Kawczynski, Roma National Congress, Hamburg, in an interview for a video documentary, 14/10/2002

First published in: Statewatch bulletin, May 2003

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