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Inside the IOM Birmingham conference

one of brum noborders | 09.07.2008 12:42 | Migration | Birmingham

After leafleting the delegates and staff and doing a banner drop at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) 'conference' in Birmingham on June 25th (see here), my fellow protesters left for work, leaving me alone to the boring presentations at the four-star hotel of Marriott. It is not very usual for activists to get to attend such events and I did get sick of it all after the first session. But what I heard and read is probably worth a report.. to give campaigners a glimpse into the world of IOM that they wouldn't normally get through protests and actions.

the conference room.. half empty at the beginning
the conference room.. half empty at the beginning

IOM promotional material
IOM promotional material

the 'conference' programme
the 'conference' programme

Unsuccessful marketing

They may not necessarily put it that way themselves but the aim of the half-day 'conference' was clearly to establish good links with the local authorities and refugee organisations in preparation for opening a new IOM branch in Birmingham. The event had not been publicised and was by invitation only. The list of the invitees included representatives from many local organisations working with refugees and/or asylum seekers, as well as the Home Office and Birmingham City Council. These had received an invitation letter and a booking form, which made a pretty major sell of the fact that the 'conference' would be held at the Marriott and that it would finish by 1pm but delegates were to be offered free use of all the hotel's facilities (pool, gym, sauna etc.) for the duration of the day.

All delegates were given two welcome packs filled with IOM literature. The programme simply consisted of two sessions about the IOM's "voluntary return and reintegration" programmes, preceded by a general introduction to IOM and IOM Birmingham (and this is basically why I'm putting the word 'conference' in quotation marks). This, of course, included a coffee and refreshments break and was followed by lunch at the hotel's restaurant.

After a short introduction by the would-be Birmingham communication officer Inkeri Mellanen, all the talking was done by IOM UK communication director Marek Effendowicz. Drawing on "past experience", Mr Effendowicz had even prepared a list of "media questions" and included it in the welcome pack. The last question in the list was "What are you selling today?", to which he reassured his audience repeatedly that "we are not here to sell anything."

Yet, for some unknown reason, the fat welcome packs were stuffed with IOM leaflets (more than one copy each!), posters (!), newsletters and other propaganda material. The short video and Power Point presentation were stinking of promotional, commercial advertising. In short, the main strife of the whole 'conference' was to convince delegates, in many different ways, that IOM and its 'voluntary return' programmes were a good thing after all.

Effendowicz's style was unmistakably that of a PR expert or, at best, a politician running an election campaign. He tried hard to sound funny and down-to-earth by sitting on the table and cracking a 'joke' every now and then. He also tried to be clever by anticipating some of the embarrassing questions and watered them down. But did he manage to fool anyone there? I doubt it.

This is hardly surprising, however, when we learn that Effendowicz used to work as a PR or publicity manager for John Lewis and is currently the managing director of the Euro Eddy's Family Fun Centre, a giant indoor playground in Leipzig, Germany. He joined the IOM about three years ago and has since done many presentations like this as part of his job.

IOM: International Organisation against Migration

In the first session, Effendowicz briefly went through the history of IOM. Naturally, he was very careful as to which version of history to tell and how to tell it. He did not mention, for example, that during the Cold War, the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), as IOM used to be called then, was instrumental in the manpower and brain drain from Eastern and Central European countries into Western Europe; or that it was as instrumental in the formation of ethnically or religiously defined nation-states in the Indian subcontinent and Eastern Africa. With the 'help' of ICEM, ethnic Asians were evacuated from Uganda, Muslim Indians were settled in Pakistan and so on and so forth. Over the years, IOM has assumed the function of a transnational organisation that controls, or helps control, global migration. (For the official history of IOM, see here; for an alternative history, see here.)

Today, with 125 member states and a further 16 states with observer status, IOM has offices in over 100 countries. One of the undeclared functions of these branches is to serve Western governments as a "migration warning system", which makes sure that they are informed in advance about upcoming "mass migration flows". In the late 1990s, for example, the IOM used to publish a bulletin called Trafficking in Migrants, which contained extensive information on migration routes, clandestine methods, networking activities and such like.

IOM's role in 'migration management' is not confined to information, however. Through its Technical Cooperation on Migration (TCM) division, it provides governments and other agencies with technical, intellectual and strategic tools to "enhance their migration management capacities". Further, it has become an 'alternative agency' that helps Western governments meet their deportation quotas wherever deporting unwanted migrants is too costly, difficult or where they want to avoid their human rights obligations under international law.

In the UK, IOM started to operate in 1999. In his presentation, Effendowicz bragged that "it was IOM who went to the UK government and told them [in the aftermath of the Kosovo war] that there are Serbs here who want to go back home but don't have the means to." And so it was: IOM 'helped' them return or, rather, helped the UK government get rid of them, starting a close cooperation that would last and grow over the years. In the nine years since 1999, IOM has 'assisted' more than 27,000 people to 'return' to some 130 countries from the UK.

In a remarkable move in 2002, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch challenged the politics of IOM in a relatively strong joint statement that said: "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." It followed an earlier joint motion by Human Rights Watch, International Catholic Migration Committee and the World Council of Churches, which was passed to a UNHCR conference in June 2001. Other international organisations, such as the Roma National Congress in Germany (RNC), have expressed stronger criticisms. It is quite significant that the RNC dubbed IOM as "the enemy of the Roma people" and accused it, back in 2001, of playing a crucial role in "expelling" the Roma from Western Europe and "breaking the collective resistance" by arranging their travel individually. (See here for more criticisms of IOM.)

Yet, the question remains: does this 'migration management' actually work in the long run? A recent report by Chr. Michelsen Institute, commissioned by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, on the Norwegian IOM 'voluntary return' programme to Afghanistan found that "most of the respondents interviewed in Afghanistan stated their intention to re-migrate. Some cited security concerns, but most emphasised the lack of economic opportunities."


The IOM often describes itself, especially in promotional literature aimed at refugees, as an "independent" organisation. At other times, however, it is described as an "intergovernmental" organisation. So how on earth can an organisation be both intergovernmental and independent?

Article 1(1)(d) of the IOM constitution states that one of the purposes of the organisation is to provide "services as requested by states, or in cooperation with other interested international organizations, for voluntary return migration, including voluntary repatriation." Governments are called "customers" in IOM literature and the organisation sees its role as a "service" or "business".

Generally speaking, the IOM is funded by its member states. IOM's total estimated budget for 2005 was well in excess of one billion US dollars. Over 30 million US dollars or 3% of this was the "administrative budget" assessed for all member states. The "operational budget", which is the sum total of all programme activity for which IOM allegedly seeks funding, represented 95% of the total budget, i.e. about 1.1 billion US dollars.

In the UK, 80% of the funding comes from the UK government (mainly the Home Office), while the remaining 20% comes from the EU (Refugee Fund). Moreover, the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Department For International Development (DFID) continue to support IOM programmes abroad. These are supposedly designed to 'help' other countries 'manage' their migration, respond to emergency displacements and help ensure that reliable information about UK 'requirements' is made available to people considering migration to the UK. In 2005, this support amounted to an estimated £15 million.

So the obvious question is: Why would Western governments invest so much money in an organisation like IOM? Quite paradoxically, Effendowicz himself cited a 2005 National Audit Office study which found that forced removals cost £11,000 per head, while 'voluntary return' only cost £1,100. That's is exactly 10 per cent. At most, with an "enhanced reintegration package", an IOM operation would cost less than a third of a typical Home Office removal operation. Thus, as Effendowicz put it, it would be a "financial common sense" if the government preferred to go the IOM way.

Another interesting point was the analogy between IOM and the UN, which Effendowicz drew in his presentation and is often encountered in IOM's promotional literature. This is funny because IOM was founded in 1951, under the leadership of the USA, mainly with the intention of creating a counter-agency to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Unlike this, IOM does not have a Protection Mandate for its work with refugees and displaced persons and is not really accountable to anyone. From the beginning, the 'agency' has not been based on humanitarian principles but on economic considerations; its core policies are not concerned with the well-being of people but the well being of (Western) economies. And that's why many international organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly "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."

What is voluntary?

Most of the questions and comments thrown at Effendowicz had to do with the word "voluntary". Many of those present did not accept that refused asylum seekers, having been stripped of all means of support by the immigration authorities, were acting voluntarily when they went to the IOM as the last (and perhaps only) resort. A delegate from the Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team (ASIRT) said that, when the Home Office sends people IOM leaflets along with their refusal or removal letters, the only impression one gets is that this is part of their deportation policy. In what almost turned into an argument, he added that he knows, from working with asylum seekers, that many of them don't consider IOM an independent organisation and wouldn't knock at their doors if they had any other alternative.

Effendowicz's answers were often elusive and watered-down. He argued that IOM did not force anyone to do anything; they only 'assisted' people who had already 'made up their mind' and simply went to them asking for help to return home. He 'philosophised' a bit about how people make such decisions driven by a combination of "pull and push factors". He also claimed that IOM had nothing to do with the Home Office decisions. But none of that, even if true, addressed the real issues. As one frustrated delegate put it to him, "it's like you set this room on fire and close all exits leaving only one door open. When people rush through that door into safety, that's hardly their choice, is it?"

The website of IOM's Iraq Regional Operations Centre states: "A voluntary decision to return entails a two-pronged element: 1) the freedom of choice in the absence of any physical, psychological or material pressure; 2) an informed decision based on available, updated objective and accurate information on which this voluntary return decision is based upon." So, according to the IOM itself, a 'voluntary return' decision should be based on the premise that the migrant is not under any pressure or coercion to return and is duly informed on the conditions of return. Is that the case with most of IOM 'clients'? Of course not.

A 1997 IOM document called IOM Return Policy and Programmes: A Contribution to Combating Irregular Migration states: "IOM considers that voluntariness exists when the migrant's free will is expressed at least through the absence of refusal to return, e.g. by not resisting to board transportation or not otherwise manifesting disagreement. From the moment it is clear that physical force will have to be used to effect movement, national law enforcement authorities would handle such situations." There is no need, I suppose, to point out the difference between the two quotes and which is closer to reality.

On the question of returning people to unsafe countries, Effendowicz had this to say: A while ago, a British minister said she did not feel safe walking along some London streets at night (he was referring to Jackie Smith's comments last April, days after she became Home Secretary). Similarly, a certain village in Iraq or Congo could be very dangerous, while another is safe to go back to. So what's safe and what's not, he concluded, is really relative.

Is it appropriate to compare a London street to a war zone like Iraq? Mr Effendowicz certainly seems to think so. The British government and mainstream media have been trying hard to convince us that "some parts" of Iraq are "safer" than others and, hence, the US-UK invasion has not entirely failed and made a mess of the country. So deporting people back to those 'safer' parts is OK. But any sensible person watching the news everyday would find that very difficult to believe. In fact, in the first of IOM Iraq reports focusing exclusively on the monitoring and needs assessment of Iraq returnees, nearly two-thirds of identified returns were to Baghdad, probably the worst part of the country in terms of security. The IOM's own Chief of Mission in Iraq, Rafiq Tschannen, is quoted to have said: "The situation for those returning is grim and isn't necessarily an improvement from when they were displaced. Many returnees are unemployed while only a fraction have received any form of humanitarian assistance other than some food rations."

The unsaid stuff

Many of the refugee organisations represented at the conference were critical of IOM. At least that's what their delegates told me. So why would they work with IOM and why attend an IOM event in the first place? There is no one simple answer, it seems.

Initially, as half of the chairs were still empty when the first session started (some 15 minutes late to allow more time), it looked as if the 'conference' was going to be a failure. You could see that on the IOM employees' faces. As the lunch time drew closer, however, the empty chairs were gradually being occupied. Quite telling, isn't it? Yes, free refreshments and meals at posh hotels and restaurants are one of the main reasons why people go to conferences. Another is the PR opportunities that such events provide. Small, local organisations often find such events, on the one hand, a good place to get to know bigger organisations (i.e. funders and promoters) and, on the other, a way to prove (mainly to themselves) their relevance and importance.

Not everyone was so impressed with the incentives, though. Some 10 minutes into the first session, one delegate rushed out of the room murmuring to himself. He was probably the quickest to figure out that a lunch and sauna were not worth enduring all that crap. Another delegate, an Iraqi volunteer from ASIRT, could not bring himself to use the facilities, or even eat the food provided, because he was "so disgusted" by what he considered to be IOM's "lack of any moral engagement with the consequences of their actions." In fact, as the delegates arrived, they were initially told they could not use the hotel's facilities. It was only when some of them complained that the position changed. "An interesting microcosm of how IOM's incentives work," someone commented.

Of course, attending a conference is one thing and working with IOM is another. Among the delegates was a representative of Refugee Action, which is currently the only organisation listed on the IOM London website under "Partners". The UK-wide charity has been working with refugees and asylum seekers here for over 25 years. Their work includes providing "receptions" and advice to asylum seekers; lobbying policy makers and raising awareness, as well as promoting the "the development of refugee communities". They do not, however, have the same views on 'voluntary return' as IOM and are, as their delegate told me, quite critical of some of the latter's policies. But when I asked him if their 'partnership' with IOM wasn't simply legitimising or whitewashing what IOM does, all he had to say was "Our clients know us better."

Finally, I could not help noticing that none of the IOM employees present at the event was local or even English. Marek Effendowicz's name -although he had an obvious British posh accent- suggests he is originally Eastern European, probably Czech or Polish. Inkeri Mellanen is Finnish and has a clear accent when she speaks English, while Manisha, the third employee who was doing the welcome desk, had a clear Northern American accent. I could not help thinking why these people think they have the right to come and work here while others don't. If you asked them, they would probably brag on and on about their individual merits, qualifications and stuff like that. They would probably also argue that it's not up for them to decide who has or doesn't have the right to stay and work here; that it's the job of the 'democratically elected' British government. What they almost certainly wouldn't mention, or perhaps even think about, is the fact that it's more to do with their inherited privilege: that they were born in a rich, white country in the global North.

one of brum noborders


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