Refugee Council of Australia
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Refugees and international law


The International Organization for Migration

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an intergovernmental organisation which aims to facilitate ‘dignified, orderly and safe migration for the benefit of all.’ Set up in 1951, the IOM now has 9,500 staff working across 450 offices , with 401 offices and 165 member states globally. It has five main roles :

  • helping emigrants, migrant workers and refugees to move around the world regularly;
  • building the capacity of states to control irregular migration;
  • undertaking migration control operations such as running detention centres;
  • participating in humanitarian emergency operations; and
  • contributing to public discussions over international migration policy.

People have criticised IOM’s role, in part because its focus is on migration management rather than on the rights of those involved, and in part because of its model of project-based funding from wealthy donor states, which reduces its independence.

Resettlement services

IOM was founded to help resettle Europeans displaced after World War II. It continues to play a significant operational role in resettlement by helping UNHCR with services including processing cases, assessing people’s health, and providing orientation to people departing.IOM is funded by Australia to deliver the Australian Cultural Orientation program (AUSCO) , a program which tells people before they come to Australia about life in Australia. It delivers similar programs elsewhere.IOM also conducts health checks for people prior to departure for resettlement in Australia. This health check is called a Departure Health Check (DHC) .IOM also administers a program of no-interest loans for people granted a visa under the Special Humanitarian Program.

Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR)

One of IOM’s core activities is to help return irregular migrants to their countries of origin.  IOM helps return people who have not been recognised as refugees, as well as stranded migrants and victims of trafficking and other vulnerable groups. Among other things, it provides logistical support, such as providing temporary accommodation and facilitating travel to the final destination, and also provides reintegration assistance such as training or education. Australia uses IOM’s AVRR program to help return people, including from offshore processing centres.Not surprisingly, this role has been controversial. The ‘voluntary return’ of people often raises questions about how truly ‘voluntary’ the choice is, as well as what happens to them when they return. IOM have been accused of providing insufficient information to migrants under their care for them to make free and informed decisions about returning to their country of origin. The guidelines set by UNHCR  state that to freely choose to return to a country of origin, migrants must also have a legal basis to stay in their current host country. Frequently, the migrants whom IOM returns have no other options except remaining in harsh conditions in the host country, in a precarious legal situation, or in detention.As part of its work, IOM also conducts public information campaigns where irregular migrants and people seeking asylum live. Critics have argued such campaigns mislead local populations about the legal status of people seeking people seeking asylum, and create doubt about the legality and morality of helping them.

Australia’s funding of IOM in the region 

Another controversial part of IOM’s work has been its work in Indonesia under a Regional Cooperation Arrangement between Indonesia and Australia. Under this arrangement, alongside its other work such as resettlement assistance and assisted voluntary return, IOM :

  • provides counselling, medical care, food, shelter, education and vocational support to people both within and outside of immigration detention centres, including unaccompanied minors
  • provides ‘technical assistance’ in relation to Indonesian detention centres, and
  • helps train officials in combating people smuggling.

Critics have noted that IOM’s funding has facilitated the detention of people seeking asylum in Indonesia through Australian funding , most notably in Australia’s first offshore processing period between 2001 and 2007.IOM has also partnered with Australia in some of its more controversial regional schemes. IOM, for example, agreed to assist Australia in its deal to transfer people from Nauru and Manus Island to Cambodia , despite criticism from UNHCR.

IOM joining the United Nations

In September 2016, the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution declaring that IOM would be become a UN ‘related organisation’. Some academics predicted that this integration might make IOM ‘rethink its pragmatic approach’, recognising the importance of protection issues facing people seeking asylum and refugees, and adopting a less state-based and more cosmopolitan perspective on human rights and humanitarianism. Whether this happens remains to be seen.

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