An agency working far and wide for safe, orderly migration

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was born in 1951 when the countries of Western Europe were still grappling with the millions of people uprooted by World War II. It handled the logistics of helping them return home or move to new homes.

Chart describing how IOM promotes safe, orderly and humane migration (State Dept./J. Maruszewski)
(State Dept./J. Maruszewski)

Today, it is an intergovernmental organization of 169 nations working to help ensure that migration globally takes place in a safe, orderly and dignified manner.

The United States and Belgium took the initiative to create the IOM, and the United States has been a key partner in its work ever since. The agency is an example of the kinds of organizations that the U.S. — the world’s most generous donor of humanitarian aid — works with to help those in need.

“Migration is a huge issue in the world,” says Ken Isaacs, a vice president of Samaritan’s Purse, an American faith-based charity. Isaacs is the U.S. choice to run for election as the next director of the IOM. The organization’s member states will decide in an election in June.

Isaacs, 65, has personally led Samaritan’s Purse relief operations in dozens of countries, including Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Isaacs says his “personal compassion for caring for people is a reflection of the U.S. government’s concern and ongoing support for IOM.”

Of the 1 billion migrants worldwide, 258 million live outside their countries and 750 million are domestic migrants. They include immigrants, migrant workers and refugees from upheavals, famines, and man-made and natural disasters.

“We are witnessing the movement of humans across borders on a scale never seen before,” William Lacy Swing, the IOM’s director general for the past decade, wrote recently. IOM moves quickly in organizing responses: From Hungarian refugees in 1956 to the Vietnamese boat people in 1975 to the survivors of the Asian tsunami and Pakistan earthquake in 2004–2005 to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution in Burma during today’s crisis.

The IOM is based in Geneva, but 97 percent of its staff of 10,500 work in nearly 400 field offices around the world, making it the largest United Nations organization “with feet on the ground,” Swing says. Once separate, it became affiliated with the United Nations in 2016.

In Bangladesh, the International Organization for Migration quickly tripled its staff to 600 in response to the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. The agency’s staff manages camps and provides water and sanitation for the Rohingya and improves roads for access.

Swing, 83, a former U.S. ambassador to four African nations and Haiti, is retiring after two five-year terms at the organization’s helm.

A boy sitting on his belongings in the street (© Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi boy sat on his family’s belongings at a temporary camp in Mosul, Iraq, after the city was liberated from ISIS. (© Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)