The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an inter-governmental organization founded in 1951. It possesses full juridical personality and became a related organisation of the United Nations (UN) system in 2016. The IOM was founded at the same time and is complementary to the UN High commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with which it works pursuant to a 1997 memorandum of understanding. At that time, its purpose was to help manage the large-scale displacement that followed the Second World War. Since then, its activities have evolved to address new challenges related to international and internal displacement, such as mixed migration and environmental migration involving people fleeing poverty, insecurity, conflict, and disasters exacerbated by climate change as well as the protection of personal data of these vulnerable people. Guided by the principles enshrined in the Charter of the UN and the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, the IOM is dedicated to encouraging safe, humane, regular and orderly migration for the benefit of all States and individuals. Its headquarters are located in Geneva, Switzerland.

Migrants do not benefit from an international status of protection (defined in an international treaty) such as the one applicable to refugees. Their fate depends on the convergence of interests between their State of origin and the ones of transit and of destination. The protection and assistance need of migrants will depend on the context and the circumstances of their movement. Migrants needs of protection and assistance will depend on the context. The first role of the IOM is one of facilitation with international administrative procedures and support to migrants and their family. In situation of massive influx of population fleeing armed conflict or other situations of crisis including natural disasters and the environmental impacts of climate change on population, the IOM may engage into large-scale humanitarian assistance and transportation of population in accordance with humanitarian principles. However, such principles are subject to the pressure of contexts in which individuals have no other legal alternative for travel. The IOM fosters international cooperation among all relevant actors on migration, acknowledging the fact that no State can address migration alone. The IOM defines the term migrant as: “a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons.” Therefore, it offers, at the request of States, its support to migrants but also to internally displaced persons, refugees and other uprooted people in the four broad areas of migration and development, facilitating migration, regulating migration and addressing forced migration.


The IOM mandate is to provide special assistance to migrants and for States concerned by migration, helping countries in developing specific services, search for practical solutions on all aspect of migration. It also provides humanitarian assistance to migrants in need. Its general goal is to ensure that no migrant is left alone. Its specific mandates are:

  • Assist in meeting the growing operational challenges of migration management;
  • Advance understanding of migration issues;
  • Encourage social and economic development through migration;
  • Uphold the human dignity and well-being of migrants.

Striking a balance between the dignity of migrants and State Sovereignty is a constant challenge that the IOM faces in the conduct of its activities as well as in the facilitation and cooperation it offers to member States. This is even more important as the terms migration and migrants are general words that risks weakening the protection afforded to individuals such as refugees or civilians victims of armed conflict by other international conventions and bodies (such as the Convention on refugees and the mandate of the UNHCR, or international humanitarian law and the mandate of ICRC for victims of armed conflict.)

The IOM promotes cooperation between all actors involved in migration: international organizations, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and more. Since 2007, the IOM has been working on the impacts that climate change has on migration. Therefore, a special division devoted to migration, the environment and climate change (MECC) was officially set up in 2015.

The IOM is the coordinator for the Secretary of the UN Network on Migration. It supported the negotiation and adoption of the UN Global Compact for migration, a UN global agreement for international migration adopted in 2018. The Global Compact builds upon its recognition that migration is a multidimensional reality of major relevance for the sustainable development of countries of origin, transit and destination. However, it requires coherent and comprehensive responses in order to avoid existing international tension among States and to cope with the growing number of migrants. To this end, the Global Compact on Migration provides a non-legally binding framework for cooperative between States. It recalls that migration has been part of the human experience throughout history, and a source of prosperity, innovation and sustainable development. However, it acknowledges that migrations can divide rather than unite States and to affects countries, communities, migrants and their families in less positive and more unpredictable ways. The Global Compact draw around 22 common and concrete objectives to improve a safe, orderly and regular migration and to limits negative impacts notably in term of human trafficking and irregular migrations pathways. It also promotes the use of accurate data as basis of evidence on which are based national policies as well as to support fair and reliable information on migration.

The IOM mandate is rooted in humanitarian crisis that constitute important triggers for migration and displacement. Consequently, the IOM has specific projects in emergency and post-emergency situations. It has developed a specific policy for humanitarian assistance which has for main goals to save lives, protect human dignity and diminish human suffering but also to prevent the need for migration by empowering communities for reconstruction and rehabilitation.


The IOM is managed by the Council which is composed of a representative for each of its current 175 member States that each have a right to vote. It holds yearly regular session and can convey special sessions at the request of one third of its members, the Director General or the Chairman of the Council in case of urgent circumstances. The Council is responsible for the approbation of the finances and budgets of the organization, for the supervision of the activities of the subsidiary bodies and for the management of the programs and activities of the organization. According to the IOM constitution, the Council is the highest authority of the organization. As such, it determines its policies and elects its Director General as well as take any other appropriate action to further the purpose of the organization. The Council has a subcommittee (the Standing Committee on Programmes and Finance) that is charged to review and examine its policies, programmes, and activities as well as to discuss any administrative, budgetary, financial or any other subject that the Council, through its member States, refer to it. It generally conveys biennial meetings which takes place in the second and fourth quarters of the year in Geneva, Switzerland and online.

The Director General along with two Deputy Director General forms the administration of the IOM. They are responsible for the overall management of the IOM. Its Director General is António Vitorino who was appointed in June 2018 for a five-year renewable term. He is the tenth independently elected Director General of the IOM and took office on 1st October 2018. In 2020, in order to strengthen the IOM leadership structure, a Deputy Director of Operations position and a Deputy Director of Reform Management position were created to assist the Director General in his tasks.

The IOM has four departments: Department of International Cooperation and Partnerships, Department of Migration Management, Department of Operations and Emergencies and Department of Resources Management. As of April 2023, it had several regional and country offices, with over 18,551 staff members working in 175 countries.

Following the designation of IOM as the coordinator and secretariat of the UN Network on Migration -established by the UN Secretary-General on 23 May 2018 as a successor to the Global Migration Group, the UN Network on Migration Secretariat was created. Its aim is to provide support to strengthen the ability of the UN system to deliver effective system-wide support to States and ensure greater coherence in the migration domain, under the overall coordination of the IOM.


The IOM has an operational budget for 2023 of around 1.3 billion US dollar. The IOM is funded mainly by voluntary contributions from States for projects with a small percentage for the functioning of the organization paid by its member States. It also charges States for 7% of the total cost of a project when it offers administrative support.

Internally Displaced PersonsMigrants-MigrationPopulation displacementProtected personsRefoulement (Forced Return) and ExpulsionRefugees .

✎ The International Organization for Migration Headquarters

17 Route des Morillons

1218 Grand-Saconnex


Tel.: +41 22 717 9111

Fax: +41 22 798 61 50

@ Websites:

For Additional Information:

International Organisation for Migration, IOM’s contribution for the High Level Political Forum 2018 “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies” , available at 2021

Annual report , 7 July 2022, available at

IOM’s Humanitarian Policy- Principles for Humanitarian Action (PHA) , October 2018, available at,a%20more%20effective%20humanitarian%20response.;%20

Presentation by the Director General , 31st Session of the Standing Committee on Programmes and Finance , 1 November 2022, available at

Summary Update of the Programme and budget for 2022, Council 113th Session , C/113/8, 12 October 2022.

IOM snapshot: Dignified, orderly and safe migration for the benefit of all , 2021, available at

World Migration Report 2022 , available at

United Nations, Refugees and Migrants, Global compact for migration , 2017, available at

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Memorandum of Understanding between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration , 15 May 1997, available at