Migrants at the Transit Center in Lesbos. Photo: IOM 2016/Amanda Nero

The International Organization for Migration joined the United Nations. This is a big deal for millions around the world.

Amid all the meetings and events on migration last week at the UN, a major development went largely unnoticed. The International Organization of Migration formally joined the UN as a related agency, adding another branch to the UN family tree. This bureaucratic re-arrangement was little noticed outside the UN bubble, but it could have profound consequences for millions of migrants around the world.

Many people may have thought the IOM was already part of the UN. Much like UNHCR, the IOM was created in 1951 to deal with the massive displacement in Europe caused by World War II and the communist takeover of Eastern Europe. Known back then as the “Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe,” it ultimately helped European governments identify resettlement options and arranged the transportation of millions of European refugees.

For years, IOM worked closely with UNHCR in resettling refugees into third countries and assisting with voluntary returns. However unlike UNHCR, the IOM’s constitution and mandate covers more than just refugees. Recognizing the importance of migration in economic and social development as well as the fundamental right of freedom of movement, the IOM promotes international cooperation on migration issues among its 165 member states and protects the rights of all migrants, regardless of which migration category they fall under.

Bringing the IOM into the UN family brings these migrants under the UN umbrella as well. This is a major change within the international system. While refugees remain the only migrants with specific rights granted to them under international law, the addition of “the migration agency” to the table makes it far more likely that other migrant groups will be looked out for in UN decision making.

UN Dispatch spoke with Leonard Doyle, spokesperson for the IOM director general, on why the organization decided to take this step after 65 years of independence and what it hopes to gain. Unsurprisingly, the global refugee crisis and the increased attention migration has received in recent years played a big role in the decision as well as IOM’s vision of the future.

“Over the last year there have been some very important and big institutional changes taking place. The COP21 included climate migrants for the first time and you have the SDGs in which migration is specifically mentioned, so it is increasingly the case that migration is part of the UN discourse,” Doyle noted. “Just turn on the media today and migration often leads the news more often than not in every country in the world, not just the US – so everyone kind of recognized the time had come and it was long gone the time for migration to have a seat at the table at the UN.”

With that seat comes the hope that more migrant groups will be covered by major UN initiatives. As Doyle mentioned, climate change refugees and economic migrants are just two groups gaining newfound attention after years of neglect. Even in the area of those forcibly displaced by conflict there is substantial room for improvement. Perhaps more than any other organization, the IOM has worked with these issues and understands what is at stake.

“I think the big issues is that while the Refugee Convention covers asylum seekers, it does not cover victims of trafficking, it does not cover unaccompanied minors, it doesn’t cover the safety or family reunification,” said Doyle. “It doesn’t cover this huge and often invisible population of people who are caught up in countries in conflict who are not necessarily refugees, but need to get the heck out of town as soon as possible. So I think our membership at the UN will give more visibility to these often quite vulnerable people.”

As migration becomes an international issue too important to ignore, there is a need for concrete action and greater inclusion in the international system. By adding an official migration mandate to the UN family, there is now a real opportunity to move the agenda forward.