Repackaging Imperialism The EU – IOM border regime in the Balkans



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The International Organization for Migration (IOM) claims to respect the rights of migrants. But our research shows links between the IOM and serious human rights violations perpetrated against migrants in the Balkans, where its presence is overwhelmingly funded by the EU. Through its partnership with the IOM, the EU has used the region to test and perfect its migration policies, particularly with regard to restricting and containing migration. This has involved funding the IOM to develop a transnational security apparatus, which includes the remilitarisation of borders in a region still recovering from war, setting up sophisticated surveillance structures and technologies, migrant detention centres, and bolstering local police forces, some of which engage in illegal and violent deportations.

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Sobre repackaging imperialism

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Part of series
Border Wars Briefing



  • Nidžara Ahmetašević
  • Manja Petrovska
  • Sophie-Anne Bisiaux
  • Lorenz Naegeli


At the time of writing in November 2023, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had just completed a visit to several Balkan states where she assessed their progress towards EU accession. She stressed that EU enlargement is a top priority, bringing with it the promise of peace and prosperity, and urged candidate states to ‘go the last mile’ so that they can look forward to becoming EU members. Some weeks earlier, von der Leyen had travelled to Tel Aviv to convey EU support to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he instructed the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to unleash a brutal assault on Gaza, with legal scholars, humanitarian and human rights organisations and UN experts denouncing war crimes and genocide against the Palestinian people. By the time von der Leyen began her Balkans tour, the calls for her resignation were growing louder amid a sense that the EU had gone too far in claiming to uphold international law on the one hand, while actively bringing about its erosion on the other. In many respects, though, the EU has for some years had a dismal human rights record, particularly with regard to deaths, disappearances, detention, and other human rights violations occurring as part of its deadly borders regime.

For decades, the EU has invested much time, energy and resources in keeping undesirable migrants outside ‘Fortress Europe’. To do this, it engages an array of actors – from government bodies, to UN agencies, to the private sector – creating bilateral and multilateral agreements that are designed to contain people outside the EU’s jurisdictional borders.

This report focuses specifically on the Balkans and the interplay between EU-funded policies and their implementation by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN-related agency. While the Balkans comprises many countries, some of which are already EU member states, this report focuses on those which are surrounded by the EU but are not yet part of the Union. Experts in Balkans and borders studies have argued that the EU has long treated the region as though it were its own backyard, where border-related policies have been tried and tested for decades. They have observed that through the increase in deportations, the Balkans may quickly become a dumping ground for migrants that the EU wants to remove.

Imperialism is defined as a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force. This research shows how the EU deploys an imperialist approach towards its non-EU Balkan neighbours, exerting power and influence over how they govern their sovereign territories, including how they control their borders. Through engaging the IOM, a UN-related agency, EU imperialism is repackaged and presented under the guise of humanitarianism. This obfuscates the true intent behind the EU – IOM partnership, permitting the EU to continue exerting and expanding its influence beyond its borders through a strategy that goes almost entirely unchecked.

The EU-funded IOM-implemented border securitisation projects detailed in this report demonstrate a cycle of restricted and controlled migration, designed to further EU political and economic interests. Perhaps the greatest casualty in the decades-long process of border externalisation has been the erosion of international legal norms resulting in the criminalisation of movement and the shutting down of avenues to move freely and seek asylum. The consequences are deadly for migrants, who are forced to take ever more treacherous routes.

Globally, a two-tier migration system has emerged that affords legal protection to migrants who meet the criteria to be considered refugees and asylum seekers, while those who do not, fall outside the scope of international protection mechanisms. There is no legal definition for the term migrant and no legal safeguards exist under international law that specifically protect migrants despite their heightened vulnerability along migration routes. The IOM operates within this legal vacuum and its work is guided, not by established legal principles, but by narratives, which are often designed in conjunction with donor entities such as the EU, that serve a donor-driven agenda and not migrants’ needs. At times the language used is alarmist and stigmatises migrants as burdensome, opportunistic, less deserving of protection, or without agency. This legal grey area is coupled with the failure to provide mechanisms for legal recourse or access to justice for human rights violations that occur while migrants are entrapped and contained. In sum, international law is virtually non-existent for those who need it most while seeking to migrate safely.

Under the guise of curbing human trafficking and smuggling, the EU has cast a wide net leaving the vast majority of those fleeing war, conflict, and violence, including economic violence, locked out of international protection mechanisms. While it is undoubtedly important to tackle trafficking or smuggling activity that endangers migrants, the EU has thus far failed to acknowledge that these practices takes shape precisely because of the EU’s border policies and not in spite of them. EU speak frames migration as a shady activity and EU policies push migrants to the margins of society conflating migration with organised crime and criminality. This deflects attention from the fact that people coming to the EU are exercising their right to move and seek asylum and that the EU that is failing miserably in its duty to guarantee these rights. Moreover, broadly speaking ‘irregular entry’ is codified in law as an administrative as opposed to a criminal offence, yet as we shall see in this report, the EU-funded IOM- implemented policies in the Balkans rely on a securitised logic. This implies a default position where migration is understood as something criminal that needs to be curtailed or punished rather than something necessary for human survival that should be facilitated.

The projects detailed in this report ranged from EU-funded, IOM-implemented, pan-European police networks, training and equipping local police forces, military methods of policing border zones, radar surveillance systems, investment in border infrastructure, detention, and deportation mechanisms – all designed to stop migrants reaching the EU. This approach encapsulates much of what the Transnational Institute’s Border Wars series has been warning against for years – deploying a securitised approach to migration, which frames migrants as a threat that needs to be controlled through policing and militarised strategies. Migrants however continue to move because the root causes that force them to do so remain unaddressed. They become entrapped along migrant routes, particularly in the Balkans, unable to advance in any direction.

This report exposes the anomaly of the United Nations system and the IOM’s role within it. From its birth at the beginning of the Cold War, the IOM in its various iterations has always displayed a ‘western logic’ and been understood as a highly politicised institution. That characterisation still pertains, albeit while operating now under the auspices of the UN system. While the IOM is routinely described as the UN’s Migration Agency, its non-normative status means that it is not bound by the conventions that regulate the operations of the UN specialised agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) or the World Health Organization (WHO). This is particularly relevant given that it works with people who are often extremely vulnerable or in precarious situations and require high standards of care in line with international protection norms. In contrast to the UN specialised agencies, the IOM is accountable only to its donors, but not to the international human rights system. The IOM presents itself as an independent, impartial UN agency, whereas in fact it often serves as an implementing partner of the EU, a political, economic, and increasingly a military project, whose border policies serve to further its own interests. The EU is the main funder of the IOM’s operations in the Balkans. This brings in to question the ability of the IOM to adhere to its own principles of independence and impartiality, while fulfilling its mandate free of political and financial influence. With so many powerful state factors at play, the rights of migrants appear to be barely considered.

By focusing on the IOM and the complex relationship between the agency and its donors, this report shows that it acts more like a private-sector entity than a UN-mandated agency. At the time of writing the IOM’s newly appointed director, Amy Pope, indicated her intention to prioritise private-sector solutions, which would further entrench the for-profit logic driving much of what makes the borders regime so deadly. Operationally the IOM deploys the institutional logic of a private corporation, which is ‘blue-washed’ through its association with the UN. Its dependence on funding from multilateral and bilateral agencies means that the IOM has a self-interest in supporting and maintaining its donors’ agendas.

By prioritising the role of the IOM in the Balkans, other agencies operating with a human rights mandate, such as the UNHCR, or other entities such as local or international non-government organisations (NGOs) are often side-lined. This is not unique to the Balkans, but also plays out in north and west Africa where the IOM is given greater prominence than other agencies with a core human rights and protection mandate. The result in the Balkans has been the normalisation of assuming by default that migrants do not meet the requirements to seek asylum and are therefore outside the international protection system. By contracting a UN-related agency that implements securitised, as opposed to humanitarian interventions, the lines are blurred between what constitutes humanitarianism. This research shows that humanitarianism has becomes a conduit through which violent border externalisation policies are enacted, though they go almost entirely unchecked and evade scrutiny because of the UN veneer.

The Balkans experienced wars throughout the 1990s bringing about the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the creation of various new countries, a transition that destabilised the entire region and which still experiences instability and violent flair-ups. Within this context, the EU’s role in dictating border policies to (as yet) non-EU nations via the IOM tends to obfuscate the functions, and at times undermine the authority of these nascent sovereign states to govern questions relating to migration and border control that should fall firmly within their remit.

Nowhere is the EU’s ‘carrot and stick’ approach more evident than in the Balkans, where pre-accession states have been striving for years to meet the standards required to join the Union. Often, this membership is contingent on securing border control, which sees a greater reliance on securitised border policies, policing and surveillance, that go hand in hand with human rights violations. Such policies have normalised the presence of armed police officers in bullet-proof vests and brandishing other military-style equipment. The optics don’t look good in a region which emerged from a decade of bloody war at the end of the 1990s and which is still in the process of rebuilding. It signifies a regression in terms of leaving war behind and moving towards a demilitarised society that embraces peace. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), on which much of this report is focused, the IOM’s interventions have further complicated the already complex state structures and various levels of governance, plus its semi-protectorate status, making it very unclear who is responsible for what, and who can be held accountable.

Finally, EU membership is promised once an increasingly expansive list of its requirements is met. The question has been raised, however, about whether these accession policies are concerned less with admitting new members than with keeping states in a perpetual pre- accession status whereby they implement EU border policies unchecked, which would not happen if they were member states. The conditions inside the camps, as outlined in this report, with widespread reports of systematic human rights abuses, and in some cases death, are of deep concern. Moreover, there is a culture of corruption and impunity for those contracted to provide services or facing allegations of wrong-doing. In the same way that there are scant accountability procedures in place for the IOM, the EU also evades scrutiny and responsibility for the deadly conditions along migrant routes in the Balkans that stem directly from its policies dictated from Brussels but enacted beyond its borders.

map of Balkans

Key findings

  • The EU funds the IOM to implement its external border control policy in the Balkans region.

  • Through its partnership with the IOM, the EU has used the region to test and perfect its migration policies, particularly with regard to restricting and containing migration. This has involved funding the IOM to develop a transnational security apparatus, which includes the remilitarisation of borders in a region still recovering from war, setting up sophisticated surveillance structures and technologies, migrant detention centres, and bolstering local police forces, some of which engage in illegal and violent deportations.

  • Despite being formally affiliated with the United Nations (UN) since 2016 and often described as the UN’s Migration Agency, the IOM is not in fact a UN specialised agency and thus not accountable to the UN system or held to the same standards
    as UNHCR, for example. Rather, it primarily serves the interests of its donors, mainly western bilateral agencies, functioning essentially as a ‘service provider’ to help them enforce their migration agenda. This leads to a glaring lack of transparency and accountability.

  • While the IOM positions itself internationally as an impartial expert on migration concerned with migrants’ well-being, its work on the ground shows that humanitarian concerns take second place to the interests of its donors. Indeed, within this framework the IOM principles of independence and impartiality are virtually impossible to maintain because this dependence, by default, requires the implementation of policies that represent the particular borders agenda as set out by the main donor(s).

  • In various pre-accession Balkan countries, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Serbia and North Macedonia, the IOM has become the most important international agency in migration-related securitisation and border control, establishing a parallel governance structure and taking over functions that should normally be carried out by the state. Moreover, the increased reliance on the IOM, which does not have a human rights or protection mandate, shifts the focus away from UN agencies such as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is held to the same standards as the other UN specialised agencies. This eventually normalises a situation where permitting access to legal pathways to seek asylum becomes the exception and not the norm.

  • The EU uses pre-accession funding in a ‘carrot-and stick’ approach to ensure that countries comply with its border control demands. The report shows how EU public funds, which were intended to fight corruption and support countries across the region in their EU accession efforts, have instead been used to secure their borders driven by the EU’s political and economic interests.

  • The Balkan region – previously a transit corridor for people travelling between Greece and the rest of the EU – has now become a ‘no man’s land’ where migrants are trapped in limbo behind the EU’s borders, but equally denied their right to seek asylum.

  • Since 2011 the IOM has received and spent approximately €166 million on border control and migration management in BiH. This funding increased by over 1505% from 2017 to 2020, with latest figures showing a drop off in spending in 2022. This shift is likely due to the EU dispersing funds among other entities (such as the ICMPD), with a similar mandate to the IOM.

  • This money has bolstered police and border guards as well as private contractors that have committed gross human rights violations. This report covers instances of people being held in cage-like facilities, structural violence in reception and detention centres, beatings, illegal deportations, and people being held in inhumane conditions without sufficient access to food, heating, medical care, or hygienic facilities. There are instances of equipment donated by the EU being directly used in violence against migrants.

  • Local solidarity networks, media outlets, and researchers have only selectively and arbitrarily been allowed to access facilities in which migrants, including refugees
    and asylum seekers, are held, with no explanation for why some were denied entry. Contracts for services are outsourced to external agencies, often leaving local entities entirely excluded from participating in migration processes occurring in their own countries but in which they have limited capacity to influence or shape.

  • In the past, the IOM contracted private security companies and individuals – many of whom were known to have dubious connections, criminal records, or were allegedly engaged in corruption. There have been dozens of reports of violent treatment
    by private security agencies contracted by the IOM and dangerous conditions originating in the EU-funded Temporary Reception Centres (TRCs), which in extreme cases have resulted in death. These serious shortcomings raises concerns about inappropriate recruitment policies that jeopardise the safety of migrants.

  • While the IOM no longer contracts private security agencies, they remained on the books for many years and the agency took no responsibility for the events that unfolded while they were still under contract.

  • The EU is currently expanding its biometric data-collection scheme at the Balkans borders and effectively paying Balkan states to deport people and conduct so-called ‘voluntary’ returns, raising fears that the region will become a deportation hub, where those expelled from the EU are gathered before being deported or left in a perpetual state of limbo in the region.

  • Given the rapid adoption of data-collection technologies in the Balkans, the question arises of whether these will be used to set up a type of ‘Dublin – plus mechanism’, allowing EU member states to send back to the Balkans anyone whose fingerprints were collected before entry.

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