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The politics of migration data: Putting the spotlight on the IOM

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International Forum on Migration Statistics. Source: OECD on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

In the face of growing calls for better evidence-based migration policy, organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have been underlining the need for improvements in the collection and analysis of migration data. As the IOM has grown and expanded extensively in the past two decades, so has its involvement in data collection. This article argues that despite espousing apolitical and technocratic language surrounding migration data, the IOM’s search for ‘better migration data’ is in fact highly political. Put simply, by producing migration data in the form of statistics, matrices and maps, the IOM is normatively shaping the way in which migration is understood and acted upon as it is largely centred on the concept of ‘migration management’.


Since its establishment in 1951, the IOM has evolved from an organisation regionally focused on Europe, to a global organisation working towards ‘managing migration - for the benefit of all’. A large part of ‘managing migration’ is knowing what to manage. As a result, the IOM collects vast amounts of data on: global migration flows, displaced populations, remittances, human trafficking, and ‘integration’ amongst others. Moreover, in 2014, the IOM established the Global Migration Data Analysis Centre to produce more accurate and presentable migration statistics. Significant improvements have been made over the past centuries in the accuracy of migration figures through censuses, surveys and administrative registers. However, the IOM recognises that there exist substantial shortcomings in current international migration statistics. These gaps are due to the increasing volume of global movements and the growing complexity of ‘causal factors’ of migration which usually overlap and mitigate against being differentiated and categorised. Simultaneously, technological advancements offer organisations such as the IOM unprecedented opportunities to collect swathes of Big Data. For example, ‘digital traces’ left by the millions of mobile phone and internet users provide a growing pool of data for statistical authorities to tap into. To begin our focus on the politics of migration statistics we will look at the intimate connection between migration measurement and the IOM’s doctrine of migration management.

Measurement = Management


Since the 1990s, the IOM has acted through the prism of its guiding philosophy: ‘managed migration’. As they spell out, managed migration intends to work ‘to help ensure the orderly and humane management of migration for the benefit of all’. In principle, the managed migration agenda attempts to find a middle-ground between overt authoritarian control over people on the move and a world of unlimited free movement. It intends to balance the interests of nation-states’ concerns about border security while upholding the rights of migrants. In practice however, the IOM has been criticised by humanitarian organisations for siding too heavily with state security activities. For example, the IOM has been criticised in the past for supporting states in unlawful practices of border enforcement, detention and deportation. Since May 2017 the IOM has implemented the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme in Greece and Turkey for asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected as ‘a more humane and dignified alternative to deportation’. However, asylum seekers who have experienced the programme have argued they have been forced to give up their right to appeal their asylum decision in order to escape six or twelve months of confinement by accepting ‘voluntary’ return. In the same report, one lawyer described AVRR as ‘a fist in a velvet glove… wrongful, coercive and distasteful’. This programme is one of the most recent examples of how the IOM’s managed migration agenda has worked to benefit state interests over migrants’ rights in practice.


In a recent paper, the sociologists Scheel and Ustek-Spilda have highlighted two ways in which the clamour for better migration statistics fits squarely with the IOM’s agenda of managed migration. Firstly, the migration management paradigm ‘renders the government of migration as a question of expert knowledge’. This means that there is an ‘authoritarian potential’ of migration measurement which elides the subjective, often fragmented, experience of migration. Migration is rarely a linear journey from point A to point B. Rather, it can involve multiple stops and starts and endless encounters with bureaucracies and borders which migration data and graphs tend to erase. As the authors have written, ‘to tolerate any knowledge that enacts migration as a multiple, messy reality would cast doubts on the possibility to manage it. For what is difficult to measure is certainly difficult to manage’. Secondly, constituting migration as a ‘calculable matter of fact’ might marginalise alternative policy options such as open borders. The open borders argument envisages migration as a ‘self-regulating’ force; something that is not captured in the objectification of migration in numerical form. Again, the historical critique of IOM’s managed migration paradigm of working to the benefit of state over migrant interests reappears; only this time infused with the politics of data.

The Power in Mapping


To this effect, we can examine one of the IOM’s more recent data projects: the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). Having established ‘Flow Monitoring Points’, the IOM is able to collect and collate data on where people are from, their reason for displacement, where they have travelled through, and where they intend to go. Once again, the IOM uses apolitical language, asserting that it seeks to ‘understand displacement’. Yet through collecting data in conflict, post-conflict, and post-disaster areas, the IOM is not just understanding displacement, but enacting the idea of displacement into reality. Usually a state-venture, as anthropologist James Scott denotes, making populations ‘legible’ by gridding, standardising, and categorising them is one tool authorities use to ‘get a handle on [their] subjects and environment’. By drawing attention to the size of a particular community through quantification, the IOM authorises state interventions which determine rights and eligibilities for protection.

The DTM both collates statistics on displacement as well as creates global and regional maps of displacement. Here, political geographers remind us that ‘maps can never be neutral’ as the practice of cartography always requires a process of selection, simplification and classification. In mapping global displacement, the IOM is contributing to the understanding and making of place. Specifically, the IOM is reinforcing spatial representations of international relations in which displaced people are cast out as victims or threats to the nation-state order. This neglects alternative forms of place-making by people existing betwixt and between sovereign territories. Displaced populations are simultaneously represented as ‘hot-spots’ on the DTM and enacted as places of concern, intrigue and intervention for state authorities and development experts. At once, the subjectivities and agencies of those categorised are erased while being rendered as objects of global control. Both the categorisation of people and the mapping of space are not discussed as ramifications of IOM’s data collection, despite being fundamental to the exercise of tracking movement.


Figure 1: DTM. Screenshot taken by the authors from

Underlying this critique is the fundamental question of what it means to attempt to quantify and calculate something which is a ‘ghostly, elusive and slippery reality that is much less measurable and manageable than the IOM and its GMFIA [Global Migration Flows Interactive App] suggest’. This is not to suggest that the IOM and all nation-states should abandon collecting migration data. Rather, it is to shine light on processes of knowledge production surrounding migration so that the processes and methods for producing data are held to the same standards of accountability as the accuracy of the data itself. The fundamental point is that in its struggle to become the ‘epistemic authority’ in regards to the production of knowledge about migration the IOM may be overlooking crucial ethical and political considerations in regards to the production of migration data.

Max Cohen

Max comes from Glasgow in Scotland. After completing the MSc Migration Studies at Oxford University he is currently travelling, reading and researching while in the process of applying for a PhD in Economic Geography. He is interested in a broad range of social and political issues from political economy to musicology. As well as loving to write and research Max is a keen musician and footballer, playing the piano and scoring hat-tricks on a frequent basis.

Saskia Llewellyn

Saskia Llewellyn is currently pursuing an MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford where she is working on issues related to territory, security, and migration. Prior to studying at Oxford, she studied International Relations (IR) in St Andrews with an integrated exchange to Sciences Po, Paris and the University of Melbourne. Before coming to Oxford, she gained work experience at a think tank in Brussels. In her spare time, she manages the online magazine The Transatlantic Puzzle with other IR enthusiasts.

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This article is part of a collaboration between Routed Magazine and The Transatlantic Puzzle 

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