Elena Ledda, IJ4EU grantee

By Rowan Humphries

Few dispute that migration needs governing. But what happens when a little-known organisation working far from the glare of public scrutiny takes things too far?

The Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) has operated since the early 1990s along the geographical fringes of the European Union. Its remit is “migration management”, which may sound benign, but in practice has led to the organisation — and the EU — becoming complicit in human rights abuses, critics say. 

In the view of Lorenzo D’Agostino, an Italian freelance journalist, the term “migration management” is “a massive euphemism that usually covers up much more ruthless policies”.

D’Agostino, together with a team of reporters based in Spain, Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina and an IT specialist based in Germany, uncovered the full extent of ICMPD’s activities in what became The Migration Managers, a project supported by the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund for cross-border reporting. 

The project got its start when D’Agostino and three other journalists interested in transparency and migration policy began noticing the name of an organisation they didn’t recognise showing up with increasing frequency in their work.

“All of us are constantly looking through documents, and at some point, we realised there was this organisation that none of us had really heard about — ICMPD — that was starting to come up a lot in documents that we were looking at,” D’Agostino told the International Press Institute (IPI) in an interview. 

Further digging revealed that ICMPD was intimately involved in carrying out EU migration and border policy, and that most of its funding came from the European Commission’s migration budget.

“There are a lot of organisations that do similar work…but they are all prominent. People know what they are. They have some level of scrutiny. Whereas ICMPD, you ask specialised people, you ask people in the humanitarian sector, they couldn’t really give you an idea of who those guys are…Nobody really has heard of them.” 

Given the central role ICMPD seemed to be playing in shaping and implementing EU migration policy, D’Agostino and his team knew they had to go deeper to understand what exactly ICMPD was doing.

“A lot of the activities [ICMPD] participates in are controversial to begin with,” D’Agostino said. “We had the feeling that we needed to look into them more in-depth.” 

Not looking for a ‘smoking gun’

The initial goal of The Migration Managers was simply to shed light on this little-known organisation doing important work. “This wasn’t the case where we were looking for a smoking gun or corruption,” D’Agostino said.

ICMPD was founded in the 1990s to address post-Soviet migratory movements, D’Agostino noted, but it didn’t really take off until 2015 — the year the European Union experienced a major migration and refugee crisis and a new director general, Michael Spindelegger, was appointed to lead the organisation.

“He sort of gave a new impulse to the work of ICMPD by making it more willing to implement policy demands coming from the European Union without asking too many questions,” D’Agostino said. Under Spindelegger’s leadership, “ICMPD proved very flexible as a tool to implement the most controversial aspects of the EU’s migration policies”.

As the full picture of ICMPD’s activities began to be revealed, D’Agostino and his team realised that the organisation’s under-the-radar status was actually the reason ICMPD had been able to so quickly expand its reach and core functions under Spindelegger.

What is more, the fact that ICMPD is an international organisation, and not technically a government institution, means it can act with far less transparency while carrying out EU policy, the journalists found.

Reviews of internal documents revealed that government ministers actually praised the fact that ICMPD was so little known because it “gave them a platform to discuss migration policy far from the public eye”, D’Agostino said. 

While Spindelegger said in a recent interview posted on ICMPD’s website that the main mission of his organisation “is to organise legal migration as a partnership which benefits everyone — the people who migrate and the sending and receiving countries”, the journalists revealed a different agenda.

The technocratic veneer of EU migration policy has in practice resulted in the bloc “striking a series of very ruthless deals” with neighbouring countries to stop the flow of migrants at any cost, D’Agostino said.

ICMPD’s role as a facilitator brokering these deals has meant the organisation essentially does the EU’s “dirty work”, he added.

The EU’s migration deals with third countries benefit authoritarian governments, giving them political leverage, legitimacy and resources while fostering an environment that allows for rampant human rights abuses, the team concluded.

The facts on the ground

While much of the team’s reporting relied on internal documents gathered through freedom-of-information requests to the European Commission and member state governments, reporters also headed to the border states working most closely with ICMPD to see what those partnerships looked like on the ground.  

In many cases, ICMPD went far beyond its formal mandate of “promoting dialogue” between the EU and neighbouring states and became responsible for supporting border authorities accused of human rights violations, they found.

The fact that ICMPD support largely came “without strings attached”, has ultimately “empower[ed] violent or abusive actors to carry out their actions”, D’Agostino said.

“You create these monsters, where you’re just throwing weapons and resources to forces that you don’t really understand, that you don’t really control, that have their own agenda,” he added, referring to ICMPD’s support for a Sudanese militia now engaged in Sudan’s brutal civil war. 

The team found the same patterns in many of the states ICMPD was partnering with.

“We spoke to Tunisian civil society leaders who said the ICMPD people in Tunis are basically as powerful as ministers,” D’Agostino said, describing the outsize role ICMPD was playing in driving migration policy there.

“Of course, the main responsibility of these migration policies is of the policymakers, the European politicians. But then there are the enablers, the managers, the technocrats who make it happen, who are these ICMPD guys. We think they carry their share of the responsibility.”   

The Migration Managers’ investigation, which built off a Tunisian civil society organisation report on ICMPD’s activities, found that through both direct and indirect support, ICMPD has helped construct detention centres, supplied surveillance technology to border control agencies and trained border authorities in countries such as Sudan, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey.

“None of this needs to be a bad thing in itself — of course a coast guard needs equipment,” D’Agostino said. The problem is when “the equipment that you are giving to these guys [is] used to violate fundamental international laws”. 

‘A constant struggle’

Uncovering the full scope of ICMPD’s operations was at times challenging, especially when it came to accessing EU documents.

D’Agostino and his team found that as EU migration policies become increasingly militarized and border control budgets continue to skyrocket, “Europe is more and more restrictive when it comes to freedom-of-information requests”.

“It’s a constant struggle,” he continued. “It takes months of litigation with European institutions to get them to free documents that should be in the public domain to begin with.”

Some members of the team also faced blowback from government actors as a result of the investigation.

“A lot of people who work on this topic as journalists at the periphery of the EU actually suffer quite severe retaliation from the government when they are exposed,” he said. 

Despite the roadblocks, the project succeeded in raising awareness about how the EU manages its migration policy, an outcome D’Agostino hopes may inspire further journalistic and even government investigations.

“I would say that the main result was bringing ICMPD onto the radar…All of a sudden, migration and border people are aware of the role of this organisation, and they can dig further.” 

For more on this IJ4EU-supported investigation, see The Migration Managers.