Crisis and Change at IOM:
Critical Juncture, Precedents, and Task Expansion
Christian Kreuder-Sonnen & Philip M. Tantow
Friedrich Schiller University Jena
Kreuder-Sonnen, Christian; Tantow, Philip M. (2022): Crisis and Change at IOM: Critical
Juncture, Precedents, and Task Expansion. In Cathryn Costello, Megan Bradley, Angela
Sherwood (Eds.): IOM Unbound? Obligations and Accountability of the International
Organization for Migration in an Era of Expansion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
This chapter investigates how the International Organization for Migration (IOM) dramatically
expanded its involvement in humanitarian emergencies over the past three decades. Building
on insights from historical institutionalism in international relations, we hypothesize that crises
which touch upon matters of migration may constitute opportunities for IOM to expand the
range of its activities as contingencies call for flexible responses that the organization is (the
only one) apt to deliver. The 1990-91 Gulf War served as a “critical juncture” in this regard,
where IOM started to expand more forcefully into the broad realm of humanitarian assistance.
It set a precedent that served as best-practice example and led to an ex post formalization of the
institutional expansion through corresponding frameworks for action. As we show in case
studies of the 2011 Libyan civil war and the 2014-16 Ebola crisis, this pattern holds across a
variety of crisis contexts: humanitarian emergencies expose gaps in the governance architecture
that IOM is quick to fill, thereby increasing the range of its activities which is later normalized
in institutional rules and practice. Today’s vast array of humanitarian and other crisis-related
tasks fulfilled by IOM attest to the lasting ‘power of precedent’.
The Constitution of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) lists the purposes
and functions of the Organization in Article 1. In particular, they encompass the organized
transfer of migrants, refugees, and displaced persons in agreement with the states concerned as
well as the provision of broader “migration services” ranging from language training to
advisory functions. IOM and its predecessor organizations have often deployed these functions
in the context of humanitarian crisis, particularly in post-conflict settings – starting with
refugees in post-War Europe. For a long period, however, the organization’s activities were
1 For valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper, we would like to thank the editors, Megan Bradley,
Cathryn Costello, and Angela Sherwood, as well as the participants in an online authors’ workshop on 2 November
2020, in particular Ronny Patz. We are furthermore grateful to Nora-Corinna Meurer for excellent research
restricted to migration management, that is, the logistical support for migration at the request
of member states (Ducasse-Rogier 2002; Pécoud 2018: 1623-1625), leading to its depiction as
nothing but a better travel agency (Elie 2010: 346). By contrast, IOM’s functions today
comprise frontline emergency relief and a staggering variety of humanitarian activities that
often only remotely link to migration issues (Bradley 2017). In fact, its institutional
development in the post-Cold War era seems to be one of the most intriguing features in the
history of IOM. It is characterized by rapid organizational growth and task expansion, a shift in
the allocation of resources from migration facilitation to the provision of humanitarian aid in
emergencies, and an engagement with an ever-wider range of policy fields, now encompassing
issues as diverse as climate change and border control (Hall 2015; Brachet 2016). How can
these dramatic developments be explained?
Literature on IOM has identified important facilitating conditions for its task expansion:
First, its ‘non-normative mandate’2 and functional organization type certainly represent a
driver. Unlike many other international organizations (IOs) (incl. esp. UNHCR), IOM is not
tasked to oversee and help the implementation of international legal rules in its field. This makes
it more flexible to go for new and rather unrelated tasks (Hall 2015). Second, its projectized
funding structure plays a role. Since IOM only has a very small core budget and receives
funding almost exclusively for concrete projects, it has a financial incentive to broaden the
scope of its activities – and convince member states and other donors of the necessity to operate
in new fields (Patz/Thorvaldsdottir 2020; Bradley 2020: 39-41). These important insights
notwithstanding, we are still lacking a clear understanding of how IOM took hold in a growing
number of areas and what institutional mechanisms underpinned this development.
In this contribution, we develop a historical institutionalist argument that combines the
concepts of critical juncture and path dependency with agency-driven accounts of institutional
change in IOs (see also Hanrieder 2014; Pouliot 2020). Historical institutionalism assumes that
institutional trajectories are path-dependent, that is, their development is conditioned by
original decisions that introduce either self-reinforcing or self-undermining reactive sequences
(Mahoney 2000; Hanrieder/Zürn 2017). While a strong focus thus lies on the relative stability
of institutions and their gradual change, historical institutionalism also theorizes the original
moments that create path dependencies in the first place. These critical junctures are conceived
as situations in which the structural constraints on political action are significantly reduced and
“the range of plausible choices open to powerful political actors expands substantially”
2 See chapter 1 for a critical discussion of the concept.
(Capoccia/Kelemen 2007: 343). Which political actors at the IO level can be expected to benefit
from such conditions is subject to theoretical controversy in international relations. On the one
hand, as expected by much rationalist theorizing on IOs, the most powerful member states might
seize the opportunity to shift the institution in their desired direction (e.g. Stone 2011). On the
other hand, as anticipated particularly by constructivists, it might also be the bureaucratic IO
organs that attain institutional change through organizational entrepreneurship (e.g.
Barnett/Finnemore 2004). Drawing on recent accounts of crisis-induced authority expansions
by IOs, we assume that both may be possible, but hold that the strongest institutional ruptures
can be expected where organizational entrepreneurship is met with tacit or explicit support by
the most powerful member state(s) (Kreuder-Sonnen 2019).
We submit that the metamorphosis of IOM in the past 30 years can be understood as a path-
dependent development rooted in a critical juncture at the beginning of the 1990s. At the level
of the international system, this period was marked by the end of the Cold War that infused
international politics with a large degree of fluidity in general. At a situational level, the 1991
Gulf War represented a contingent window of opportunity for IOM to change its role from post-
conflict migration manager to active humanitarian emergency responder. The shift was
premised on the coincidence of the organization’s willingness to assume responsibility in this
area and the United States’ active enlistment of IOM to fulfill crisis management tasks on the
ground. This decision proved momentous as it set the organization on a path that has shaped its
development to the present day. Not only did the Gulf intervention leave a lasting imprint on
IOM’s institutional structure, but it also provided a blueprint for institutional expansion that
would be reactivated time and again over the next decades: Humanitarian crises expose
governance gaps that IOM is ready to fill on an ad hoc basis which member states accept ex
post or even invite ex ante. This repeated match of demand and supply creates social precedents
for IOM that widen its practical and operational experience and hence increase the range of
tasks that ‘naturally’ fall within its remit over time.
The analytical narrative we provide in this paper on IOM’s institutional evolution since the
entry into force of its Constitution contributes to a better understanding of the organization's
changing character, transitioning from a foremost migration manager to a provider of
humanitarian assistance in active crises. By focusing on the institutional mechanisms
underlying this process, we shed light on IOM’s internal dynamics that so far have remained
“almost completely unexamined” (Bradley 2020: 3). The remainder of this paper is structured
as follows: First, we provide the theoretical background to our argument by providing
theoretical building blocks from historical institutionalism and developing expectations about
IOM’s institutional development in times of crisis. In the main part of the paper, we first analyze
the critical juncture at which IOM’s institutional path initially deviated (the 1990-91 Gulf War)
and show how it set in motion mechanisms of reproduction which reinforced the expansionary
logic of IOM’s crisis interventions. Second, we illustrate how this logic of mandate extension
through precedent setting has taken hold in the organization in two important crisis
interventions by IOM in the more recent past: the Libyan civil war (2011), and the 2014-16
Ebola crisis. In the concluding section, we discuss our findings with a view to their implications
for the organization’s ethos, obligation, and accountability.
2. Historical institutionalism and international organizations
In this section, we first introduce concepts from historical institutionalism, especially
critical junctures and path-dependent processes of self-reinforcement, that provide analytical
tools to understand long-term institutional developments. Second, we build on theories of
international organizations to derive concrete expectations about the actors and conditions
driving change at IOM.
2.1. Critical junctures and path dependence
Historical institutionalism is rooted in comparative politics. More recently, its use has been
extended to international institutions and IR more generally (Fioretos 2011; Hanrieder 2015;
Rixen/Viola 2016). The core insight of historical institutionalist thought is that institutional
outcomes at a given point in time are regularly not the product of exogenous factors and
independent actor choices at that moment, but follow from path-dependent processes of
reproduction and change endogenous to the institution itself. While not oblivious to
mechanisms of gradual transformation (Mahoney/Thelen 2010), historical institutionalists
usually take a ‘punctuated equilibrium’ view on institutional change. That is, long periods of
relative stability are only interrupted by rare moments of contingency in which new institutional
paths are chosen. These moments are called critical junctures. Here, actor decisions evoke
reactive sequences which set in motion self-reinforcing (or self-undermining) mechanisms of
path-dependent institutional development (Mahoney 2000; Hanrieder/Zürn 2017).
Historical institutionalist explanations thus gravitate towards the concepts of critical
junctures and path-dependence. Generically, critical junctures can be defined as “relatively
short periods of time during which there is a substantially heightened probability that agents’
choices will affect the outcome of interest” (Capoccia/Kelemen 2007: 348). The distinctive
feature of such historical junctures in which actor choices matter more than usual “is the
loosening of the constraints of structure to allow for agency or contingency to shape divergence
from the past” (Soifer 2012: 1573). Often, critical junctures are equated with crises or turning
points. They are not necessarily instantaneous events, but can represent “short phases that may
actually last for a number of years” (Capoccia/Kelemen 2007: 350). The main challenge in the
analysis of critical junctures is to identify cases in history and to explain why these moments in
time are characterized by weaker constraints on agency than others.
According to Soifer (2012), critical juncture accounts need to identify and distinguish
permissive and productive conditions. “Permissive conditions can be defined as those factors
or conditions that change the underlying context to increase the causal power of agency or
contingency and thus the prospects for divergence” (Soifer 2012: 1574). The focus thus lies on
structural shifts, unintended consequences, exogenous shocks etc. that interrupt the previously
established processes of institutional reproduction. Productive conditions, on the other hand,
are those factors that – in the possibility space created by the permissive conditions – cause
divergent institutional outcomes that then represent the starting point for new institutional
equilibria (Soifer 2012: 1575). Often, productive conditions will combine with so-called
‘critical antecedents’, that is, factors preceding the historical juncture that unfold different
causal effects under the changed conditions (Slater/Simmons 2010). For instance, if an
institutional equilibrium is unsettled by permissive conditions, agents that are at the right place
at the right time (the productive condition) may effectuate change by redeploying long-
established institutional capacities (the critical antecedent) for new purposes.
Once a critical juncture ends, historical institutionalists expect the deviant outcome to
trigger mechanisms of reproduction that create new path-dependencies. Most often, these are
mechanism of institutional self-reinforcement. Here, positive feedback effects change actors’
attitudes in favor of an existing institutional practice. As Rixen and Viola (2016: 12) explain,
“[t]he process is reinforcing because it is subject to increasing returns, that is, a situation in
which the returns to engaging in a certain behavior or from adopting a certain rule increase over
time and make the adoption of alternatives less attractive. The process is self-reinforcing,
because it is reinforced through variables endogenous to the institution.” From a utilitarian
perspective, institutional reproduction is the result of a cost-benefit imbalance of
transformation. Given the investments sunk into setting up the institution as well as the learning
and coordination effects produced by the institution once in place, opportunity costs for
drastically altering the existing or creating an alternative institution are high and increasing over
time (Mahoney 2000: 517-523). Moreover, as highlighted by Zürn (2016: 205-213) with a
specific view to IOs, there are also increasing returns through cognitive effects. Both
institutional actors and IO members engage in increasingly close interaction, producing
convergent understandings (learning) and adaptive expectations, i.e. their belief in the success
of the institution leads to adaptive behavior which reinforces the institution’s ability to develop
in the desired direction.
2.2. Assumptions about international organizations and IOM
From the perspective of historical institutionalism, then, a long-term institutional
development such as IOM’s rapid expansion in the area of humanitarian emergencies is likely
to be rooted in a contingent starting point, a critical juncture, that sets in motion a process of
institutional reproduction. As a general model of institutional change, however, it naturally
lacks action and actor-theoretic specifications that would allow deducing concrete expectations
for either the outcome of critical junctures or the drive behind its reproduction (cf. Zürn 2016:
201). In the specific context of IOs, the question is who are the “powerful political actors” for
whom the range of available options increases during a critical juncture, who benefits and
consequently whose repeated interactions increase the returns of institutional practice over time.
Most theories about IOs differentiate between IOs’ member states on the one hand and IOs’
supranational bodies such as secretariats and judicial entities on the other, and hold specific
views on their respective role and influence on the design and direction of IOs. At one end of
the spectrum are rational institutionalists who contend that all power lies with member states:
IO bureaucracies are conceived as agents fulfilling tasks on behalf of their principals without
much independent power of their own (Keohane 1984; Hawkins et al. 2006). While often
understood as one collective principal, a distributive variant of the theory highlights that
member states differ in their capacity to wield control over policy which is why institutional
choices will typically reflect the interests of the most powerful among them (Krasner 1991,
Stone 2011). Moments of crisis and contingency, then, should represent opportunities for
powerful states to steer IOs in their preferred direction (see Kreuder-Sonnen 2019: 39-40). At
the other end of the spectrum are sociological institutionalists who emphasize the ability of IOs
to wield independent power: IOs are conceived as partially autonomous bureaucracies
influencing member state behavior through their delegated, moral, and epistemic authority
(Barnett/Finnemore 2004; see also Reinalda/Verbeek 1998). Importantly, this literature argues
that “IOs tend to define both problems and solutions in ways that favor or even require expanded
action for IOs.” (Barnett and Finnemore 2004: 43) Mission creep is a distinct possibility. Seen
from this perspective, crises could represent an opportunity for entrepreneurial IO staff to push
their organization in an expansionary direction (Kreuder-Sonnen 2019: 41).
We adopt a middle ground position between these two poles (see also Zürn and Checkel
2005). There is no compelling theoretical reason to treat the influence of powerful states and
that of entrepreneurial IO staff as mutually exclusive or either as individually exhaustive in
accounting for all patterns of institutional choice and change at IOs. It is much more plausible
to entertain the possibility that both play a role to varying degrees depending on empirical
conditions. At IOM, these conditions generally seem to favor a strong role for powerful states
(Pécoud 2018). Compared to the specialized agencies of the UN, for instance, IOM has very
small headquarters (both in terms of staff and funding), it lacks an appreciable amount of
delegated authority, and its formal role in policy coordination among member states is
miniscule. Moreover, states’ power to choose the projects they want to fund puts them in a
prime position to control the organization. On the other hand, the general shortage of funds also
fosters organizational entrepreneurialism (Bradley 2020: 49-52), and the lack of clearly
mandated tasks opens the way for IOM to venture into various areas (Pécoud 2018: 1626).
Additionally, IOM has a high number of relatively autonomous country offices with skilled and
experienced staff whose expertise can be decisive for the decision to launch a new project
(Interview 2). Hence, even though it ultimately always depends on member state approval, the
organization has both motive and opportunity to push its institutional path towards expansion.
In sum, our theoretical conjecture thus holds that IOM’s task expansion will be marked by
both push factors on the part of the organization and pull factors on the part of powerful member
states. We suppose that a critical juncture proves especially momentous if it creates conditions
under which these factors align and show the actors that they may both profit from the
expansionary path taken. For the case at hand, we refer in particular to IOM’s ability and
eagerness to provide operative crisis management capacities in new areas that are largely
ungoverned by any other actor, and powerful member states’ desire to leverage this capacity in
situations that they care about. Any such situation, we argue, creates a social precedent through
which IOM gains experience, knowledge and reputation as a flexible crisis manager. After the
fact, we expect the organization to entrepreneurially foster an institutionalization of the
precedent by creating corresponding programs, divisions, or operational frameworks which
normalize the new-found tasks. Such formal and informal institutional devices can be used to
signal to member states that IOM is ready to take on similar jobs in the future and that a wider
than previously considered range of situations falls within its remit. The process is thus
foremost a cognitive one by which mutual expectations among state and organizational actors
converge and create increasing returns from expansion.
3. The critical juncture: IOM in the Gulf War
Operations in the context of crises have always been part of IOM’s activities, especially
when large numbers of refugees were involved. In fact, the organization portrays its own history
as one tracking man-made and natural disasters in which it provided help to migrants (IOM
2020d). However, until “the late 1980s, IOM’s emergency responses were traditionally focused
on movements and medical checks related to the resettlement of refugees and displaced persons.
In the 1990s that situation changed” (Ducasse-Rogier 2002: 132). It expanded the array of its
crisis-related activities to encompass an ever-wider range of services such as humanitarian
evacuation, camp management, and border control. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, IOM for the
first time adopted the role of first emergency responder evacuating displaced persons in an
active crisis context. In this section, building on the concept of critical juncture, we analyze
how this decisive precedent came about and what short and long-term institutional effects it
3.1. Permissive and productive conditions: understanding IOM’s Gulf War operations
Arguably, a number of exogenous factors eased the constraints on political agency at IOM
in the early 1990s, creating the possibility space for its expansion in the realm of humanitarian
emergency assistance. One such permissive condition certainly was the end of the Cold War
which created a moment of malleability in international politics more generally. Most
importantly for our purposes, the fall of the Soviet Union and the temporary cessation of great
power rivalry allowed for a surge in Western-led, liberal forms of institutionalized cooperation
around the globe (Ikenberry 2001). New and more capable organizations were created (e.g.
WTO, OPCW, etc.), existing ones started tapping the potential of their original mandates (e.g.
UN Security Council) or received additional authority (Zürn 2018). Similarly, for IOM the end
of the Cold War created a window of opportunity to transition from a Western or US-led service
organization to an IO with global ambition. It soon expanded its membership base to the East
and it suddenly seemed possible to more fully live up to the global aspiration included in the
1989 Constitution (Ducasse-Rogier 2002: 90).
The IOM Constitution itself represents an additional factor that opened the range of
available options and increased the possibility for agency. It is an important historical
coincidence that the amendment to the 1953 ICEM Constitution, debated since 1975 and
adopted in 1987, entered into force on 14 November 1989, five days after the fall of the Berlin
Wall (Ducasse-Rogier 2002: 88). The new Constitution was supposed to reflect a broadened
field of activities that the organization had come to occupy and the changed geographical focus
since its creation as an ad hoc Committee to deal with post-War refugees in Europe in the 1950s.
In combination with the (in-)famous lack of a formal protection mandate given to IOM by its
member states, i.e. the fact that there is no set of norms and rules that the organization is
supposed to observe and help implement (see Hall 2015), the result was a constitutional text
that merely states very broad objectives for the organization without clearly defining either the
scope of these goals or the way that they should be realized. Article 1 says that IOM shall “make
arrangements” and “concern itself” with the “organized transfer” of migrants in need of
assistance as well as refugees and displaced persons. This can mean virtually anything. While
there is no indication that the Constitution drafters intended to carve out space for the
organization to expand into new areas, this imprecision and rule ambiguity factually provided
IOM with the legal flexibility to engender policy innovations (Bradley 2020: 21, 48).
Finally, the turn of the decade also saw a steep rise in regional inter- and intra-state armed
conflicts that strongly influenced population movements by generating huge numbers of
refugees and displaced people. The 1990-91 Gulf War was the first such conflict. After the Iraqi
invasion of Kuwait, the United States launched the first UN-sanctioned military campaign to
liberate Kuwait and protect Saudi Arabia. Moreover, amidst the hostilities, Iraqi Kurds
attempted a secession from Iraq that was quashed by air and ground attacks of the Iraqi military.
At both fronts, thousands of refugees and displaced people were left in dire conditions. Kuwait,
in particular, had hosted a large number of migrant workers from South-East Asia that were
displaced within Kuwait or fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia. In a strict legal sense, these were
not refugees according to the Geneva Convention that pertains to individuals being forced out
of their country of citizenship (Art. 1). The movements of people during and after the Gulf War
thus did not fall squarely and exclusively within the mandate of UNHCR (Loescher 2001: 267)
– a condition that opened the door to IOM.
There was nothing necessary about IOM’s subsequent involvement in the humanitarian
emergency response, however. For one, UNHCR actually offered its services to the UN
Secretary General and thus signaled its readiness to take the lead in the humanitarian emergency
response (Loescher 2001: 267). That the offer was refused and IOM given the lead3 instead is
a puzzle to be explored. Moreover, nothing in IOM’s mandate and previous practice would have
made it seem necessary or logical for the organization to stage a big emergency relief effort.
Similar crises in the previous decades had not triggered that kind of response and the new
3 Georgi (2010: 53-54) states that IOM was made “the lead agency by the United Nations to support nearly one
million migrant workers who had fled after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.” While IOM certainly was the main IO
actor on the ground, its ‘lead’ was restricted to its area of operations (evacuations and shelter) and did not involve
coordinating authority over other actors.
Constitution did not specifically ask for it either. The question is thus what productive
conditions caused IOM’s surprisingly intensive engagement in the context of the Gulf War.
After all, IOM became active in the region at an extremely fast pace and immediately started to
evacuate displaced persons and stranded migrant workers by air, land, and sea routes. IOM set
up offices in Kuwait and Southern Iraq and moved as close to areas where hostilities were
ongoing to identify and assist people willing but so far unable to leave the countries. As early
as 3 September 1990, a month after hostilities had started, IOM had organized the first
“humanitarian repatriation flight” (Ducasse-Rogier 2002: 137) and evacuated about 155,000
people by the end of the year. Later, it also cooperated with UN Blue Helmets to facilitate safe
repatriation of more than 600,000 displaced Kurds that were transported in a fleet of locally
rented trucks and buses (Ducasse-Rogier 2002: 137-138).
What drove IOM to take on this new role? The official account tells a rather formalistic
story of streams of forced migrants causing the affected governments to call on the UN for help
which then asked IOM to take the lead in providing transportation and return-related services
(Ducasse-Rogier 2002: 137). However, the account given to us in an interview by Bill Hyde
(Interview 1), the head of IOM’s emergency response team in the Gulf War, has a strikingly
different tone to it. In his recollection, it was especially the coincidence of IOM’s willingness
and ability to act and the double leadership role of the US in the coalition forces as well as in
IOM that facilitated its entry to the scene. The US happened to have the authority both within
IOM to sanction a certain course of action and on the ground in the conflict region to allow
actors of their choice to become active. The particularly dominant position of the US in IOM,
which the US valued for its managerial and outcome-oriented style of operation, contrasted
with its rather complicated relationship to UNHCR that it deemed too liberal and politically
entangled at the time, may explain how IOM got into the central position (Georgi 2010: 54).
Hence, before any other agency apart from the Red Cross had reached the region, a first IOM
team was already on its way. On board the US ambassador’s airplane it landed in Kuwait City4
and was introduced to the Kuwaiti government to whom the IOM officials explained what they
had to offer and were authorized to carry it out (Interview 1).
What made IOM an attractive cooperation partner for all concerned governments and gave
it a competitive advantage over other IOs was basically two critical antecedents. On the one
hand, IOM was not constrained by a mandate bound to legal definitions of who could be assisted
4 While an apparently small detail, the operative twist to share airplanes shows how important the close and direct
cooperation between IOM and the US government was at the time, since Kuwait City was completely sealed off
and the airport closed at the time, inhibiting more regular forms of entry.
under what conditions. According to Hyde (Interview 1), “IOM has always been doing things
on a timely basis for the greater good” – a notion that was “a bit nebulous without being illegal”.
In this sense, IOM showed an amount of flexibility much required in the complex Gulf War
crisis that was “not very much in the DNA of established UN organizations.” On the other hand,
IOM possessed the technical expertise needed for the task at hand. While it had never operated
under these precise circumstances and had never used its tools for the exact same purposes, it
was still very used to organizing the logistics of people movement. Accordingly, the main
operative task in Kuwait and Iraq “fit right into our ballpark” (Interview 1). In the end, IOM
was already operating an ad hoc but functional system of emergency evacuations when other
actors entered the scene and inter-agency coordination started. Due to the organization’s first-
mover advantage, its leadership position in the area of emergency evacuations and the provision
of shelter was never questioned. “Needs were so immediate that there was never the question if
we should have the lead… it was ‘you have a plan, you have the resources, it’s within your
broad mandate, you can do this, you can do it now, so please do it’” (Interview 1).
3.2. The short- and long-term institutional consequences of IOM’s Gulf War operations
Many things had to come together for IOM to adopt this outstanding role on the
humanitarian assistance front in the Gulf War. Important permissive conditions such as the end
of the Cold War and the outbreak of the Gulf War created a possibility space in which
productive conditions such as the US’s dissatisfaction with UNHCR and IOM’s flexible
problem-solving approach allowed for an unprecedented institutional outcome. But how did the
Gulf War episode affect the organization’s institutional development on the long run?
According to Georgi (2010: 53), “the First Gulf War in 1990/91 was the single most important
event at that time for IOM’s subsequent expansion.” As we argue, it set in motion a path-
dependent process of institutional growth in the area of humanitarian assistance by ex post
formalizing competence in the area and creating organizational capacity which would be
redeployed to different contexts, thus facilitating a cognitive normalization over time.
While IOM’s Gulf operations were initially conceived as a unique and one-off engagement,
Director-General Purcell recognized the potential for a recurrence of comparable scenarios and
tasked the head of IOM’s Gulf operations with the establishment of the Emergency Response
Unit (ERU) which became operative in 1992 (Ducasse-Rogier 2002: 135). This was a
completely independent process without member state interference as the ERU at first did not
require any new resources. Its working method was to connect, train, and equip standing staff
for future emergency interventions by IOM (Interview 1). Over the next few years, the Unit
developed IOM’s emergency preparedness and put it to tests in a number of refugee- and
displacement-generating conflicts such as in Yugoslavia (1992), Rwanda/Zaire (1994), and
Chechnya (1994). Building on this increasingly frequent involvement in humanitarian
assistance, the IOM Secretariat in 1995 proposed a “strategic plan” supposed to formally
include for the first time a task to provide migration assistance to persons affected by
emergencies. Reportedly, this step was not unequivocally supported by member states who
feared overlaps and duplications with other IOs in this area (Ducasse-Rogier 2002: 134).
However, while IOM needed to officially recall that it did not view itself primarily as an
emergency response organization, none of the member states were seriously opposed to its
substantive work in the realm of humanitarian assistance (Interview 1). Accordingly, IOM
continued to step up its crisis response activities. The increasingly extensive involvement of
IOM in conflict regions such as East Timor and Kosovo towards the end of the 1990s, for
instance, led to an institutional solidification of these efforts in the larger Emergency and Post-
Conflict Division in 2000, a precursor of today’s Department of Operations and Emergencies
(DOE) that firmly enshrined humanitarian assistance in emergencies in IOM’s institutional
structure (Bradley 2020: 50).
Beyond the immediate impact that the Gulf War intervention had on IOM’s organizational
structure, it also influenced the organizational culture and its perception by its environment. As
an exemplary precedent, IOM’s Gulf operations changed how IOM’s role was perceived
internally and externally. The precedent suggested a pattern that was transferrable: A crisis
exposes governance gaps in terms of timing and functions; IOM has some capacity in its
portfolio that can be used to fill such gaps; IOM immediately and actively offers and advertises
its services to member states who value the organization’s flexibility and low expected
normative costs; IOM moves in before anyone else and sets another precedent for a new kind
of activity; if carried out effectively, there is recognition at both IOM and its member states that
this type of activity may be useful in other contexts, too, which leads to its ex post
institutionalization. At the level of organizational culture, this produced and over time
reinforced an ‘esprit de corps’ among IOM’s civil servants that help would be provided
wherever help was needed, irrespective of formal responsibilities and conventional views of the
boundaries of migration management (Interview 1). At the level of organizational environment,
member states and relevant non-state actors grew increasingly accustomed to IOM’s flexibility
and started to use its fungible capacities for crisis-related activities that were ever more remote
from the organization’s previous focus on migration management and, sometimes, even from
the issue of migration altogether. For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe (OSCE) enlisted IOM to facilitate out-of-country-voting for citizens of Bosnia and
Herzegovina in 1996-1999 (IOM 2007), and, starting with Mozambique in 1992, several
member states made use of IOM’s field presence to assist post-conflict disarmament,
demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) campaigns in by now over 120 projects (IOM 2019).
With both sides learning how to profit from each other in a growing array of activities and
building on a consolidating base of experiences, we may conclude that a mutually reinforcing
cognitive process of convergence underlies a mechanism of increasing returns that reproduces
the institution’s path towards horizontal task expansion. In the following, we use two important
cases in the more recent history of IOM to underscore the claim that this logic of institutional
expansion through precedents has taken hold in the organization’s development: the 2011 civil
war in Libya and the 2014-16 Ebola crisis.
4. Path-dependent reproduction of IOM’s expansionary logic in Libya and West Africa
Both the civil war and foreign intervention in Libya and the Ebola crisis in West Africa
gave rise to further emergency operations by IOM that covered partly new terrain and led to ex
post institutional accommodations of its practice. While the Libyan case was marked by the
creation of new best practices by IOM as a now focal manager of migration crises, the case of
Ebola saw IOM redeploy its emergency toolkit to a new type of crisis context, namely one
caused by the spread of a contagious disease.
4.1 Setting new best practices in Libya
In February of 2011, civil unrest erupted in Libya in the context of the so-called Arab
Spring. The situation quickly escalated into a civil war between the Libyan army of the Gaddafi
government and rebels supported by NATO air forces. In terms of the number of people
displaced, the civil war caused one of the worst migration crises in the region since the first
Gulf War. Before the war, the Libyan economy had heavily relied on migrant workers with
foreigners making up about 21-35% of the Libyan population (Brachet 2016: 273). When the
war broke out, both Libyan citizens and migrant workers tried to escape the violence and flee
the country. Many of the foreigners who wanted to leave Libya were (mostly undocumented)
manual laborers from sub-Saharan Africa (Aghazarm et al. 2012: 5; Koser 2011: 2f.; 2012).
Soon, a severe governance gap was exposed: While the migrant workers’ countries of origin
lacked the capacities to bring home their citizens, UN agencies were, at first, prevented from
providing assistance due to the strict security protocols and the escalating violence on the
ground (Aghazarm et al. 2012: 22). Moreover, the UN was in a weak position to negotiate
access to the country as the Security Council had authorized military action against the Gaddafi
regime. The situation called for an actor to coordinate with both, the Libyan government and
NATO, that was trusted by the migrant workers' countries of origin5, and able to enter the
dynamic and dangerous environment in Libya. IOM fulfilled these criteria.
IOM was the first responder on site (IOM 2011b: 5). Its field office in Tunisia, which
conducted most of the emergency response, consisted of 2-3 employees on the day the war
broke out. Within a week, IOM had deployed about 1000 staff to the Tunisian country mission
who were working on the ground at the Libyan border (Interview 2). Soon after the onset of the
crisis, IOM coordinated with UNHCR to set up the "Humanitarian Evacuation Cell" (HEC), a
liaison body of the two organizations at headquarters' level (Bradley 2020: 84; IOM 2011a: 3).
It coordinated with the Libyan government to obtain the needed clearances and access to regions
affected by ongoing fighting and with NATO to fly out migrants through the no-fly zone
(Aghazarm et al. 2012: 24). Moreover, IOM coordinated with humanitarian organizations, set
up temporary camps, performed necessary health checks, and transported large numbers of
migrants out of Libya (Aghazarm et al. 2012: 20; Interview 2; IOM 2011a: 3).
Most of IOM's operational activities in the early phase of the 2011 Libyan migration crisis
can be considered part of what had become the organization's core crisis portfolio. At that point,
IOM was used to negotiate with warring parties to gain access to conflict zones and its abilities
as a facilitator of mass transport were well-known. Two aspects of IOM’s crisis response in
Libya were unprecedented, however. One was that beyond evacuation, IOM also started
building capacities to support migrants once they disembarked their means of transportation
outside the conflict zone (Interview 2). By creating transition camps, integration programs, and
community projects, IOM assumed tasks typical for a development agency. The second was
IOM’s focal position as a coordination hub between all parties involved. In the past, IOM had
operationally assisted UN-coordinated efforts on the ground, especially in tandem with
UNCHR (Elie 2010: 352-355). Over the course of the Libyan crisis, however, it became a key
coordinator, eventually co-leading the Refugee and Migrant Platform and preparing a Joint
Operational Framework for Humanitarian Response in Libya (Bradley 2020: 85)6.
IOM's initial response to the Libyan migration crisis “was unanimously welcomed abroad”
(Brachet 2016: 273), as the migrant workers’ countries of origin praised the organization’s swift
5 Within the first month after the unrest had erupted, IOM received official diplomatic correspondence from 46
governments asking the organization for help in evacuating their citizens (Aghazarm et al. 2012: 20).
6 As the conflict in Libya evolved, IOM took on an even wider range of roles, especially in terms of providing
services in detention centers, training the Libyan coast guard, returning migrants to countries of origin (“voluntary
assisted humanitarian repatriation”) etc. (see Bradley 2020: 86-90).
action on the ground. Additionally, and in contrast to what had previously been understood as
a rather tense relationship (Bradley 2020: 85), UNHCR acknowledged the improved
partnership between the two organizations that proceeded to co-publish joint statements at a
distinctly accelerated rate (cf. UNHCR 2019). This positive feedback notwithstanding, a few
months after the start of its operations IOM actually encountered an unprecedented funding-lag
(Interview 3). At the peak of the crisis, the organization ran out of funds to charter all the planes
necessary to transport migrants to diverse locations on different continents (Aghazarm et al.
2012: 24). Even though most of IOM’s typical donor states were willing to finance the efforts,
the US preferred to fund efforts in Iraq rather than in Libya (Interview 2), causing a crunch in
the operations. IOM and its member states thus had to learn the hard way that the organization’s
short-term project-based budget proved insufficient to fund emergency evacuations of such a
scale (Interview 3).
After the acute phase of the 2011 Libyan migration crisis had subsided, IOM translated
such lessons into prescriptions for the handling of future crises. First, it used the Libyan
example to sell the idea of a new funding mechanism to its member states (Interviews 2 and 3).
With success: The IOM Council created the “Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism” in
December 2011, a permanent fund to finance IOM’s widened set of humanitarian evacuation
efforts in future similar situations (Aghazarm et al. 2012: 24; Bradley 2020: 85). Second, the
complex and multi-layered crisis in Libya arguably served as an eye-opener demonstrating the
need for a structured and concerted approach to the governance of migration crises (Interviews
2 and 3). The Libyan experience thus provided the spark for the development of the “Migration
Crisis Operational Framework” (MCOF), which was approved by the IOM Council in 2012
(IOM 2012). MCOF has since become a centerpiece of IOM’s emergency responses. The
document describes a variety of activities to be undertaken in crisis situations by IOM staff on
the ground. While the document rationalizes a task expansion beyond mere migration matters,
it was justified as enabling the organization to even better respond to such situations in the
future (Betts 2014: 354). Third, IOM’s improved relationship to UNHCR and generally the
functioning inter-agency coordination during the Libya crisis also spurred lasting institutional
change. In particular, the HEC, which was originally “thought to be time-limited” became a
permanent mechanism ensuring sustained cooperation with UNHCR (IOM 2020b). Moreover,
in 2016, the IOM became a related organization to the UN, formalizing the ever-closer
embeddedness of IOM within the UN framework (Bradley 2017: 97) and thus allowing IOM to
assume the role of the central coordinator in future crises.
4.2 IOM’s venture into global health crisis management: the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak
Another illustrative example for IOM’s expansion into a new area that few would have
associated with the portfolio of the organization is its involvement in the 2014-16 Ebola
epidemic in West Africa. In March 2014, an outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) was
detected in Guinea. At that time, the virus had already spread to neighboring Liberia, Sierra
Leone, and Mali (Kamradt-Scott 2016: 404). While certainly propelled by the fact that various
cultural communities in the region span borders, the resulting health crisis had little to do with
Similar to the Gulf War and the civil war in Libya, the situation in West Africa was
perceived as very dangerous and unclear. Given the magnitude of the problem and the limited
governance capacities of the states involved, some of IOM's most influential donor states, the
United Kingdom, France, and especially the United States, asked the organization for assistance
(Interviews 3 and 4). At first, IOM hesitated to get involved due to safety concerns for its staff
(Interview 3) in light of what was perceived as a “completely new threat” (Interview 1).
However, the US government under the Obama administration insisted (Interviews 3 and 4),
referring to IOM’s proven ability to move into extremely difficult situations with speed and
quick adaptability (Interview 1). Since the organization lacked a health-related framework for
operation at the time, IOM started projects under its recently established “Humanitarian Border
Management” (HBM) framework, which intends to prepare governments and border authorities
for crisis-induced mass movements and displacement (Scherf 2020: 219f.). IOM joined a cluster
of IOs responding to the EVD crisis, which included the World Health Organization (WHO)
and was coordinated at headquarters’ level by the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response
(UNMEER) (Interview 4; Scherf 2020: 227).
Contrary to IOM's previous crisis responses, it is worth noting that the organization did not
jump on the opportunity to enter uncharted territory in the case of the Ebola epidemic. Of
course, the organization's hesitation was not based on concerns about potential mandate
violations or organizational over-stretch, but about its staff security. The fact that IOM’s most
influential donor states still enlisted the organization for sake of its flexible crisis management
capabilities illustrates the advancement of the cognitive mechanism of self-reinforcement. After
repeated demonstrations of its usefulness for varied crisis governance tasks, IOM’s member
states seem to have internalized an impression of the organization as a quasi-universal tool
deployable in any kind of crisis context. IOM does not necessarily have to push for its
involvement anymore – it is being pulled in.
Once the decision was taken, the organization repeated the same pattern in had established
in previous crises. It quickly deployed its staff and started out with its core activities – the
documentation and transportation of people – in order to ensure that virus testing results got to
the correct individuals and that patients could reach health facilities (Interview 1). Soon, IOM
identified governance gaps on the ground which were not filled comprehensively by any other
responder and could be addressed by IOM. Thus, IOM started to conduct health screenings
(IOM 2015b: 3), sanitized migrants (Interview 4), and provided psychosocial counselling
sessions at schools in areas affected by EVD (IOM 2015c: 3). It set up clinics and emergency
treatment centers based on a US model (Interviews 1, 3, 4) and managed its own Ebola
treatment units (ETU) (IOM 2015c: 1). IOM was the first to conduct trainings of border officials
(Interview 1) on health screening (IOM 2015a: 1) and later formally took over the full
management of the Ebola training academies from the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense
in Liberia (IOM 2015d: 14) and Sierra Leone (IOM 2015d: 58). Moreover, IOM built structural
improvements to border checkpoints, creating so-called flow monitoring points (FMPs) (Scherf
2020: 228) to collect data on people’s movements based on the HBM framework (Interview 4).
These border surveillance measures led to the creation of an unprecedented collection of data
mapping population flows in the region (IOM 2015b: 3; 2015d: 15). Finally, IOM carried out a
comprehensive public health information campaign, including radio spots (IOM 2015c: 3),
town hall meetings, billboards, posters, and comics (IOM 2015d: 58), to inform the public on
matters like EVD prevention measures, immunization campaigns, the ETUs, and the fight
against stigmatization of EVD survivors (IOM 2016a: 5). The information campaign also
involved consultations with local authorities and community leaders (Interview 4) who were
trained on community preparedness for EVD (IOM 2015c: 3).
While the documentation, logistics, and transportation parts of the operation were IOM's
core business, many of IOM activities during the Ebola crisis appear to be new endeavors for
the organization, at least at such a scale and with such intent (Interviews 1, 3, 4). It was the first
time that IOM engaged in border surveillance with FMPs according to the HBM framework
and it had neither conducted a major public health campaign nor taken over the management of
entire emergency treatment centers before (Interview 4). To be sure, IOM was also used to
health-related activities inasmuch as ground staff often performed routine health checks for
migrants before boarding transportation and the organization had been involved in the cholera
outbreak in Haiti a few years prior. In the Ebola crisis context, however, IOM conducted health
checks and treatments at a new scale (Interview 1).
While the World Health Organization (WHO) was criticized for its (mis)management of
the Ebola epidemic (Kamradt-Scott 2016), IOM received mainly positive reactions for its
involvement in West Africa, even though it was not expressly mandated to respond to health
emergencies. For example, UNMEER repeatedly expressed its appreciation of IOM's activities
(Interview 4) and the WHO Director-General praised the Ebola-related cooperation with IOM
in a speech at the IOM Council (WHO 2015). Moreover, at the IOM Council, an African Union
spokesperson thanked IOM for the swift response to the crisis (IOM 2014). However. some
member states, especially the Netherlands, also voiced concerns about the apparent mandate
violations in the Ebola crisis (Interview 3). IOM’s leadership retorted that “migration is a cross-
cutting issue” and that it was able to “tie all its activities to migration” (Interview 4). In the
debates, it received backing by the US as one of IOM's most influential member states and
major donors. That the Americans praised the organization’s operation in the context of the
Ebola crisis successfully muted concerns regarding legal issues and mission creep (Bradley
2020: 51, Interviews 3 and 4).
Again, IOM followed the pattern it had established with its involvement in the Gulf War
and used the positive feedback by its major donor state to create a new framework called
“Health, Border and Mobility Management” (HBMM) (IOM 2016b) in order to formalize its
expanded portfolio (Scherf 2020: 227). Based on the understanding that diseases do not stop at
borders (Interview 1), HBMM was considered a reiteration of the HBM framework (Interview
4). It includes a diverse set of tasks ranging from “operational research, evidence, data gathering
and sharing”, which normalizes the surveillance aspects of the Ebola response and underlines
IOM's continued effort to expose governance gaps during crisis, to “enhanced capacity of health
systems and border management services” (IOM 2016b: 5). Sources inside IOM maintain that
the main lesson learned from the Ebola response was the realization of a “continued need for
capacities” to respond to health crises (Interview 4) and that the HBMM framework was a direct
result of IOM’s Ebola crisis response (Interviews 3 and 4). Since then, IOM has continued to
perform health-related activities in crisis response operations around the world based on the
HBMM framework (IOM 2020a). In the context of the contemporary Covid-19 pandemic, IOM
is promoting its “Global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan”, which is anchored in the
HBMM framework (IOM 2020c). Starting with the Ebola crisis response, IOM has thus
successfully established itself as a player in yet another policy field not originally covered by
Today’s institutional design and policy of IOM is heavily influenced by the historical
legacies of its earlier crisis interventions. As we argued in this paper, IOM’s contingent
emergency response in the Gulf War marked a critical turning point in the organization’s
evolution. Ever since, it has embarked on an institutional trajectory branching out further and
further into the realm of humanitarian assistance in an ever-wider range of crisis contexts and
in an ever more central role. The case study attests to the power of precedents in IOM’s
development. As predicted by historical institutionalism, once institutional choices provide
increasing returns over time, they are not easily undone. In the remainder of this conclusion,
we shall reflect on the implications of our findings for IOM’s ethos, obligations, and
It seems most relevant for IOM’s task expansion in the field of humanitarian emergency
assistance that the organization is underpinned by an ‘esprit de corps’ in its staff that seems to
prioritize hands-on assistance to people in need over broader normative or legal concerns. While
arguably part of the organization’s DNA from the beginning (Interview 1), this practical helper
ethos not only facilitates flexible crisis interventions in uncertain circumstances, but it is itself
also reinforced in tune with the number of social precedents set by IOM in this area of activity.
As suggested by the accounts of our interview partners, every new crisis intervention following
the pattern provides arguments to rationalize (any other case of) humanitarian emergency
assistance in terms of the organizational ethos: “because this is what we do.”
The small regard for mandate violations or legal ramifications at IOM hints at a conflict
that its ethos may create with obligations and accountability. What our account of IOM’s near-
exponential growth in the area of humanitarian emergency assistance has revealed in this
regard, is that its expansions generally predate the adoption of any clear policies to reflect the
pertinent normative principles. The Gulf intervention predated the adoption of any
humanitarian policy principles, the Libya intervention predated the formalization of MCOF and
MICIC7 policies, and the Ebola response predated the adoption of the HBMM framework.
Indeed, on the long run, these steps lead to a normative regulation of IOM activities. In the
moment of expansion, however, IOM acts in a normative void ruled by facticity only. In this
void, it is hard to discern forms of accountability that go beyond answering to donor states. In
fact, as our model suggested, IOM often works at the behest of particularly powerful donor
states on the territory of weaker states, without any clear foundation in a multilaterally endorsed
7 Migrants in Countries in Crisis.
set of principles. While the organization is thus strongly accountable to a few states, the
countries and societies most affected by IOM’s interventions lack the means to hold the
organization to account. From a constitutionalist perspective, this is hard to reconcile with
normative legitimacy requirements. However, legitimacy assessments need to consider both the
input and output dimensions. To what extent IOM’s achievements in living up to its ethos
balances these normative problems, is a question we can only allude to here.
Interview 1: Interview with Bill Hyde, former Head of IOM’s Emergency Response Unit, Ebola
Response Coordinator, conducted 20 October 2020 via Zoom.
Interview 2: Interview with a senior IOM official at Geneva headquarters, member of the emergency
team in Libya, conducted 27 November 2020 via Zoom.
Interview 3: Interview with Bruce Reed, former Head of IOM’s Department of Resources
Management, conducted 7 December 2020 via Zoom.
Interview 4: Interview with a senior IOM field officer, member of the Ebola response team, 16
December 2020 via Zoom.
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