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International Conference Migration Management and International Organizations in the 20th Century, Athens, April 2015

Dimitris Parsanoglou
p. 195-198

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1The conference was organized as part of the research project Migration Management and International Organizations: A history of the Establishment of the International Organization for Migration (​site/​?q=en). The rationale of the conference was built upon two main axes: on the one hand, it aimed at problematizing the concept of “migration management”; on the other hand, it called for an integration of “migration management” into the general history of International Organizations.

2As it was described in the call for papers and in the introductory note of the program:

  • 1 For the concept but also for the program and more information on the conference, see http://mimio.u (...)

The conference aims to contribute to a better understanding of historical developments and current trends and perceptions of “migration management” with a focus on the role of international organizations in steering economic and forced migration. Moreover, it seeks to jointly interrogate past international regulation efforts of both economic and forced migration. This international interdisciplinary conference will thus address the following two interrelated issues: a) The emergence and evolution of concepts of “migration management” and the history of the policies, practices and discourses underlying them; b) The history of international organizations accorded with the task of regulating economic and forced migration during the 20th century.1

3Selected papers ranged across a variety of disciplines and specialties, from history to law and social anthropology, and from migration studies to organization studies and management. Thirty five papers and keynote speeches were delivered throughout a full-three-day event. Scholars from Europe, Northern America and Australia working on global and regional issues gathered in order to exchange ideas on plausible ways to approach the question of migration regulation from different angles and points of departure in time and space.

4Several questions from different points of views were raised during the conference, which was organized in eleven sessions following a logic that combined thematic and temporal distinctions. Starting from the fundamental issue of definitions, these were discussed throughout the conference under the critical gaze that perspectives from different geographical and institutional settings can provide. Seen from a historical perspective that also takes into account colonized worlds, central notions that shape theoretically and legally international regulation of mobility, such as “refugees,” “escapees,” “economic migrants,” were called into question. The issue of refugees, which has been the vector of much of the post-war impetus for international regulation of mobility, has been conceived and operationalized from a merely west-centered perspective. In addition, whole parts of the world, either those under colonial rule or those eluding the North-Western (Australia included) normativity with regards to state formation and rights that emanate within, have been excluded by historiography, social theory and international law.

5In a similar vein, the “rise” of international organizations as a significant player in managing social issues in national, transnational and international contexts cannot be seen separately from the issue of state sovereignty. Many of the papers highlighted the links between and within the national/international levels. International organizations and even international law have not been established exclusively on the basis of principles. Therefore, they should not be approached solely through the analysis of the discourses that have been deployed within; analysis should be combined with empirical research on social and political practices. In this sense, a significant part of the presentations and discussions dealt with the role of nation states in building an international legal apparatus as well as the establishment of international agencies and organizations that would operationalize it.

6The case of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), renamed in the 1980s as Intergovernmental Committee for Migration (ICM) and known today as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is an exemplary case where one can find clear intersections between different geopolitical levels and therefore between different scales of analysis. This is particularly evident in relation to the initial steps of the organization when the role of nation states, and especially the United States of America, was fundamental to the formation and the aspirations of the Committee. Interestingly, several speakers presented the evolution of the organization in juxtaposition not only with US foreign policy, but also with developments in US domestic policy.

7It has been pointed out, however, that this influence has not remained unchallenged. This is not simply because of interstate antagonisms within specific conflicts of interest. In fact, this could be considered a minor factor in the development of the organization. More importantly, the ICEM soon developed its own logics and dynamics in a sense which the sociology of organizations can more adequately approach than the discipline of political science or international relations. In several cases of emergent crisis, one could suggest that ICEM officials grabbed the opportunity to confirm not only their existence, but more importantly their necessity regardless of the priorities or will of its powerful member states. This occurred during the Hungarian crisis of 1956, the case of Prague in 1968, the Uganda crisis in 1972, and particularly the case of Chile in 1973 when ICEM Directors-General followed, to a lesser or greater extent, their own policies.

8In the same way that international law should not be treated as a unified legal system but as a nexus where conflicts between international legal provisions collide with national interests, international organizations should be treated as an arena where different actors and different kinds of interests are fighting each other in order to assure consolidation of power or mere survival. In this sense, international organizations can be an extremely useful heuristic tool for the comprehension of major shifts in political priorities. The US foreign policy change from unilateralism to internationalism and subsequently to multilateralism just before and during the establishment of the Cold War regime (i.e. during the 1940s and 1950s) is a case in point.

9The rise of international organizations and the impetus for international regulation of human mobility did not appear in the post-war world. Both existed in a more or less systematic way since the early 1920s. In fact, the establishment of the League of Nations system can be considered the remote (i.e. indirect) birth of “migration regulation” through international organizations. It was precisely during this period, and particularly within the International Labor Organization/Office, when

the moment [had] yet arrived for considering the possibility of establishing some sort of supreme supranational authority which would regulate the distribution of population on rational and impartial lines, by controlling and directing migration movements and deciding on the opening-up or closing of countries to particular streams of immigration,

as the most-cited figure in the presentations, Albert Thomas, proclaimed at the 1927 World Population Conference.

10Over the course of the following decades several ambitious though ineffectual projects such as the Nansen passports, the International Relief Association (IRA) or the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), were conceived and implemented on a specific and partial basis. It was not until the end of WWII that the need for a permanent organization to deal with refugees and migrants in a systematic and, as far as it was possible, holistic way became a common idea shared by both emigration and immigration countries.

11During the conference, particular attention was paid to the practical implementation of this idea in relation to how the international regulation of refugee and migrant mobility was shaped in concrete forms and operationalized in the early 1950s. Several papers highlighted various aspects of the ICEM’s modalities and activities, situating them within the growing nexus of increasing international organizations, intergovernmental and non-governmental alike. Financial issues, transport, training services, and the implementation of projects in specific countries were examined through sessions that dealt with the practical outcomes of refugee and migrant regulation.

12Research and analyses covered the whole post-war period. This included contemporary configurations of “migration management”, a concept that was coined in the 1990s within the IOM and which spread to other institutional settings such as the European Union and numerous nation states around the globe. In this context, the role of both the IOM and other international institutions, such as the UNHCR, was critically reviewed. Studies drawn from research conducted in specific border sites, particularly around the Mediterranean Sea—it should be noted that the conference coincided with one of the most deadly of the many shipwrecks that have rendered the “Mediterranean Sea a huge cemetery,” as the Chief of IOM Mission in Athens mentioned during his welcome address—enriched theoretical reflections. The view from the borders and from the sites of practical implementation of migrant and refugee assistance offers interesting insights into how we could discern the complex and multi-faceted ways in which an “international migration regime” is constructed, supported and maintained.

13Last but not least, an issue that is very often under-researched and even sidestepped in such readings of migration was emphatically raised: the issue of gender. The “discovery of women” in the processes of mobility that occurred within feminist historiography in the 1980s was highlighted. Similarly, discussion focused on how gender has, from the early 20th century, been a relevant matter of demographic component within the numerical representation of the composition of migrant populations. Population governance through international tools of data storage (and possibly subsequent data mining), gathered by the League of Nations and later by the United Nations in both forms of stock and flow data, has been necessarily “sensitive” to the realities of the feminization of migration. However, the assumption that women were and are also moving is not only a question of numbers. Apart from the figures, women and gender issues in general, such as sexuality or the question of trafficking, were present in public perceptions and in the construction of the gender of migration, either in a victimizing or in a criminalizing way, as early as the 1920s. Gender activism in its more or less discrete forms of the interwar period, or in its contemporary global aspirations that found an exemplary configuration in the campaign and the struggles around the ILO Convention on Domestic Work (N° 189, 2011), can no longer be neglected by migration research and theory.

14To sum up, during the three days of the conference on “Migration Management” and International Organizations in the 20th Century many questions of concern to migration studies were raised and discussed. From many disciplinary and interdisciplinary views, insights were provided and challenges for contemporary research were highlighted. The final question, however, on whether we can or cannot speak of effective international or global “migration management” remains open. It is not only the fact that historic research relativizes the efficiency of past efforts to establish and consolidate an effective and productive system of migration management; it is also, and perhaps even more evident, that even in contemporary global settings where national policies and international aspirations converge towards more and more restrictive configurations, migration management still remains more of a declared desire than an operational reality. If we followed the logic of the scholar who coined the concept of migration management, Bimal Ghosh, and examined whether his three-pillar model, i.e. shared policy objectives, harmonized norms and practices and improved institutional arrangements for better coordination of action, is by any means effectively implemented by nation states and by international organizations, we would be quite nuanced in our conclusions; or even skeptical.

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1 For the concept but also for the program and more information on the conference, see

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Dimitris Parsanoglou, « International Conference Migration Management and International Organizations in the 20th Century, Athens, April 2015 », Diasporas, 26 | 2015, 195-198.

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Dimitris Parsanoglou, « International Conference Migration Management and International Organizations in the 20th Century, Athens, April 2015 », Diasporas [En ligne], 26 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2016, consulté le 26 avril 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/diasporas.424

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Dimitris Parsanoglou

University of the Peloponnese

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Diasporas – Circulations, migrations, histoire est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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