IOM’s Controversy on the Registration Exercise: A Mere Paranoia or a Genuine Concern?

By PaanLuel Wel (Washington DC, USA)

Quote: You can’t judge a book by its cover

November 21, 2010 (SSNA) — The neutrality of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—the migration agency, is being seriously challenged by Southern Sudanese living in the Diaspora. Potential registrants thinking of going to the designated registration centers have been instigated to eschew the registration process altogether. The strategy, the advocates maintain, is to deny the NCP a chance to manipulate their votes and eventually rig the referendum exercise. This is mainly because there is deep concern that the IOM officials, many of whom might fall for Khartoum’s cash, are not impartial and therefore could be susceptible to Khartoum manipulations through bribery and coercions.

Consequently, numerous calls of boycotts of the registration exercise have been issued in many parts of the globe. In Africa, many neighboring countries that house sizable Southern Sudanese population—Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Egypt, to mention but just a few—have received sustained implorations to better abstain themselves from the registration process. Similar appeals have been heard in North America—the USA and Canada, in Europe, in Australia and in New Zealand.

But why exactly is IOM’s neutrality being called into question by Southerners? The prevailing reason appear to be a misplaced conviction, among many Southerners, both within and outside the country, that the IOM was single-backhandedly picked by the NCP, the Egyptian government and the Arab league as a grand conspiracy to manipulate the registration process and ultimately rig the referendum exercise.

According to this school of thought, the SPLM, the GoSS and Southern Sudanese were not involved in the invitation of the IOM to conduct the registration process. That there has never been any official rejection of the IOM involvement in the registration process, or complaints as usually the case from Juba, has done nothing to quench the anger among these suspicious registrants of the Southern Sudanese diasporans’ communities.

In this paper, I am going to ponder over the following questions: What kind of organization is IOM and what credible history, if any, does it boast of to earn the trust and the mandate to conduct the Diasporans’ registration process? Why was the IOM chosen over other probable organizations and whether or not the IOM is, or might be, an impartial arbiter in this historic process.

As a former employee of this organization, I think I might be in a better position to shed light on its background. To demystify the IOM, I would briefly state that the International Organization for Migration, established in 1951, was first known as “the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe (PICMME)” It was born “out of the chaos and displacement of Western Europe following the Second World War” where it was “mandated to help European governments to identify resettlement countries for the estimated 11 million people uprooted by the war.” As a result, following the end of World War Two, the IOM successfully “arranged transport for nearly a million migrants during the 1950s.”

Today in the 21st century, however, the IOM has graduated into “the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration and works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners.” It has about 127 member states and operate in over 100 countries across the globe where it helps to “ensure the orderly and humane management of migration, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced people.”

Having shone little light on the kind of organization the IOM is and its global mission since its inception, let me now hypothesize on why the IOM was chosen to carry out the process. The main reason I can conjure up, one that touch almost every part of Southern Sudan, is the humanitarian assistance offered by the IOM to the “Lost Boys and Girls” of the Sudan from 2001 to 2006 in Kakuma, Kenya. That historic migration and resettlement of the Sudanese refugees mainly in the USA, but also in many other first world countries, might not have been easy, or even possible, without the strong facilitation of the IOM. Furthermore, it was the IOM that formulated and coordinated the repatriation process of the Sudanese refugees from neighboring countries when the war ended—the CPA was signed and promulgated.

There was no better process organized and executed by the IOM than the migration and resettlement process of the so called The Lost Boys and Girls of the Sudan. Notwithstanding that historic execution of the resettlement program, the Southern Sudanese diasporans, most of whom made it through the IOM, are leading the current onslaught on the IOM. Because the IOM has been involved before in the Sudanese affairs—the lost boys and girls of the Sudan resettlement program and even the repatriation of the Sudanese refuges from neighboring countries after the CPA’s promulgation—it is highly likely that both the NCP and the SPLM found no reason(s) not to solicit its help with the diasporan’s registration exercises.

The second persuasive explanation for IOM’s involvement might be about the potential cost of conducting voters’ registration in the diasporas; both to the SPLM and the NCP. It is arguable that the logistic and operational costs of the process are both challenging and costly. Secondly, it is enlightening to remember that much of the referendum exercise funding come, neither from the government of Sudan’s coffers nor from Southern Government, but from the International Community. As the saying goes, whoever has the keys to the repository has the final say on pertinent matters.

Therefore, it could be the case that both the NCP and the SPLM had no say in the choosing of the IOM in that it was decided by the donors. Therefore, the SPLM and the NCP, being of no resources of their own, and most significantly, having no qualm against the IOM, decided to play along, not least, to smoothen out the process and to save both valuable time and resources.

The most important reason, nonetheless, is that this is not the first time the international organization is helping with the conduct of referendum. Many countries have conducted fairly credible referendum exercises before and achieved independence under the guidance and assistance of the international organizations.

First and foremost, East Timor’s referendum, for instance, was successfully conducted in August, 1999. The referendum exercise was organized and monitored by the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET). Of the registered voters, 21% voted to accept unity while 78.5% voted for separation. The turnout was estimated to be around 95%.

Secondly, Eritrea referendum took place in April 1993. It was organized and monitored by the United Nations Observer Mission for the Eritrean Referendum (UNOVER). Again, it was a fantastic success. Of the registered voters, less than 1% voted for unity with Ethiopia while 98.1% voted to reject the proposed unity. The turnout was approximately 95%. It was the same case scenario in the Balkan too where the process was co-managed by both the EU and the UN agencies.

If you are still wondering about the credibility and the effectiveness of the IOM, then picture this: the IOM has a budget of over one billion US dollars in 2009 alone. The IOM has stupendous track records when it comes to its effectiveness too. In addition to the refugees resettlement programs it specialize in, the Lost Boys and Girls of the Sudan program, the repatriation of the Sudanese refugees in the wake of the CPA, for example; it has satisfyingly tackled “man-made and natural disasters of the past half century – Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Chile 1973, the Vietnamese Boat People 1975, Kuwait 1990, Kosovo and Timor 1999, and the Asian tsunami and Pakistan earthquake of 2004/2005, and the devastating 2010 Haitian Earthquake.” This is an insurmountable feat that could only be undertaken by the United Nation agencies. That the IOM accomplished it speaks volume of their outstanding track records.

If indeed what I am espousing is anything but the truth, then we Southerners have nothing much to fear from the IOM’s engagement in the registration exercise and even later in the referendum process itself in January 9th, 2011. There are high possibilities that the reasons why IOM is conducting this process rather than the South Sudan Referendum Commission might still compel their ultimate involvement in the referendum process earlier next year.

Therefore, as we might be better off being on our guard against some rogue, money-hungry elements within, or contracted by, the IOM who might fall victim to the NCP’s coordinated machinery of manipulations, we should, and must, at the same time, stay clear of lump-sum blame-gaming of the IOM as an organization. It is one thing to pick and maintain our perennial squabbling with Khartoum, Cairo or the Arab league; but it is quite another to pick quarrel with an international organization with blameless history we can point to.

Let’s not succumb to paranoia at the last minute before the final whistle. All-out groundless accusations against those western-based, international NGO’s such as the IOM tantamount to the implication that the EU and the USA are, and could be, manipulated by the NCP. That is a gratuitous insult to the European and the American governments, whose friendship, by all means, we should court and cultivate.

Moreover, for our own sake, let’s not inflate the powers and the global reach of the NCP lest we might not have the courage and the faith to confront them on the battlefield should another war break out.

Mr. Paan Luel Wel, a former employee of the IOM, worked with the IOM in Kenya as an interpreter and a translator during the resettlement program of the Lost Boys and Girls of the Sudan. He can be reached at [email protected] or through his blog:

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