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International Organization for Migration Resists Disclosing Project Information

MARCH 12, 2020 

By Toby McIntosh

What could be so sensitive about a project in Nigeria to help returning migrants that the sponsoring International Organization for Migration won’t disclose information about it?

The IOM project supports vocational training and small loans for Nigerians who left the country but decided to return.

However, when a Nigerian nongovernmental organization asked the IOM about the $324,000 project, an IOM official declined to provide answers and denied having “any information” about it. The project is demonstrably real, officially called “Facilitating Sustainable Reintegration of Voluntary Returnees through Business Support in Nigeria (Phase 3).”

Among other things, the project is listed in the IOM’s 2018 annual report and on a database of IOM projects. More tangibly, a pineapple processing factory apparently spawned by the effort was launched in February.

No Documents Posted, Disclosure Policy

However, despite evidence that the project exists, no documents about the project, or other IOM projects, are available on the IOM website.

This contrasts with procedures at some other international organizations, such as the World Bank, where project documents are routinely posted.

Moreover, the IOM lacks any system for requesting documents. In about 125 nations, access to information policies describe what will and won’t be released. And procedures exist for making inquiries. Many international organizations have similar policies.

IMO Denies Group’s Request for Information

To get the information it wanted, the Initiative for Rural Development Information and Legal Advocacy (IRUDILA) also known as FOIA Counsel, on Feb. 19, 2019, and April 5, 2019, wrote the IOM mission in Nigeria asking about the IOM reintegration project in Edo and for information about the workplan for the grant.

Frantz Celestin, the IOM Chief of Mission in Nigeria, replied on April 16, 2019, stating that the IOM, as a UN intergovernmental organization, “enjoys privileges and immunities in Nigeria since 2002” and as such is not covered by the Nigerian FOIA law.

He wrote that “any form of request should be address (sic) through the corresponding protocol channels.”

Going further, in his last sentence, Celestin said “that IOM Nigeria does not have any information regarding the above-mentioned projects or activities with Edo State Government.”

To the Contrary 

Perhaps this answer hinged on some unstated technicality, because the IOM has been active on reintegration of migrants and there s plenty of evidence the project exists.

In late February of 2020, the IOM and Edo announced the opening pineapple and cassava processing factories, with a workforce of returnees and unemployed youth, according to an article in The Daily Trust.

The paper said that since April 2017, some 16,102 stranded migrants – including 1,200 victims of trafficking – have voluntarily returned to Nigeria as part of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. Celestin, IOM’s Nigeria Chief of Mission, was quoted as saying, “As part of promoting sustainable reintegration in our various communities, we believe that we must lend our voices to acknowledge and celebrate the positive role of the returnees here in Nigeria.”

Other news? IOM issued a press release in Feb. 12, 2019, about a launch event for “a project aimed at enhancing the protection and reintegration of returnees.”  In September of 2019, IOM issued a tender for proposals to establish agricultural processing plans for products such a pineapple. In early 2020, the IOM issued an official request for “expressions of interest” to help returnees establish small businesses.

Very specifically, Phase II of the project is listed in the IOM’s 2018 financial report and Phase III is in a database of IOM projects.

NGO Sues Under Nigerian FOI

The no-nothing response from the IOM in early 2019 confirmed a “desire to keep the public in the dark,” said Aigbokhan President, the Executive Director of IRUDILA/FOIA Counsel.

The group took the denial of its request to court on May 10, 2019, alleging a violation of Nigerian’s FOI law. The IOM office counters that the national law doesn’t apply to international groups.

The IOM’s contention that may well hold up. International organizations by and large have successfully avoided being covered by national laws. The Nigerian law does not obviously cover international organizations. However, the case is continuing. Judge O.O. Oguntoyinbo on Dec. 9 granted leave for the plaintiff NGO to apply for an order of mandamus compelling the IOM to provide the documents.

At a court hearing on March 6, 2020 a judge ordered the NGO plaintiff to serve papers on the IOM office by April 4. Previously, the IOM had refused to accept papers on the suit in its Lagos office. Counsel to the IRUDILA/FOIA Counsel Sylvester Evbuomwan, Esq informed the court that the bailiff went to the Lagos office of IOM to serve but the organization refused to accept service of the process

So the matter is proceeding.

No IOM Process for Making Document Requests

The situation highlights the lack of access to information policies and procedures at the IOM, an intergovernmental organization with 173 member states, headquartered in Switzerland. The IOM lacks a policy setting out standards for disclosing document and has no stated process for handling requests for information. Having such procedures might have facilitated a request such as the one from the Nigerian group.

EYE is awaiting responses from IOM headquarters about its policies. EYE has requested information on the Nigerian project from the IOM Nigeria press officer.

The IOM is not alone among United Nations agencies in lacking a formal request policy. Three out of five UN agencies, including the UN Secretariat, have no policies on access to information, according to an October 2018 eyeonglobaltransparency.net survey.

Possible Reforms?

A few transparency advances have occurred at the IOM, with a hint of further action.

Some changes were made in 2018, and, according to an IOM spokesman, “Information disclosure more generally will be addressed under a broader governance reform based on the Internal Governance Framework, which includes transparency elements; that reform is currently in its initial phases.”

Since October 2018, IOM has made public documents from its Governing Body Standing Committee on Programmes and Finance (SCPF), with the exception of confidential documents.

These include updates on application of IOM’s Internal Governance Framework and risk management, report of external auditors (EA) and implementation of EA recommendations, the work of the Office of the Inspector General, and IOM’s audit and oversight advisory committee report.

Prior to this date, all SCPF documents were restricted to member states only, regardless of content.

IOM Council documents are publicly available, with the exception of confidential documents.

IOM Joined IATI

In a step toward transparency, the IOM joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) on March 1, 2017, “as part of its institutional commitment to transparency and accountability towards Member States, beneficiaries and the general public,” according to the IOM statement.

IATI is a multilateral project begun in 2008 to provide uniform information about development aid flows. The IATI Standard is a set of rules and guidance for presenting the data. More than 1,100 countries and various kinds of aid organizations now participate.

Working Group Established, Results Unclear

The IOM in the 2017 statement also noted “the establishment” of an “Internal Transparency and Accountability Working Group,” laying out a broad mandate for the group. The IOM set out a broad agenda for the working group. The working group, it said, “… aims to: review its existing ways of addressing transparency and accountability; ensure continuous internal coordination of emerging policy and procedural matters; and ensure that new transparency and accountability tools are adapted in an effective and efficient manner, giving due consideration to IOM’s operational specifics, governing regulations and the interest in this topic by IOM management, IOM Member States, donors, the general public and others.”

The statement continued, “It is envisaged that these efforts will not only emphasize IOM’s commitment to transparency and accountability, but will also make it easier to access, understand and use relevant information, while also contributing to IOM’s continued efficiency and effectiveness efforts.” A search for information on the working group on the IOM website found no references to its membership or conclusions.

EYE is awaiting comment from IOM about the conclusions of working group.

Limited Data on IATI Platform. After joining IATI in 2017, the IOM established a “pilot program” in which information on some projects was released. The IOM page on IATI’s d-portal.org platform describes 1,350 total projects, with 655 “active projects.”

Whether the IOM has moved beyond the “pilot” stage is unclear. Questions on this are pending with IOM and IATI. Even if all IOM projects are listed on the IATI site, the information is minimal. The IATI listings are minimal and do not link back to more detailed IOM documents about projects. For example, Phase III of the reintegration project in Nigeria is listed among the active projects. See entry on the IATI website here.

With a planned start date of Feb. 1, 2019, and a projected end date of Jan. 31, 2021. The description says:

The project Facilitating Sustainable Reintegration through Business Support in Nigeria (Phase 3) aims at contributing to sustainability of reintegration through a) provision of business training workshops, vocational training and on-the-job training, and b) access to micro credits through a revolving fund for persons who returned voluntarily from Switzerland and from transit countries (e.g. Niger, Mali, Libya). The budget given is $323,698.08.

The IOM database on the IATI platform does not mention phases I or II, presumably begun before IOM joined IATI.

Phase II of the project is listed on page 92 of the financial report to the IOM Council for 2018, which indicates that the cost is $81,900. No further information is available on the IOM website.

IATI Does Not Promote Disclosure Policies

IATI recommends that members describe what information they will not post on IATI, the flip side of a standard disclosure policy. IATA suggests creation of “a public exclusion policy,” explaining, “It is useful for users of your data to know what might be missing from your IATI files, so you should outline this in a public exclusion policy.” The relevant IATI website page asks, “Does your organisation have any existing freedom of information or other policies that could stop some information being published?”

A few links are provided to descriptions of access to information policies at other places, but having such a disclosure policy is not a requirement for IATI membership.

Toby McIntosh is the Director of Global Investigative Journalism Network

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