How a little-known organization far from public scrutiny is helping to shape Europe’s migration policy.
“Making Migration Better” is what the #International_Centre_for_Migration_Policy_Development (#ICMPD) promises its members. ICMPD advises countries in the background, creates international networks and also becomes active itself in border regions of the EU. ICMPD is an organization that is known to only a few, but at the same time has become an important player in EU migration policy.
Together with a team of international journalists, we investigated what exactly ICMPD does. We filed numerous requests under the EU and German Freedom of Information laws and received hundreds of documents in response. Additionally, we were able to view internal ICMPD documents, some of which we are also publishing today after thorough examination and careful consideration. We shared our findings in advance with ZDF Magazin Royale and the Austrian daily DerStandard, and jointly coordinated articles.
Our investigation led to the EU’s external borders in the Western Balkans and to North Africa; to training camps for border guards and “dead body management”, and the roleplayed not only by ministries and governments, but also by the German Federal Police, a former Austrian Vice Chancellor, and the now internationally wanted white-collar criminal Jan Marsalek.
Our research shows:
– As an international organization, ICMPD is subject to few transparency obligations. This allows ICMPD to create and host spaces where member states like Germany can discuss migration policy out of the public eye.
- ICMPD directly and indirectly influences European migration policy. Strengthening of asylum law, which is publicly proposed by politicians, was partly worked out beforehand in informal meetings or outlined in documents of ICMPD.
– ICMPD directly and indirectly supports border and coast guards in Libya, Morocco and Tunisia - authorities that are accused of grave human rights violations. In doing so, ICMPD is helping to push the EU’s external border towards North Africa. Currently, the EU is also discussing border procedures at the EU’s external borders as part of the asylum system reform.
- ICMPD co-developed ideas for a dubious asylum project - including for Germany. In the process, ICMPD also worked closely with Jan Marsalek, a white-collar criminal who has since gone underground.
ICMPD was founded in 1993. The organization’s purpose was to make it possible to exchanges views on migration policy. Due to the ongoing conflict in Yugoslavia,, the focus was mainly on the Balkans. Nearly two decades later, ICMPD’s focus would radically shift.
Michael Spindelegger was appointed as he ICMPD’s Director General in 2016. He is a former Austrian vice chancellor, former Secretary General of ÖVP, the countrys’ biggest governing party, and the political foster father of Austria’s former chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Commenting on his arrival at ICMPD, Spindelegger said in an interview, “I want to give the organization more political weight and visibility.”
Since Spindelegger took office, ICMPD’s projects, staff and annual budget have steadily increased. While the budget was 16.8 million euros in 2015, it was already 74.5 million in 2022. 56 percent of the money ICMPD received in 2022 came from the EU Commission. The rest came from EU member states, transit countries and countries of origin: the members of the ICMPD.
Technocratic terms to disguise the true essence
ICMPD describes its main business as a three-pillar model of “migration management”: research, dialogue and capacity building. The organization writes studies on migration, it brings states to the table for negotiations, and then implements what governments have decided. But what sounds mundane in theory has far-reaching consequences in practice.
“I think the notion of migration management appeals to a lot of people because it makes migration more of a technocratic issue,” explains Jeff Crisp. Crisp was a senior staff member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and is an expert on migration. The term migration management, according to him, is so popular among governments and organizations because it obscures the true nature of their actions and there is no need to talk openly about restriction and deterrence.
In 2020, ICMPD’s chief Spindelegger described how he envisions successful “migration management” in several interviews. EU states should enter into more partnerships with countries of origin for a “more efficient return policy,” i.e., deport more people. Asylum applications should be processed in a few days near the border, which human rights organizations criticize as insufficient time for a fair process. Similarly, the ICMPD chief argued that migrants should be selected according to the needs of companies in the destination countries.
These ideas have been widely criticized by human rights activists and lawyers, but they fit into the political line of many European governments, especially in view of the current debate about reforming the EU asylum system.
In early 2023, the need for deportations and cooperation with third countries is now publicly the dogma of EU migration policy. In Germany, the governing coalition came to conclusions after a summit which are in fact contrary to the coalition agreements: the government wants more deportations, asylum procedures at the EU’s external borders, agreements with third countries, as shown by a document we recently published. To enforce more deportations, Germany has even created its own special envoy since the beginning of the year.
This strategic orientation has been discussed for some time, but in an informal setting: at negotiation rounds, events and congresses such as those organized by ICMPD. So far, however, little of this has reached the outside world, because ICMPD has almost no transparency obligations.
Backroom Talks and Racist Comments
Legally, ICMPD is an “International Organization” - an intergovernmental association to carry out a supranational task. It has the same status as, for example, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). As an international organization, ICMPD does not pay taxes, is difficult to prosecute in court, and cannot be summoned before any parliament for information.
This special status seems to be welcomed, above all, by EU states whose migration policies are particularly controversial. For example, according to the minutes of a meeting with Spindelegger in July 2020, the then-deputy migration minister of Greece said, “ICMPD can provide a flexible and informal forum (for discussions) without the pressure of the media; A forum to solve problems.” One solution he may have wanted to discuss at the time was a heavily criticized asylum law which contemplated rejected asylum seekers to be detained on a blanket basis.
In the informal setting provided by ICMPD, some seem to dare to formulate what would probably be strongly criticized publicly. A representative of the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security, in an informal exchange with representatives of EU states and EU institutions in May 2020 on “The Protection of Human and Public Security in the New Migration Agenda,” said that the “Refugee Treaty is not the issue”, but the European Convention on Human Rights is. According to the representative, “the right to request asylum makes migration management” very difficult”.
Insights into the inner workings of ICMPD are provided by an internal diversity report from 2019, which we were able to view. Half of the respondents said they believe that not all employees have the same opportunities. More than one in three said they had been discriminated against or harassed while working at ICMPD. Similarly, the report found that employees regularly made racist and discriminatory comments about people from regions where ICMPD works - especially from the African continent.
When asked, ICMPD said that “internal steps” have been taken since then and “will be subject to a new review soon.”
Externalization of the EU’s external borders
In 2015, the EU launched the Trust Fund for Africa with a funding budget of five billion euros. It was an indirect reaction to the increasing number of migrants coming to Europe. Since then, EU funds have been flowing to North African states and their border institutions for technological and personnel development, among other things - and ICMPD is helping with this.
Exactly what that looks like is revealed at a meeting in January 2019 between Spindelegger and the EU Commission. It says that an agreement with Morocco for ICMPD “border management assistance operations” had been concluded. A previous investigation shows that, in the course of this project, surveillance technologies that allow access to secured phones had been delivered. According to a former ICMPD employee, there were no mechanisms to prevent abuses by Morocco, such as using this technology to target activists, academics and journalists.
Furthermore, the meeting between ICMPD and the EU Commission relates to border security through “provide training and technical assistance” in Libya. The EU stresses that ICMPD’s involvement is “instrumental” to moving this forward quickly - for example, with regard to the “White Paper,” a strategy document that, while not binding on the parties involved, sets the political direction and next steps.
For several years, journalists and human rights organizations have reported on how migrants are systematically pushed back along the central Mediterranean and the inhumane detention conditions that await them in Libya. The fact that the EU and some member states support Libya is also an issue. What is less known, however, is what mediating role ICMPD had in the elaboration of the strategy.
Just a few months after the EU highlighted ICMPD’s mediating role in the process, representatives from the EU, UN, Libya, France, Italy, and ICMPD met in Tunis in June 2019. The aim of this meeting was to start the elaboration of a strategy paper for a “fully-fledged border security and management system”.
Training and coordination with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard
We had filed a request under the EU Freedom of Information law for the white paper from the EU Commission, but it was denied. The reason given was that, if the document became public, the relationship between the EU and Libya would be endangered. Nevertheless, we have obtained the document and publish it after a thorough examination. It is a version from December 2019, which is described as final.
The document justifies why the preparation of such a strategy document is necessary: Libya would need to reform its structures in order to regain full control over its borders. The reason given is that the country faces “immense challenges” from “the flow of migrants, who, to a large extent, intend to use Libya as a transit route to Europe.” Migration “has complicated an already fragile political situation” and is “undermining the security, stability, and social wellbeing of the Libyan state and society.
What should follow from this, with the participation of ICMPD among others, is shown in an EU document from 2021: A training center for the so-called Libyan coast guard is to be established. Likewise, mechanisms are to be created to forge cooperation between Libya, the EU and neighboring countries - for the Border Guard Training Academy and the Libyan Maritime Rescue Coordination Center.
Human rights organizations call this approach the “externalization of the EU’s external borders,” which means the outsourcing of border protection and migration management tasks to third countries. Likewise, cooperation with the Libyan Maritime Rescue Coordination Unit would lead to more pull-backs. This means that third countries, with the support of the EU, would prevent fleeing people from reaching Europe.
“The support given by the EU to the Libyan coast guard in terms of pull-backs, pushbacks, (and) interceptions led to violations of certain human rights,” said Chaloka Beyani in late March 2023, who was a member of the Fact-Finding Mission to Libya of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which released its report in the process.
“You can’t push back people to areas that are unsafe, and the Libyan waters are unsafe for the embarkation of migrants,” Beyani continued. He added that the EU and its member states are not found to be responsible for war crimes, but “the support given has aided and abetted the commission of the crimes.”
Atmosphere of hatred towards migrants
ICMPD is not only active in Libya, but also in Tunisia - and since 2019, on a much larger scale.
That same year, Tunisia elected a new president who is now not only pushing the state system towards dictatorship, but also creating an atmosphere of hatred towards migrants. At the end of February 2023, he called on Tunisian security forces to take urgent measures against migrants.
Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, tells us exactly what that looks like. “There is a political pressure on the coast guard to prevent people from leaving, no matter what the cost, no matter what the damage. That’s how the violence started, and the Coast Guard is responsible for a lot of it.”
Reports of human rights abuses by the Tunisian coast guard are mounting. Alarmphone writes about this, saying that the Tunisian coast guard beats migrants with sticks, demands money for rescues, and even steals the boat engines.
And it is these security forces that continue to be supported and trained by ICMPD with the support of the EU, Germany, Austria and Denmark. In fact, this cooperation is even being expanded, as EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson reiterated at a meeting in Tunis in late April 2023.
When asked about this, ICMPD says that it learned about the violence emanating from the Tunisian coast guard through the media and therefore cannot comment further.
Active support of the German Federal Police
Regarding EU support to the Tunisian coast guard, a dossier was prepared in 2019 jointly with ICMPD. “Preferred options in line with the National vision” had been identified, as well as “requests for equipment and capacity building measures.” Underwater drones, radars and even a dedicated IT system, the Integrated System for Maritime Surveillance, or ISMariS, were to be provided.
Germany was presented with the plans for Tunisia at a meeting in January 2020 between the Federal Police and ICMPD. The goal: “Make migration and mobility of people orderly, safe and regular.” To this end, the coast guards of North African states are to be trained and provided with equipment. Two training centers are being built in Tunisia for this purpose, one in the south and one in the north of the country. The northern center is financed by Germany.
The minutes of a meeting in January 2022 show how Germany is continuing to provide support: the Federal Police have equipped the Tunisian coast guard with 12 speedboats. Likewise, the Federal Police was “involved in SAR-connected trainings”. In an email written after the meeting, the Federal Police representative again advocates that Tunisia’s fleet be further expanded through “donor support.” For the following years, he proposed “boating training for Fast Control Boats” and “modernization of the boat fleet.”
We were unable to find out in detail what curriculum ICMPD, the German Federal Police and other authorities of EU member states use to train the Tunisian coast guard. However, the minutes of various meetings provide an insight into the subject areas. French security authorities organized for example a “training course on the management of dead bodies at sea.”
When asked, the German Federal Police confirmed that it was supporting the Tunisian coast guard with “training, advisory and procurement services.” In response to criticism of its involvement in Tunisia, the Federal Police pointed out that Tunisia was described as a “safe port” on the UNHCR website. However, this description can no longer be found on the UNHCR website.
More deportations through migration diplomacy
ICMPD is very active not only on the African continent, but also along the so-called Balkan route.
In July 2020, the “Salzburg Forum”, a meeting of 18 EU interior ministers, EU commissioners, EU agencies such as Frontex and ICMPD took place in Vienna. The result was, among other things, the establishment of the “Joint Cooperation Platform on Irregular Migration”. This was chaired by the former deputy director of Frontex Berndt Körner.
According to preparatory documents and an email, ICMPD elaborated on why such a platform was needed at a follow-up meeting in February 2021. “Irregular economic migration” is a shared problem, ICMPD said, and therefore there is a need to build capacity for “quick procedures, quick returns, and to coordination border closures again”.
ICMPD will not only assist with training and capacity building, it said, but will also help with the “implementation of a regional returns mechanism” - meaning deportations. Through “migration diplomacy,” ICMPD would support the negotiation of agreements with third countries.
Previous experience in supporting deportations has been gained by ICMPD in Turkey. The project, with the acronym FRMON, aims to “strengthen the capacity to conduct return operations in Turkey.” The duration was from 2021 to 2022, during which time Human Rights Watch wrote that deportations from Turkey to Afghanistan had increased by 150 percent. Many other states had suspended this after the Taliban took power.
More money for migration management
Those who try to enter the EU via the so-called Western Balkan route often arrive from Bosnia-Herzegovina and want to get to Croatia. In recent years, journalists and activists have documented how Croatian border officials use batons to push back migrants, preventing them from applying for asylum in an EU country.
The Western Balkan states, where many of the migrants are then stranded, are therefore of great importance to the EU. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been an official candidate for EU membership since 2022 and must therefore fulfill certain conditions. For this purpose, a so-called Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) fund was set up years before. Part of the money goes to migration and border management.
What this means exactly is revealed in documents from meetings between ICMPD and Bosnian authorities, which we have obtained and will publish following a detailed examination.
In January 2021, shortly before the second meeting of the coordination platform, Spindelegger made a phone call on behalf of ICMPD to then-Bosnian Security Minister Selmo Cikotić. According to the minutes, the telephone call had been initiated by ICMPD. We have the preparatory documents.
ICMPD criticized that EU funds “for the management of migration would be mainly provided for humanitarian needs." Ninety percent of the budget has been used on basic needs of migrants and only 10 percent for “migration management,” he said. Therefore, according to ICMPD, it “became evident that it is necessary to intensify the efforts aimed at strengthening the capacities of the migration management authorities in BiH”. For a good “migration management” ICMPD will provide equipment, training but also personnel.
The Lipa camp, whose detention center had been reported on several times in the previous weeks, was also discussed. The security minister was pleased that ICMPD had sent a “project proposal” regarding Lipa.
500,000 € had been paid by the EU Commission to ICMPD for the construction of the detention unit. According to the documents, the order was for “temporary detention facilities
for migrants within the multi-purpose reception centre Lipa in line with European and international standards.”. When asked, ICMPD did not answer what was meant by this term. The detention unit would be built to “support the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina to further develope and implement capacity in the area of returns in order to adress irregular migration.”
We publish the “Action Plan” prepared by ICMPD with the EU.
Another point raised in the conversation between ICMPD and Bosnia’s minister is a “facilitation of dialogue between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia and Slovenia regarding readmission and prevention of push-backs.” It is true that there has been a so-called “readmission” agreement between Bosnia and Croatia since 2007. This allows a state to send migrants back to another country. So far, however, this agreement has not been implemented, and Croatia was not yet a member of the EU at the time of the agreement.
The Border Violence Monitoring Network reports that migrants who enter Croatia through Bosnia and Herzegovina are apprehended, imprisoned, and forced to sign a document in Croatian agreeing to be sent back to Bosnia. According to a conversation with representatives of the network and a report by Human Rights Watch, this is made possible by the revival of the readmission agreement – the dialogue that ICMPD wanted to promote.
A dubious card project
Even before Germany became a member of ICMPD, the organization had come up with something very special for German “migration management.” The now internationally wanted white-collar criminal Jan Marsalek and the now insolvent financial services provider Wirecard were a part of it.. Their plan: a “digital refugee card”. Asylum seekers were no longer to receive cash, but all financial support was to be paid out digitally.
According to the project description, which we are now publishing, this card should not be limited to the payment function. The “usability of certain functions, such as payment transactions” should be limited to “certain geographies” and “deployment scenarios.” Similarly, the card “could be extended to include the possibility of direct retrieval of cardholder data with government/police terminals/equipment.”
The project should not be limited to Bavaria, according to documents we received following a Freedom of Information Act request to the German Federal Ministry of the Interior. Bavarian State Secretary Joachim Herrmann wrote in a letter to then-Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in October 2020 that he planned to "implement this new payment system in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Spindelegger and ICMPD. He said it could “serve as a model for similar projects in Europe.” In his response, Seehofer called the project a “lighthouse project.”
“If a German politician were to propose introducing an identity card that is also a bank card that all Germans use to pay for their purchases, and which could then be read by all authorities, including the police, one thing would be certain: he would be out of a job within hours,” said Matthias Spielkamp of AlgorithmWatch. “But the fact that Seehofer and others call it a lighthouse project to force people seeking protection to use such a card shows abundantly clear their contempt for the human rights of those who need protection the most.”
What Herrmann and Seehofer’s emails do not mention, however, is who was originally intended to carry out the project alongside ICMPD. The project description comes from a mail in November 2019 for preparation of a meeting between state secretaries from Bavaria and Brandenburg, a CDU politician, ICMPD head Michael Spindelegger and Jan Marsalek, at that time still CFO of Wirecard. Another email we publish shows that Marsalek had already had a conversation with a company about the idea of a Digital Refugee Card in July 2019 and had helped develop the idea.
As the report from Wirecard’s investigative committee shows, Marsalek had a very unique idea when it came to migrants. He wanted to pay for a border guard force of 15,000 to 20,000 “militiamen” to stop people trying to get to Europe via Libya and the central Mediterranean Sea as early as Libya’s southern border.
Wirecard is now insolvent and is considered Germany’s biggest financial scandal. However, the “Digital Refugee Card” project is not completely on hold. In Bavaria, the legal framework for the project has already been adjusted accordingly. An email from the State Ministry to the BMI in March 2021 states that a “private sector payment service provider” will provide the cards. An “involvement of NGOs” is not planned.
In response to a press inquiry, the Bavarian Ministry of Interior said that it was currently looking for an implementing company.