ICMC was founded in the wake of the human displacement caused by the Second World War. While the Catholic Church worked to support those seeking refuge from persecution and conflict, it soon became clear that a more systematic means of responding to the needs of forced migrants on the part of the Church was needed.

In 1951, American, Italian and German, laity and clergy, as well as Secretary for Relations with States, Msgr. Montini (the future Pope Paul VI), and Cardinal Joseph Frings of Germany, took the initial steps towards a new, international commission of Catholic Bishops Conferences and Episcopal assemblies of similar status working with migrants and refugees on national and regional levels. The following year, Pope Pius XII, in his papal letter (known as an Apostolic Constitution), Exsul Familia, emphasised the importance of responding to the needs of migrants and refugees, and announced the role that the newly established International Catholic Migration Commission would play in strengthening the effectiveness of the work of Catholic institutions throughout the world in the area of migration.

The first president of ICMC was Mr James Norris from the United States of America. He served as president for 23 years and retired in 1974.

By the early 1970s, the migration phenomenon had become more complex and international. The end of the war in Vietnam, genocide in Cambodia and violent events elsewhere caused forced migration on levels that had not been witnessed for a generation. Even as ICMC continued to assist European refugees, the organisation also began resettlement work with refugees from South and Southeast Asia, the Near East, Africa and Latin America.

Today, ICMC continues to fulfil its mission to serve forcibly uprooted people, responding to the dynamic needs of migrants, refugees and internally displaced people according to the realities of our changing world.

ICMC's vision is two-part: firstly, to continue and expand core programming that strengthens protection and durable solutions, pursues new, sustainable solutions, cares for the most vulnerable and builds the capacity of NGOs, government institutions and local communities; and secondly, to reinforce the positive aspects of migration, including safe and dignified labour migration and migration and development.