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Migrants who have decided to make their voluntary return from Libya to Nigeria queuing at the airport for the triage. Lagos, Nigeria, 2020. (Francesco Bellina/TNH)

Nigerians returned from Europe face stigma and growing hardship

29 July 2020

‘There’s no job here, and even my family is ashamed to see me, coming back empty-handed with two kids.’

The EU is doubling down on reducing migration from Africa, funding both voluntary return programmes for those stranded along migration routes before they reach Europe while also doing its best to increase the number of rejected asylum seekers it is deporting.

The two approaches serve the same purpose for Brussels, but the amount of support provided by the EU and international aid groups for people to get back on their feet is radically different depending on whether they are voluntary returnees or deportees.

For now, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed voluntary return programmes and significantly reduced the number of people being deported from EU countries, such as Germany. Once travel restrictions are lifted, however, the EU will likely resume its focus on both policies.

The EU has made Nigeria one of five priority countries in Africa in its efforts to reduce the flow of migrants and asylum seekers. This has involved pouring hundreds of millions of euros into projects in Nigeria to address the “root causes” of migration and funding a “voluntary return” programme run by the UN’s migration agency, IOM.

Since its launch in 2017, more than 80,000 people, including 16,800 Nigerians, have been repatriated to 23 African countries after getting stuck or having a change of heart while travelling along often-dangerous migration routes connecting sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa.

Many of the Nigerians who have opted for IOM-facilitated repatriation were stuck in detention centres or exploitative labour situations in Libya. Over the same time period, around 8,400 Nigerians have been deported from Europe, according to official figures.

Back in their home country, little distinction is made between voluntary returnees and deportees. Both are often socially stigmatised and rejected by their communities. Having a family member reach Europe and be able to send remittances back home is often a vital lifeline for people living in impoverished communities. Returning – regardless of how it happens – is seen as failure.

In addition to stigmatisation, returnees face daily economic struggles, a situation that has only become worse with the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on Nigeria’s already struggling economy.

Despite facing common challenges, deportees are largely left to their own devices, while voluntary returnees have access to an EU-funded support system that includes a small three-months salary, training opportunities, controversial “empowerment” and personal development sessions, and funds to help them start businesses – even if these programmes often don’t necessarily end up being effective.

‘It’s a well-oiled mechanism’

Many of the voluntary returnee and deportation flights land in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city and main hub for international travel. On a hot and humid day in February, before countries imposed curfews and sealed their borders due to coronavirus, two of these flights arrived within several hours of each other at the city’s hulking airport.

First, a group of about 45 people in winter clothes walked through the back gate of the cargo airport looking out of place and disoriented. Deportees told TNH they had been taken into immigration custody by German police the day before and forced onto a flight in Frankfurt. Officials from the Nigerian Immigration Service, the country’s border police, said they are usually told to prepare to receive deportees after the planes have already left from Europe.

Out in the parking lot, a woman fainted under the hot sun. When she recovered, she said she was pregnant and didn’t know where she would sleep that night. A man began shouting angrily about how he had been treated in Europe, where he had lived for 16 years. Police officers soon arrived to disperse the deportees. Without money or phones, many didn’t know where to go or what to do.

Several hours later, a plane carrying 116 voluntary returnees from Libya touched down at the airport’s commercial terminal. In a huge hangar, dozens of officials guided the returnees through an efficient, well-organised process.

The voluntary returnees queued patiently to be screened by police, state health officials, and IOM personnel who diligently filled out forms. Officials from Nigeria’s anti-people trafficking agency also screened the female returnees to determine if they had fallen victim to an illegal network that has entrapped tens of thousands of Nigerian women in situations of forced sex work in Europe and in transit countries such as Libya and Niger.

“It’s a well-oiled mechanism. Each agency knows its role,” Alexander Oturu, a programme manager at Nigeria’s National Commission for Refugees,Migrants & Internally Displaced Persons, which oversees the reception of returnees, told The New Humanitarian.

Voluntary returnees are put up in a hotel for one night and then helped to travel back to their home regions or temporarily hosted in government shelters, and later they have access to IOM’s reintegration programming.

Initially, there wasn’t enough funding for the programmes. But now almost 10,000 of the around 16,600 returnees have been able to access this support, out of which about 4,500 have set up small businesses – mostly shops and repair services – according to IOM programme coordinator Abrham Tamrat Desta.

The main goal is to “address the push factors, so that upon returning, these people don’t face the same situation they fled from”, Desta said. “This is crucial, as our data show that 97 percent of returnees left for economic reasons.”

COVID-19 making things worse

Six hours drive south of Lagos is Benin City, the capital of Edo State.

An overwhelming number of the people who set out for Europe come from this region. It is also where the majority of European migration-related funding ends up materialising, in the form of job creation programmes, awareness raising campaigns about the risks of irregular migration, and efforts to dismantle powerful trafficking networks.

Progress* is one of the beneficiaries. When TNH met her she was full of smiles, but at 26 years old, she has already been through a lot. After being trafficked at 17 and forced into sex work in Libya, she had a child whose father later died in a shipwreck trying to reach Europe. Progress returned to Nigeria, but couldn’t escape the debt her traffickers expected her to pay. Seeing little choice, she left her child with her sister and returned to Libya.

Multiple attempts to escape spiralling violence in the country ended in failure. Once, she was pulled out of the water by Libyan fishermen after nearly drowning. Almost 200 other people died in that wreck. On two other occasions, the boat she was in was intercepted and she was dragged back to shore by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard.

After the second attempt, she registered for the IOM voluntary return programme. “I was hoping to get back home immediately, but Libyans put me in prison and obliged me to pay to be released and take the flight,” she said.

Back in Benin City, she took part in a business training programme run by IOM. She couldn’t provide the paperwork needed to launch her business and finally found support from Pathfinders Justice Initiative – one of the many local NGOs that has benefited from EU funding in recent years.

She eventually opened a hairdressing boutique, but coronavirus containment measures forced her to close up just as she was starting to build a regular clientele. Unable to provide for her son, now seven years old, she has been forced to send him back to live with her sister.

Portrait of a woman in a white dress and colourful necklace against a dark, patterned background.
Francesco Bellina/TNHRuth Evon Idahosa, founder of Pathfinders Justice Initiative – an NGO that seeks to eradicate sex trafficking and the exploitation of women and girls in Nigeria – in Benin City in 2020.

Progress isn’t the only returnee struggling due to the impact of the pandemic. Mobility restrictions and the shuttering of non-essential activities – due to remain until early August at least – have “exacerbated returnees’ existing psychosocial vulnerabilities”, an IOM spokesperson said.

The Edo State Task Force to Combat Human Trafficking, set up by the local government to coordinate prosecutions and welfare initiatives, is trying to ease the difficulties people are facing by distributing food items. As of early June, the task force said it had reached 1,000 of the more than 5,000 people who have returned to the state since 2017.

‘Sent here to die’

Jennifer, 39, lives in an unfinished two-storey building also in Benin City. When TNH visited, her three-year-old son, Prince, stood paralysed and crying, and her six-year-old son, Emmanuel, ran and hid on the appartment’s small balcony. “It’s the German police,” Jennifer said. “The kids are afraid of white men now.”

Jennifer, who preferred that only her first name is published, left Edo State in 1999. Like many others, she was lied to by traffickers, who tell young Nigerian women they will send them to Europe to get an education or find employment but who end up forcing them into sex work and debt bondage.

It took a decade of being moved around Europe by trafficking rings before Jennifer was able to pay off her debt. She got a residency permit and settled down in Italy for a period of time. In 2016, jobless and looking to get away from an unstable relationship, she moved to Germany and applied for asylum.

Her application was not accepted, but deportation proceedings against her were put on hold. That is until June 2019, when 15 policemen showed up at her apartment. “They told me I had five minutes to check on my things and took away my phone,” Jennifer said.

The next day she was on a flight to Nigeria with Prince and Emmanuel. When they landed, “the Nigerian Immigration Service threw us out of the gate of the airport in Lagos, 20 years after my departure”. she said.

Nine months after being deported, Jennifer is surviving on small donations coming from volunteers in Germany. It’s the only aid she has received. “There’s no job here, and even my family is ashamed to see me, coming back empty-handed with two kids,” she said.

Jennifer, like other deportees TNH spoke to, was aware of the support system in place for people who return through IOM, but felt completely excluded from it. The deportation and lack of support has taken a heavy psychological toll, and Jennifer said she has contemplated suicide. “I was sent here to die,” she said.

‘The vicious circle of trafficking’

Without a solid economic foundation, there’s always a risk that people will once again fall victim to traffickers or see no other choice but to leave on their own again in search of opportunity.

“When support is absent or slow to materialise – and this has happened also for Libyan returnees – women have been pushed again in the hands of traffickers,” said Ruth Evon Odahosa, from the Pathfinders Justice Initiative.

IOM said its mandate does not include deportees, and various Nigerian government agencies expressed frustration to TNH about the lack of European interest in the topic. “These deportations are implemented inhumanely,” said Margaret Ngozi Ukegbu, a zonal director for the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons.

The German development agency, GIZ, which runs several migration-related programmes in Nigeria, said their programming does not distinguish between returnees and deportees, but the agency would not disclose figures on how many deportees had benefited from its services.

Despite the amount of money being spent by the EU, voluntary returnees often struggle to get back on their feet. They have psychological needs stemming from their journeys that go unmet, and the businesses started with IOM seed money frequently aren’t sustainable in the long term.

“It’s crucial that, upon returning home, migrants can get access to skills acquisition programmes, regardless of the way they returned, so that they can make a new start and avoid falling back in the vicious circle of trafficking,” Maria Grazie Giammarinaro, the former UN’s special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, told TNH.

* Name changed at request of interviewee.

By Giacomo Zandonini. This report was first published by the New Humanitarian.

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