(Un)sustainable returns

While return is often conceptualised as the final stage of a migration journey, it can actually be a stepping-stone towards internal displacement or secondary migration. In this article, building on recent research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), we follow in the footsteps of a Nigerian migrant to uncover the challenges he experienced abroad and upon return to his country of origin.

Dele (not his real name) left Nigeria as a teenager in search of new opportunities. “I left because I couldn’t continue suffering,” he explains. “I looked at my family and saw that there was nothing they could do to help me. My father couldn’t send me to school, and I couldn’t continue farming because it wasn’t yielding much.”

Dele hoped to travel to Italy, so he set out along the Central Mediterranean route. He was not alone in doing so: in 2016, over half a million Nigerians are thought to have crossed the Sahara in a bid to reach Europe. As for many other migrants attempting to reach European shores, Dele’s journey ended in Libya after being deceived by his smuggler. Despite the number of Nigerians that have attempted the journey, just over 18,000 Nigerians arrived by boat in Italy in 2017.

Forced labour, abuse, and arbitrary detention are common risks for migrants in Libya; women in particular are also exposed to a high risk of sexual exploitation. “Staying in Libya was a terrible experience,” Dele recalls.  “We were threatened and some of my friends killed. They mistreated us and gave us hard work. They didn’t pay us. They threatened us with guns and even shot at us at times; I saw my friends being shot.”

After more than three years, Dele eventually managed to save enough money to attempt the crossing to Italy. “On the way, we heard a loud bang: it was our boat that burst, and we all fell into the sea. I couldn’t swim but I was on a plank holding onto it tightly,” he remembers. The Central Mediterranean route is one of the deadliest:  over 14,000 lives were lost at sea between 2015 and 2020. Dele was rescued by a passing fishing boat, but at a cost: “the fishermen sold us to some people who took us to a camp, and asked us to call our people to send money to them. People who couldn’t reach out to any of their relatives and those who said they didn’t have money were killed.”

In a widespread practice known as tranke, many migrants in Libya are kidnapped and held for ransom, often as soon as they enter the country. Eventually, Dele’s kidnappers handed him over to a Libyan detention centre, where pervasive human rights violations, including unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment are well documented. It was there that he was found by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and given the opportunity to return to Nigeria.

IOM’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme was launched in 2017 with funding from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa in response to the abuses faced by migrants in Libya’s detention centres. In 2019, over 3,700 Nigerians were returned from Libya through VHR. Participation in the programme is voluntary, although migrants generally have no other alternative beyond continued detention and abuse. Given conditions in detention, return can be a life-saving measure. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted opportunities for return: only 284 vulnerable migrants in Libya were returned to Nigeria in 2020.

The benefits of IOM’s assisted voluntary return programmes, including VHR, extend beyond return to the country of origin. Reintegration assistance generally involves an initial cash handout of approximately 100 USD, followed at a later stage by vocational training and in-kind start-up assistance amounting to approximately 1,000 USD per person to set up a new business, often in partnership with other returnees.

Despite the initial assistance provided by IOM, Dele struggled to make ends meet upon arrival in Nigeria. Having accumulated high levels of debt to finance their migratory projects, many returning migrants find themselves effectively destitute upon return to Nigeria. Financial vulnerability undermines returning migrants’ ability to secure stable accommodation, exposing them to a heightened risk of homelessness and internal displacement. Dele rapidly ended up on the street. “I was like a newborn baby because I was broke. I stayed with a friend when I got back, but his landlord sent him packing and I had nowhere to go, so I slept in metal containers at night and went to work at building sites in the morning.” Like Dele, some returnees are internally displaced as a result of evictions; others are forced to leave their housing because of insecurity and natural hazards in cities’ most affordable neighbourhoods. Those who originate from insecure parts of the country, including much of the North-East and Middle-Belt, may be internally displaced by conflict and violence upon return to their area of origin.

Prospects improved for Dele after receiving support from IOM to set up a new business, but not all returning migrants avail themselves of reintegration assistance: of the 12,000 migrants who returned to Nigeria with IOM’s support between May 2017 and February 2019, just 36% received individual or collective reintegration assistance in the form of in-kind support for business. Some are unreachable after return; others are disheartened by the costs and delays in obtaining start-up funding.

Returning migrants continue to face numerous reintegration challenges, even after receiving assistance. Dele now runs a barber salon in Lagos, but new businesses do not immediately generate sufficient profits to meet the basic needs of returning migrants. The stigma many experience after returning to Nigeria compounds the problem. However, Dele remains optimistic. “I believe that since I am still alive, things will definitely work out,” he says. Yet, like many other returning migrants, he still hopes to one day reach Europe.

The EU Trust Fund for Africa, which was established at the Valletta Summit in 2015 in response to the so-called refugee crisis, allocated resources to promote the voluntary return of migrants through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, set up in 2016. That year, under the European Agenda on Migration, the Partnership Framework called for a measurable increase in the number and rate of returns and readmissions. This emphasis on returns was reinforced by the Malta Declaration in 2017, which called for increased support for assisted voluntary return programmes. As we have seen in this article however, more efforts are needed to ensure the sustainability of return and reduce the risk of internal displacement.