By the time James boarded a flight from Libya to Nigeria at the end of 2018, he had survived a Mediterranean shipwreck, travelled through a half dozen African states, been shot and spent two years being abused and tortured in Libya’s brutal detention centres.
In 2020, back home in Benin City, Edo State, James has been evicted from his house after failing to cover his rent and sleeps on the floor of his barbershop.
He has been shunned by his family and friends for his failure to reach Europe.
“There’s no happiness that you are back. No one seems to care about you [...]. You came back empty-handed,” he told Euronews.
James was one of around 81,000 African migrants returned to their home nation with the aid of the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) and paid for by the European Union, as part of the €357 million Joint Initiative. As well as a seat on a flight out of Libya and a number of other transit nations, migrants are also promised cash, support and counselling to allow them to reintegrate in their home countries once they return.
But a Euronews investigation across seven African nations has revealed massive failings in the programme, considered to be the EU’s flagship response to stopping migrants trying to get to Europe.
Dozens of migrants that have been through the programme told Euronews that once they returned, no support was forthcoming. Even those who did receive financial support - like James - said it was insufficient.
Many are considering making a new break for Europe as soon as the chance arises.
“I feel I don’t belong here,” James said. “If the opportunity comes, I’m taking it. I’m leaving the country.”
Of the 81,000 migrants returned since 2017, almost 33,000 were flown back from Libya, many of whom have suffered detention, abuse and violence at the hands of people smugglers, militias and criminal gangs. Conditions are so bad in the north African country that the programme is called Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR), rather than the Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) programme elsewhere in Africa.
Mohi, 24, who spent three years in Libya, accepted the offer of a flight back home in 2019. But, once there, his reintegration package never materialised. “Nothing has been provided to us, they keep telling us tomorrow,” he told Euronews from north Darfur, Sudan.
Mohi is not alone. IOM’s own statistics on returnees to Sudan reveal that only 766 out of over 2,600 have received economic support. It blames high rates of inflation and a shortage of both goods and cash in the market.
But Kwaku Arhin-Sam, who evaluates development projects as director of the Friedensau Institute for Evaluation, estimates that half of the IOM reintegration programmes fail.
“Most people are lost after a few days”, he said.
Two-thirds of migrants don’t complete the reintegration programmes
The IOM itself lowers this estimate even further: the UN agency told Euronews that so far only one-third of the migrants who have started reintegration assistance have completed the process. A spokesperson said that as the joint initiative is a voluntary process, “migrants can decide to pull out at any time, or not to join at all”.
He said that reintegrating migrants once they return home goes far beyond the organisation’s mandate, and “requires strong leadership from national authorities”, as well as “active contributions at all levels of society”.
Between May 2017 and February 2019, IOM had helped over 12,000 people return to Nigeria. Of them, 9,000 were “reachable” when they returned home, 5,000 received business training and 4,300 received “reintegration aid”. If access to counselling or health services is included, IOM Nigeria says, a total of 7,000 out of 12,000 returnees - or 58% - received reintegration support.
But the number of people classified as having completed the reintegration assistance programme was just 1,289, and research by Jill Alpes, a migration expert and research associate at the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research, found that surveys to check the effectiveness of these packages were conducted with only 136 returnees.
Meanwhile, a Harvard study on Nigerian returnees from Libya estimates that 61.3% of the respondents were not working after their return, and an additional 16.8% only worked for a short period of time, not long enough to generate a stable source of income. Upon return, the vast majority of returnees, 98.3%, were not in any form of regular education.
The European Commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, admitted to Euronews that “this is one area where we need improvements.” Johansson said it was too early to say what those improvements might be but maintained the EU have a good relationship with the IOM.
Sandrine, Rachel and Berline, from Cameroon, agreed to board an IOM flight from Misrata, Libya, to Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital in September 2018.
In Libya, they say they suffered violence and sexual abuse and had already risked their lives in the attempt at crossing the Mediterranean. On that occasion, they were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and sent back to Libya.
Once back home, Berline and Rachel say they received no money or support from IOM. Sandrine was given around 900,000 cfa francs (€1,373.20) to pay for her children’s education and start a small business - but it didn’t last long.
“I was selling chicken by the roadside in Yaounde, but the project didn’t go well and I left it,” she said.
Sandrine, from Cameroon, recalled giving birth in a Tripoli detention centre to the sound of gunfire.
All three said that they had no idea where they would sleep when they returned to Cameroon, and they had no money to even call their families to inform them of their journey.
“We left the country, and when we came back we found the same situation, sometimes even worse. That’s why people decide to leave again,” Berline says.
In November 2019, fewer than half of the 3,514 Cameroonian migrants who received some form of counselling from IOM were reported as “effectively integrated”.
Seydou, a Malian returnee, received money from IOM to pay his rent for three months and the medical bills for his sick wife. He was also provided with business training and given a motorbike taxi.
But in Mali he takes home around €15 per day, compared to the more than €1,300 he was able to send home when he was working illegally in Algeria, which financed the construction of a house for his brother in the village.
He is currently trying to arrange a visa that would enable him to join another of his brothers in France.
Seydou is one of the few lucky Malians, though. .Alpes’ forthcoming research, published by Brot für die Welt (the relief agency of the Protestant Churches in Germany) and Medico International, found that only 10% of migrants returned to Mali up to January 2019 had received any kind of support from IOM.
IOM, meanwhile, claims that 14,879 Malians have begun the reintegration process - but the figure does not reveal how many people completed it.
The stigma of return
In some cases the money migrants receive is used to fund another attempt to reach Europe.
In one case, a dozen people who had reached Europe and been sent home were discovered among the survivors of a 2019 shipwreck of a boat headed to the Canary Islands. “They had returned and they had decided to take the route again,” said Laura Lungarotti, IOM chief mission in Mauritania.
Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the IOM, told Euronews that it could not prevent individuals from attempting to reach Europe again once they had been returned.
“It is however in the hands of people to decide whether or not they migrate and in its different programme IOM doesn’t plan to prevent people from re-migrating”, she said.
What is the IOM?
From 2016, the IOM rebranded itself as the UN Migration Agency, and its budget has ballooned from US$242.2 million (€213 million) in 1998 to exceed US$2 billion (€1.7 billion) for the first time in the autumn of 2019 - an eightfold increase. Though not part of the UN, the IOM is now a “related organisation”, with a relationship similar to that of a private contractor.
The EU and its member states collectively are the largest contributors to IOM’s budget, accounting for nearly half of its operational funding.
IOM has been keen to highlight cases of when its voluntary return programme has been successful on its website, including that of Khadeejah Shaeban, a Sudanese returnee from Libya who was able to set up a tailoring shop.