As risks and restrictions rise, migrants turn back – but with new purpose at home

Returnees face myriad challenges, from social stigma to trauma. But they are also uniquely equipped to help educate others about the perils of irregular migration – and have a stake in healing the root problems that led them to leave in the first place.

James Courtright
Mustapha Sallah updates the Facebook page for Youth Against Irregular Migration on September 8, 2017 in Tallinding, Gambia. Mr Sallah worked with computers before he tried his luck on the road to Europe. Since returning he’s put his skills to use for YAIM to promote their activities on social media.

Back home in The Gambia, Mustapha Sallah and Karamo Keita were strangers: the first, a computer technician; the second, a shop keeper. But like tens of thousands of other West Africans, they had a common goal: to flee grinding poverty and a lack of opportunity, find work in Europe, and send money home.

Separately, each one crossed the world’s largest desert, evaded slavers, and paid thousands of dollars to be smuggled across war-torn Libya – where they were discovered and detained by authorities, they say. The men met in a squalid Libyan detention facility in January, where they hadn’t rested, washed, or eaten properly in days.

Three months into the men’s detention, representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) visited the prison and offered them tickets home. Dreams of reaching Europe had been dashed, but they had a new appreciation for their homeland. They took the tickets. And they made each other a promise: to use their experiences to illustrate the realities of irregular migration, and encourage Gambian youth to build their own country, despite the many challenges, rather than seek opportunity abroad.

Today, Mr. Sallah and Mr. Keita are the founders of Youths Against Irregular Migration (YAIM), as unauthorized immigration is called – and they’re part of a growing recognition. As Europe puts up more barriers and chaos in Libya continues, the number of migrants returning home will likely increase. Returnees face myriad challenges, from social stigma to the trauma of their difficult journeys north. But they are also uniquely equipped to help educate others about the perils of irregular migration – and have a stake in healing the root problems that led them to leave in the first place.

Hani Amara/Reuters
Migrants stand in a line at a detention center in Tripoli, Libya, in August before their voluntary return to their countries.

“This is a national issue,” says Sallah. “The youths don’t know the realities. If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone. So if we talk to the youths, even if we cannot save everybody, it will make a change.”

A lukewarm welcome

More than 2,600 people have died crossing the Mediterranean this year, according to the IOM. Even before braving the voyage, the risks are high, from sex trafficking to slave markets in Libya. The vast majority of West Africans who run this gauntlet do so because of a paucity of economic opportunity: according to the United Nations, about half of the population in Senegal and The Gambia live below the national poverty line.

“For two years I slept on the floor, I was hungry, I had no salary, I was undermined by the Arabs, and I was criminalized,” says Musa Camara, who recently returned to the Gambia, remembering his attempted journey to Europe. At first his family was happy to see him alive. But after the initial surprise wore off, they began to ask why he came back empty-handed, while his neighbor sends money from Italy. He now lives with a friend to avoid the tension at home.

It’s a common reaction. “People refuse to talk or even greet us,” says Bori Diao. Born in the southern Senegalese village of Pakour in 1978, he is slightly older than most migrants: When he started his attempt in 2015, he left his wife and three children. After a grueling journey across the Sahara in the back of a 4x4 pickup truck, he spent six months looking for work in Libya before turning around. “They tell us we were scared, that’s why we didn't continue. We used our family’s money, and we came back with nothing.”

Experiences like these, in part, drive YAIM, which seeks to end irregular migration through public awareness and increased job prospects for youth. In recent months, they have ramped up their outreach, from educational campaigns to new partnerships with the IOM, EU, and Gambian National Youth Council.

Across the border in Senegal, returnees have a longer history of organizing. Cheikh Diop, the president of the National Association of Returned Migrants, has worked with returnees for more than a decade, traveling to Niger via bus – legally – to understand the trials migrants go through. In the late 2000s, hundreds of repatriated Senegalese from Spain founded associations, he says, but interest was fleeting and many disbanded. In 2014, when migrants began coming back from Libya en masse, they began anew.

Members say they provide a comforting space. “Talking with the association helps me because they understand me,” says Adama Bah, a farmer in Saare Diallo, Senegal, who tried to cross from Morocco to Spain twice in the past decade. “When I tell others about the trip, they call us cowards. But not people in the association; they went through what I went through.”

Renewed attention

In November 2015, with the flood of irregular migration at its peak, the European Union established the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa: more than $3.6 billion pledged to build economic resilience, support good governance, and provide basic migration management – essentially, to help those on the road get home, and incentivize others to stay rather than seek their fortunes in Europe.

“There has been a growing interest in returnees since 2000,” says Marie-Laurence Flahaux, a demographer at the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford. “But today, looking at the trust fund and all the new measures and discourses about managing migration, return has become very central.”

One of the larger initiatives funded by the Emergency Trust Fund is a 14-country program for migrant protection and reintegration. IOM already has a program in Senegal to help a handful of individual returnees start small businesses. Marise Habib, the IOM’s project manager in Senegal, says her office wants to expand the scope and utilize data already collected from interviews with returnees to provide more targeted support.

“We want to tailor the assistance that’s provided,” she says. “We also want to engage the community much more actively” in reintegration.

In Pakour, the IOM plans to provide training and start-up funding through local partners to returnees for a large-scale chicken raising business, according to Ms. Habib. The hope is that profits generated will help returnees as a whole regain social standing and provide a local example of an income-generating activity.

A positive message

International organizations can provide financial support, but when it comes to educating youth about the realities of migration, returnees themselves possess something crucial: credibility.

“If you have a good job, you’re not hungry, and you tell people ‘Don’t migrate irregularly,’ they might not listen to you,” says Sallah, of YAIM. “But for us, they know that we witnessed everything.”

And as more returnees speak out, the stigma recedes. Since he was a young boy, Trawale Balde spent every rainy season helping his family in their fields outside Pakour. He was 25 when he sneaked out in the middle of the night to go to Europe – a two-year, failed attempt that he says included being held for ransom twice and severely beaten. With more people coming back from Libya empty-handed and traumatized, he says people are beginning to understand that returning is not a personal failure.

Awareness-raising campaigns are more than graphic descriptions of the horrors migrants face. Many returnees talk about what they could have done with the time and money they spent trying to reach Europe. “Just imagine what I could have built here with the money I wasted,” laments Mr. Balde.

The Gambian Youth Empowerment Project, a joint initiative by the EU Trust Fund and the International Trade Center, is trying to harness that message. Its publicity campaigns “showcase entrepreneurs to show the alternative to irregular migration,” says project manager Raimund Moser. “Positive messaging, creating role models, and championing pride in The Gambia is very important.”

A similar approach was in action this July in Serrekunda, along the Gambian coast. Over three days, more than 80 students participated in a camp run by the nonprofit Ascend Together: three days of playing basketball, speaking with Gambian entrepreneurs, creating short skits, and hearing from YAIM returnees.

“As a Gambian, I now want to stand against irregular migration,” says camper Bintu Dambelly, age 15. “If they stay in the Gambia they can make money, have opportunities, and build our beautiful country.”

But so long as West Africans are still looking for opportunity, they will attempt the perilous voyage.

“I tried and I didn’t make it,” says Abdoulaye Bah, back in Pakour. He left home when he was 15, and didn’t return until he was 21. “But I know the world a little better, and I know I’d rather be here.”

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