Ismaila Badji could not bring himself to leave his house for weeks after returning to Senegal. “I failed twice; at school and on the road,” he said. “What’s wrong with me? I’m still looking for the answer.” After spending time in a Libyan detention centre, Badji returned to where he came from. He did not feel like himself, he lacked motivation and he suffered from stigma from the local community.
It was thanks to two friends who took walks with him in the neighborhood that he was able to overcome these challenges. “That’s how I was able to integrate again within my community.” he recalled.
Badji is one of many young people in West and Central Africa who undertake dangerous journeys to Europe, do not reach their destination and struggle to return and re-establish their lives. For them, peer support is an essential part of the return process.
Badji joined the International Organization for Migration’s Migrants as Messengers (MaM) programme, which supports a peer-led approach to awareness-raising in communities to help people make informed migration decisions.
He recently started a poultry business and is now an active advocate for safe migration. The programme also seeks to develop strong social networks to improve the health and wellbeing of returned migrants and has brought together more than 260 returnees, MaM Volunteers, across seven countries in West Africa. The volunteers share accurate and balanced information about migration routes and processes and, more recently, about COVID-19.
“During our journey, we gained a lot of experience, we faced lots of things and it is often in moments like this that we measure the importance of solidarity between people… since we returned, when we see people in need, we say to ourselves that it is our duty to help others,” said Diarra Kourouma from Guinea, a MaM volunteer and returnee.
Many young people in West and Central Africa hope to find a better life for themselves and their families and risk their lives by undertaking some of the most dangerous migration journeys every year to Europe. According to IOM data (June 2020), 92 per cent of migrants attempting to reach Europe from West and Central Africa are young men under the age of 30.
Lack of jobs and other opportunities for personal and financial growth and strong pressure from families, drives large numbers of young people to migrate. When they set out, it is with the expectation that they will make it to their destination, find a job, and send money home.
The reality is that many do not reach their desired destination and are stranded, abandoned and sometimes abused and imprisoned. These harrowing experiences, often combined with stigma faced from returning home empty-handed, make reintegration in their communities of origin a challenge.
Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and a sense of loss are common reactions among returnees. Psychosocial care is vital for people returning. A supported reintegration process is an essential element of the return journey.
“I returned to Guinea completely devastated by everything I had just experienced during my journey. I didn’t want anyone to know my story, no one to know that I am a returnee. I simply wanted to hide in silence,” said Elhadj Mohamed Diallo, a 32-year-old from Guinea.
Diallo is now the president of the OGLMI, a Guinean organization raising awareness about the dangers of irregular migration. He explains how he benefited for his role leading awareness raising activities and the importance of challenging the stigma that migrant returnees face when they go back to their communities of origin.
“It was an opportunity to regain confidence in my abilities, but also to become aware of the role I can play by sharing my story with the Guinean populations; I understood that I could help save lives. And this boosted my energy,” said Diallo. “When we return home, we want more than anything else to fight the stigma we were subjected to. For me, this means contributing to the development of my country.”
MaM Volunteers report that belonging to these peer groups and playing an active role in the community help with the process of re-establishing their lives. People involved in these peer groups have gone on to create civil society associations, start small businesses, pursue studies and work on other initiatives.
Discussions in markets, churches and schools, community theatre, music and dance, collaboration with media are just a few examples of the activities led by the MaM Volunteers to breakdown stigma and social and economic barriers returnees often face.
“When I returned from Libya, I had a hard time being accepted by my family,” said Mariama Conté, a 23-year-old business law student in Guinea and MaM Volunteer.
“In the eyes of my parents, I was just the one who had stolen money from them to leave and fail on the shores of the Mediterranean. It was thanks to my involvement as a volunteer that I managed to reconnect with them. When they saw me engaging in awareness-raising activities, fighting to prevent other young girls to fall into the same trap as me, they understood that I could be useful.”
In the past few months in the seven countries where MaM is being implemented, more than 288 creative, community outreach activities have been carried out to help communities and youth face the COVID-19 pandemic.
This includes videos, songs, billboards, posters, comics strips, radio shows and other community-based activities – all of which has been widely shared across on air, online and by word-of-mouth, reaching more than seven million people this year.
The “Stay Home and Dance” challenge, a series of videos encouraged people to stay home during the pandemic lockdown and addressed issues of social isolation through song and dance. Guinean Volunteers welcomed returning migrants in transit centers and a group of five returnees in Sierra Leone created the song ‘Together We Can Cope’ to build support and solidarity in the pandemic.
“Firstly, I feel proud to be a part of a network that is helping in the fight against COVID-19,” said Abdul Sankoh, a MaM Volunteer from Sierra Leone. “Secondly, the experience has given me a sense of wanting to do more to help other people in time of crisis or emergencies.”
Marilena Crosato is Community Engagement Officer, IOM Regional Office for West and Central Africa, [email protected].