“The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) yesterday (4 June 2020) allowed 179 Malians who had been blocked in Niger to return voluntarily. The migrants had been waiting at IOM transit centres in Niamey and Agadez for almost three months because of Covid-19, which closed the borders.” This message sounds almost like a rescue mission: migrants or refugees have ended up in a hopeless situation, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) gets them out and brings them to safety, back to their country of origin, generously financed by the European Union (EU) under the EU-IOM Joint Initiative. It may be like this in some cases, and indeed refugees are often grateful for the help they receive. But this is only part of the story.
Mali is a country heavily marked by migration – migration in all directions. In the West, young men have been going to France to work since the beginning of the colonial era, and for about 20 years now Spain and Italy have also been interesting destinations. There are Malian traders in China and the Gulf States. The Maghreb states, especially wealthy Libya, have long been not only transit countries, but also important destinations for migration from Mali. Congo-Brazzaville is home to thousands of migrants from Mali and other West African countries. And in the neighbouring states, especially Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mauritania or even Burkina Faso, it is difficult to tell who comes from where and where they live. Ethnic groups live across borders, families move back and forth between Bamako (Mali), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Kayes (Mali), Nouadhibou (Mauritania) or Dakar (Senegal). At the same time, armed conflicts in the region are leading to a growing number of internal and international refugees. Europe is closing its borders, Libya is ruled by hostile militias and lawlessness is rampant, while Algeria and other Maghreb states are struggling with economic crisis and high youth unemployment. The European Union and its Member States are supporting efforts to control and limit migration in West Africa. The freedom of movement that once prevailed in the states of the West African Economic Community, ECOWAS, is being criminalised and regulated. Everywhere, the pandemic is adding to the difficulties. These are not good times for migration.
And yet: Migration is still the way to escape stagnation, lack of prospects and the omnipresent scarcity. There are examples of successful migration and return. Stories and winners tell tales of those who have made it – as well as of the others, the losers. Returning empty-handed is not only a social disgrace, but also an economic failure from which few recover. Many returnees
have borrowed money, and the family has sold land or livestock to make the journey possible. Now they come back and all are left with nothing. Already precarious life in Mali has become a bit more precarious. Many cannot stand the family’s reproaches and ridicule and flee to the cities, where they live as strangers in their own country.
Joint venture for staying
On the IOM’s “Voluntary Return” page, one is conducted from one successful example of reintegration to the next. Since 2016, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative has been an EU-funded programme that has been expanded to numerous African countries. It aims to support migrants stranded on their way to Europe in returning to their country of origin and subsequent economic reintegration. Similar to other programmes promoting return and reintegration, the “Joint Initiative” also functions rather poorly. The return programmes have one thing in common: they are intended to prevent returnees from setting out again. That is why support is consistently only granted in kind and only after return. So if you want to open a tailor shop, you have to find a shop, you have to buy a sewing machine and other equipment, fabrics, patterns, electricity and a variety of small things needed for the shop. All this must first be obtained and then evidence thereof submitted to the IOM (or other offices such as the French migration agency OFII) (like a rent agreement, a receipt for materials or a bill for electricity), and only then is the investment reimbursed. You guessed it: a lot of red tape, long waiting times until reimbursement, which does not always actually take place. If you don’t have financial resources of your own, you can’t get this kind of help. One’s own company becomes an empty promise of the return industry. The pretty pictures of successful return projects look attractive to European donors, but reality in Mali and elsewhere is different. Even those who return with IOM support end up in misery at home.
At most, a little success is allowed
The agencies and organisations that promote “voluntary” return also face a dilemma. On behalf of the EU, they are supposed to provide incentives to encourage migrants to return. But the incentives must not be so great that new migrants might set out on a journey of their own. So return assistance is supposed to help people succeed, but only a little. For example, the “EU-IOM joint venture” mainly provides transport for migrants mired in hopeless situations in Libya, Mauritania or Niger, thus preventing some of these migrants from boarding treacherous boats to Europe. If the return programme is supposed to be a fig leaf for Europe’s defensive policy, then it is a very tiny fig leaf. The attractiveness of the programme does not derive from being well resourced and offering genuine support, but rather from having no alternative. The EU continues to support the so-called Libyan coast guard, which prevents boats from leaving for Europe or intercepts refugees on the Mediterranean and returns them to Libyan torture camps. In Libya, but also Algeria or Niger, it is then the IOM that makes an offer that cannot be refused. When the way forward is blocked, when the transit country threatens migrants with internment in camps and imprisonment at best, then returning to the country of origin is much less a voluntary decision than a question of survival. The success of the return programmes is not measured in terms of returnees succeeding. The programme is considered to be successful when these migrants no longer want to go to Europe or, because they have no means to do so, no longer are able to.
To understand the meagreness of European return assistance, one must look for examples of successful return. There are returns that are truly voluntary, there are also voluntary returns that are successful, even and especially in a country with a tradition of migration like Mali. One man who had wisely invested the money he had earned in France in a few plots of land and in a rented house in the Malian capital of Bamako was able to build more houses with the income from these and finally fulfil his dream of becoming a silver trader on the Grand Marché in Bamako. More gain in status is hardly possible in this society. There are several such examples, not to mention football players and pop stars. But they often spend more time in Paris than in Bamako. Mamadou Diakité is the idol of an entire association whose members are young Malians who were deported from Morocco, Algeria or Europe from a similarly hopeless situation as the “voluntary” returnees from Niger today. After deportation, the young people founded an association of deportees from the Yanfolila district (Association des Jeunes Réfoulés du Cercle Yanfolila) to fight together for recognition and also for support in reintegration, with little success.
Mamadou lives in the countryside in southern Mali. From the provincial town of Yanfolila, one drives about 20 kilometres by moped towards the border with Guinea, then off the path, where lies a flat hut with an overhanging roof providing shade. The harvest is piled up on tarpaulins, a mountain of grains of maize, and an equally large mountain of millet. Mamadou is very proud of the good harvest. Under the roof he tells his story. He comes from Kayes, in the west of Mali. Like many young people from there, he went to France and worked in a factory there. After two years, he moved to Switzerland and started working in a hotel, working his way up to manager. He saved, had a good salary and decided to return home at the age of 50. He didn’t want to end up in a hotel in a foreign country, he wanted to farm at home, and one can’t be too old if one is to do this. So he looked for land in the south of Mali. He bought buffaloes for the field work and hired young workers from the village. He has a house in Yanfolila, another in the capital of Bamako. Mamadou is doing well; ´harvest yields are adequate. When I met him, he was close to retirement age. As a pensioner, he will receive a monthly pension of 1,500 Swiss francs from Switzerland.
The young people who have joined together to form the Association of Deportees from the Yanfolila District have experienced different degrees of a hard landing in the wake of deportation, which, like today’s stranded Nigerians, took place by bus or plane. Some have more debts than they can pay off in a lifetime, others are slowly getting back on their feet. The situation of today’s “voluntary” returnees is not much different from that of these deportees. These young people have also had contact with a government programme that is supposed to support returnees, but much has been promised and little has been delivered. Nothing has changed to this day.
Those who return, unsuccessfully, perhaps with the meagre resources of the IOM, almost always end up where they left: in a situation where precariousness paralyses any movement, where poverty, illness and misfortune are close together. The European Union, its Member States and the IOM desire this immobility. Migration, especially unauthorised migration, is not supposed to be successful, return is not supposed to open the possibility to leave again. Although migration is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous, it is still associated with the hope of escaping this situation.
“People are in part lied to and blackmailed into going back. Therein lies a great danger. You can only speak of ‘voluntary’ return when there is no ‘sensitisation’ and no ‘education’ campaigns, which sometimes amounts to brainwashing.”
Ousmane Diarra, President of the Malian deportees’ self-organisation Association Malienne des Expulsés (AME)
“Comprehensive policy responses need to take full account of the fact that ‘reintegration’ is in many cases more difficult than people’s initial attempts to build a life in their countries of origin, so that they will be more rather than less inclined to leave after return.”
Jill Alpes, author of the study “IOM emergency repatriations from Libya and Niger: a protection measure and cause of new protection needs?”