A young man looks back after being rescued from a dinghy near the Malaga coast. Photo: ESUS MERIDA/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Europe wants to send migrants home—but what happens when they get there?

A huge experiment is underway in reversing migration and thousands of Nigerians represent the vanguard. But what are "Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration" programmes—and what are the human consequences?
November 9, 2019

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A young man looks back after being rescued from a dinghy near the Malaga coast. Photo: JESUS MERIDA/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES Osita Osemene’s voice commands your attention in the same way a subwoofer does. His sermon has a bass line that washes over you in waves of rhetorical questions. Should his audience falter in their attention, he snaps it back into place with a booming “hello” that reverberates off the plastic pillars and tatty golden curtains of the ballroom of the Zafike Hotel.

Osemene is in the business of “re-engineering your mindset” to get you behaving like “someone who has a future.” This might be considered a reasonable proposition—except for the fact that his audience of around 100 Nigerians have risked their life savings and lives to not be here in the first place. Their problem is not the Zafike, an unlovable dive on the outskirts of Benin City in southern Nigeria, it is that they are only being re-engineered because they left their country in a doomed bid to reach Europe.

Forty-six-year-old Osemene tells his mostly younger compatriots that they have an “old and destructive mindset” for wanting to migrate. And he can sympathise because he once had the same condition. The son of a preacher, whose charisma survives and defies his buttoned-down look of a well-fed IT worker, Osemene had his own road to Damascus moment 15 years ago. It came on the Libyan shore of the Mediterranean where he abandoned a harrowing attempt to reach Europe after seeing the dead bodies of other migrants washed up on the beach.

It took money wired by his sister and three tortuous weeks to unwind his journey and return to Nigeria. Like a true convert, he now lectures recent returnees and produces pamphlets that read like public health circulars about the dangers of an illness called migration. His routine is equal parts Pentecostalism, psychoanalysis and NGO jargon, delivered in the rhythm of a Methodist sermon but peppered with development buzzwords such as “empowerment,” “capacity” and “resilience.” He can sound like a man on a singular mission, but this is no solo effort.

Osemene’s work is paid for by a Who’s Who of European authorities, from the EU to the Swiss and British governments. What they have in common is a shared desire to see fewer Nigerians travel north. Osemene’s sermon was part of a two-day business training course whose reluctant participants had it drilled into them that they must be entrepreneurs. They were tasked with finding teams of at least three people and coming up with a small business plan that international donors would then support in-kind with goods worth roughly £2,500.

For all of Osemene’s soothing rhetoric, the room was inevitably full of confusion and trauma, as well as individuals whose recent experience of gambling and losing was hardly going to help with engendering a start-up mindset. James Monday hung near the back in the instinctive way a cool kid would. His impeccably-worn short dreads are testament to his job as a hairdresser in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, a five-hour bus ride away. He no longer owns the tin-shack stall where he works—he sold it in early 2017 to fund his attempt to reach Europe.

Monday’s path up through Niger and across the Sahara into Libya ended with 14 hours at sea in a sinking dinghy. His “rescuers” from Libya’s so-called coastguard were thugs in uniforms, who beat the dinghy’s passengers, and then sold them into detention back in Libya. The only way out was to talk to the UN officials—who inspect some of the migrant prisons—about flights to Nigeria. One thing he cannot forget was seeing an armed smuggler searching migrants before they boarded their inflatable. The Libyan was so convinced they had money that he stuck his hands into the vagina of a pregnant woman. Monday used the broken Arabic he had picked up during his months-long wait in Libya for the chance to cross to tell the man there was a baby inside, but “he didn’t give a fuck.”

A streetwise Lagosian, Monday does not pretend that he thought the journey would be easy: “I knew I was taking a risk to reach Europe and become a successful man. But I didn’t think I was going to face all that shit. Are you kidding me?”

In most other rooms his story would be remarkable. In the Zafike ballroom, everyone has their own version. Nancy Joe, a gushingly polite 28-year-old, goes from wanting a selfie to telling me stories of imprisonment and death by drowning. What began as a dream of reaching Germany and opening a Nigerian restaurant ended in two failed attempts to cross the Mediterranean and six months in a Libyan gulag like Monday’s. On the second failed crossing, she watched from the beach as another boat capsized: “young, old, pregnant, they all died.”

Joe, Monday and the rest of the hundred-odd returnees in the hotel are part of a vanguard of Nigerians who have been flown back from Libya in a patchwork of schemes bankrolled by Europe. Since the beginning of 2018, some 14,000 Nigerians have been returned and as many as 70,000 remain in lawless Libya, stranded between that country’s collapse and European deals with local militias to block them boarding boats across the Mediterranean. These Nigerians represent a huge experiment in reversing migration.

Their reluctant road home has been paved by programmes known as Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR). In the case of Monday and Joe, the homecoming from Libya took place in February 2018 on a flight operated by the Nigerian government but paid for by the UK Department for International Development. The bulk of equivalent flights, which have been leaving at a rate of two a week, are chartered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and paid for by the EU. The Libyan exodus is presented as a humanitarian evacuation but can also be thought of as a rehearsal for potential future large-scale returns of African migrants from Europe itself.

Calling for the removal of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants used to be the preserve of nativist politicians such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini. But there is less than there used to be between the far-right and an EU leadership that makes no secret of its intention to ramp up returns.

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As arrivals rose from the middle of this decade, so did the political salience of immigration across Europe. And unfortunately, many mainstream politicians have chosen to appease rather than confront the backlash stoked by the nativists—especially after overly simplistic lessons were drawn from the political tumult that followed Angela Merkel’s decision for Germany to welcome in more than its share of the immigrants in 2015. In truth, both her policy (which soon included slamming shut the path through the Balkans) and the reaction (which has involved the growth of the Greens as well as the right) is much more complex than is widely allowed for. But no matter. Supposed liberals such as French President Emmanuel Macron were soon among those cheerleading for reversing migration. In September, he complained that Europe had been “too lax” and said that “for economic migrants, the real solution is to accelerate the process of identification and return.” Donald Tusk, president of the Council of Europe, was asked last June whether paying Libyan armed groups to intercept migrants at sea while also increasing returns from Europe might be acting a bit too “tough.” His reply captured the drift of Europe’s centrists: drastic measures were needed or else “you will see some really tough proposals from some really tough guys.”

The moderates hope to soften (or at least appear to soften) the hard edges of repatriation through “sustainable returns,” where those sent home will be happy to stay put in future and also become entrepreneurs with, in the words of a European Parliament briefing, a “positive impact on the development of their communities of origin.” A report commissioned for last year’s Davos meetings from the management consultants, McKinsey, captures the frothy pitch: “Effective assisted voluntary return is in the interest of countries and migrants alike. Voluntary returns are considered to be not only more humane but also more cost-effective than forced returns.” No doubt that is true, but the word “voluntary” will ring hollow to individuals at the sharp end, whose only alternative is living in workless poverty in Europe while fighting a doomed battle against removal in the courts, or rotting in a dangerous Libyan jail.

Voluntary returns schemes are not new. Their popularity waxes and wanes, rising in lock-step with European anxiety around immigration. They were widespread in the 1970s, when countries like the Netherlands and France became worried that “guest workers” might mistake their factory jobs for an invitation to settle permanently. Right-wingers and nativists vacillate between championing voluntary returns to curb foreign-born populations, and attacking the “waste” of the money they must inescapably spend on migrants. With a new generation of mainstream policymakers, however, it is now firmly in fashion. And this has fostered the growth of the IOM.

The IOM is an intergovernmental agency originally set up in the wake of the Second World War to resettle displaced populations. Today it sits under UN auspices, but it is mainly used by states to tidy up the consequences of their migration policies. In practice, governments like Sweden and the UK first decide what they are willing to pay to persuade migrants to go home and then hand the funds to the IOM to see that it happens. The voluntary returns it manages worldwide averaged around 25,000 per year up to 2010 but by 2016 this figure had quadrupled to around 100,000 with eight out of 10 of these returns coming from Europe. The tens of thousands of Libyan returns—which are classed as emergency evacuations and thus do not show up in IOM figures—represent a further dramatic escalation in this human traffic.

It is fitting that Benin City should find itself at the centre of Europe’s “Go Home” experiment. This is a town that remittances built. It receives more money from abroad than any Nigerian city other than Lagos, which is 20 times its size.

A modern metropolis of one million people, it was constructed on the ruins of Great Benin, one of the wealthiest settlements in Africa before a British-led massacre in 1897 razed the city. Its bronzes were looted to pay for the cost of its destruction. In important ways, Benin City’s modern contact with Europe has been equally damaging. Researchers estimate that more than eight out of 10 Nigerian women working as prostitutes in Europe began their journeys here. Every professor and politician will have their own story about the origins of Benin City’s trafficking industry, but they all centre on Italians who came to the area to make money in the 1970s and 80s, before heading home with Nigerian girls. The road forged by traffickers has more recently been trodden by migrants paying their own way to Europe in different modes. Trafficked girls and people smuggling themselves continue to use the same trucks, buses and ghettos to move northwards through Niger and across the Sahara into Libya.

Edo State, of which Benin City is the capital, is a minor oil producer and is far from the poorest in Nigeria. Its wealth is concentrated and flaunted in extravagant home-building in the city, while its poverty is widely distributed around the outskirts and into outlying villages.

[su_pullquote]“The prospect of multitudes of young Nigerians heading north is the stuff of nightmares in Brussels, Paris and Berlin”[/su_pullquote]

Jennifer Ero runs a shelter for trafficked girls in what has become one of the city’s smart suburbs. The rutted dust roads are hemmed in on both sides by multi-storey mansions with ornate chrome gates, which have sprouted up in recent years. Ero has spent the last 15 years picking up the pieces with a succession of young girls, many of whom have faced years of continuous rape and exploitation in Europe before being put on a flight back to Nigeria. They come to her organisation, the Society for the Empowerment of Young Persons, infected with HIV and trailing unwanted babies. This is what working with returnees meant here until last year.

Ero says the old trickle of returnees has grown to a flood since 2015, bringing with it an exhausting list of new initiatives, schemes and funds. These have one thing in common, she says: they do not work. If the aim is to give the returnees a reason to stay, then “it’s not enough to open shops everywhere, it’s not sustainable.”

She is one of a handful of experienced social workers who have tried to push back against failing programmes but there is little or no interest in outcomes once the money is allocated and spent. “They just come to us to implement, they don’t ask us what works. Europe keeps coming with money but we’re going in circles.”

As Africa’s most populous country with up to 186m people, Nigeria’s population is projected to double in the next 30 years. Unemployment runs at 26 per cent but that figure jumps to 55 per cent among the under-35s and economists estimate that four million new jobs are needed every year to make any impact on joblessness. These are some of the reasons that Nigeria overtook India this year as home to the largest number of people living in extreme poverty.

The prospect of multitudes of young Nigerians heading north is the stuff of nightmares in Brussels, Paris and Berlin. A dystopic recent book by American journalist Stephen W Smith called The Scramble for Europe, a tasteless play on the 19th-century “Scramble for Africa” which hints at reverse colonisation, has been lapped up by politicians, even though it’s been rubbished by demographers. In reality, migration out of Africa remains lower than the global average of 2 per cent but political anxiety opens the door to panic spending. European governments and the EU are throwing money at a host of migration-related schemes from opening small factories to paying for biometric IDs for every Nigerian so that in the future it will be easier to identify and remove them if they come to Europe.

Nearly six months on from the training days at the Zafike, James Monday is still cutting hair in Lagos. The plan he submitted to open a salon has failed to materialise. Invoices he sent months ago to IOM partners have been ignored. His initially wary enthusiasm has hardened into suspicion and anger. “They fooled us,” he said. “I wish I knew I was gonna waste my time, I wouldn’t have gone for the training.”

Nancy Joe is back living on handouts from her elder sister and her husband outside Benin City. She was put into a group of three returnees at the training in Benin City but it quickly fell apart. The group strategy is designed to make it harder for individuals to sell on the goods they receive as in-kind support rather than put them to work by starting a business. But the teams are usually the first things to fall apart. After Joe realised that her fellow trainees “wanted some money, not a business,” she asked IOM officials for the chance to go it alone. She is still waiting for a response.

Monday and Joe’s disappointment appears to be the norm, not an exception. From a sample of a dozen of returnees who attended the training, not one of them has managed to get a single invoice paid, let alone start a promising business.

In private, IOM officials admit that they have not been able to cope with the sudden influx of returnees. When the Libya returns programme was set up, it was meant to cater for 3,800 people; so far more than 14,000 have been flown back. Despite the modest amounts involved and the urgent need of the returnees, the bureaucratic auditing process demands original invoices to be presented at IOM headquarters in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, regardless of how far away the beneficiaries are, or whether they have any means to send them. The auditors are more concerned with potential fraud than delays, so papers are queried and bounced back and forth between Benin City and Abuja for months. “We are bursting at the seams with paper,” said one official. “We have a shipping container full of documents.” Meanwhile the Europeans who are bankrolling this paper-chase are not sufficiently interested to notice that it exists.

People walk past a fire station set ablaze by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Abuja. Photo:  KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES People walk past a fire station set ablaze by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Abuja. Photo: KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

People walk past a fire station set ablaze by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Abuja. Photo: KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES Capital cities are often worlds apart from the countries they govern but few can be more divorced from their surrounding reality than Abuja. Built in the 1980s, the modernist city was designed to exclude the urban poor that its government’s spectacular dysfunction creates. It is home to traffic-less avenues, statement architecture and all of the international diplomatic missions. More recently, as word of migration funding has spread, it has begun to attract groups claiming to work with returnees and desperate to be connected to foreign embassies.

One of these newly-created organisations arrives at my hotel with six people dressed in polo shirts printed with the name of their group. After a buzzword-heavy spiel, I am introduced to a young man they claim was deported from the UK. It takes a very short conversation for it to become clear that he has never travelled to London, let alone been forcibly returned from there.

These grifters effectively confirm that there is money to be made from migration programmes, though sadly not by smallholder shops in rural villages. The real entrepreneurs recognise that the opportunity comes from being seen to proselytise about the ills of migration to any of their compatriots willing to listen.

The Association of Returned Migrants International arrive soon after the fake deportee leaves. A three-man band of real-life returnees from Libya who passed through Osita’s training in Benin City, they had a scheme for a fish farm but their invoices have not been paid. Rather than sit around, they have turned themselves into this association and switched their attention to appearances on radio shows to tell horror stories of what awaits would-be migrants in Libya. “Most of this training is not working,” says Stephen Ogene, one of the trio. “It is not a solution.”

In some respects there is little to choose between Ogene’s group and the report writers at McKinsey, or the overwhelmed staff at IOM. They all recognise that there is more money to be made by indulging European delusions than questioning them. The impetus to reverse migration through “sustainable returns” is nothing more than an attempt at dressing up repressive -policies in progressive clothes. The idea that a tiny subset of a vast population can somehow be insulated from the economic malaise that originally spurred them to leave home in the first place is a pipe dream. So is any idea that development can be driven by a group of reluctant returnees with a few hours of entrepreneurial training. Despite the spin, the true aim is plain: to send migrants back.

[su_pullquote align="right"]“There is more money to be made by indulging European delusions than by questioning them”[/su_pullquote]

Back in Benin City, an elderly nun called Sister Bibiana has long worked to house women and girls who have come back from Europe. These young women were often trafficked there by their own families in the hope that they might come into money, only to run instead into appalling abuse. Having been concerned with this reverse tide of migrants for far longer than most, she recalls when everyone “thought we were foolish for working with returnees.” So how does she feel about so many of her compatriots scrambling to do the same? “Now there is money, there are groups popping up who see it as a lucrative job.” And what of the Europeans in the background, writing the cheques? How does she read their motivations? “They want to send people back and they don’t want to feel bad. They want to say they did their best.” This production was supported by OPEN Media Hub with funds provided by the European Union