Abused and Robbed African Migrants Return Home ‘Ashamed’

Niger - Francoise was convinced that she would have a better life if she had been in North Africa or Europe. She soon realized the reality was otherwise.

“I wanted to see Morocco and Algeria but it was all lies,” says Francoise, 32, from Cameroon.

Francoise is one of dozens of migrants who found refuge at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) transit center in Niamey, Niger. Francoise left Cameroon in early January 2016 and headed to Morocco with the hope of finding better economic opportunities. Once she arrived in the Algerian town of Tamanrasset, she had no money left to continue her journey. She had no money to return either.

Francoise, like all other migrants staying at the IOM transit center in Niamey, recounted a painful journey where they faced abuse and racketeering in the Sahara desert and in some countries of destination such as Libya and Algeria. The returning migrants were full of regret and wanted to go home despite a guilty feeling of failure.

In Algeria, Francoise says she found nothing of what she had expected. “I thought it was a paradise but it was none of that. I could not even get jobs in restaurants or baby sit,” says Francoise about her short stay in Tamanrasset, southern Algeria.

Francoise left her country with 700 000 CFA francs (USD 1,188) but after paying smugglers and being robbed in the desert, she resorted to prostitution to earn some money.

Francoise’s story is not an unusual one. Female migrants face several kinds of threats and risks in their journey to a new country. They often become the easy prey to smugglers, human traffickers and in some cases of their own family members as reported by the New York Times earlier this year.

Most of migrants from Central and East Africa transiting via Niger to Libya and Algeria are young men (95 percent). Only a small number of women (about 5 percent) embark on the migratory journey.

According to a 2014 IOM study, 90 percent of returning women migrants from Algeria and Libya survived from begging and/or prostitution.  The study also found that women were eight times more exposed to sexual abuse in the destination country than men.

Francoise regrets leaving Cameroon but is now also ‘ashamed’ of returning home empty-handed. “I am afraid that my friends will make fun of me when I return to Cameroon,” she says.  “I sold all I had before leaving. I lost everything. I have to start again.”

Giuseppe Loprete, Chief of Mission at the IOM in Niger, confirms that there is a stigma associated with returning without money or a job, and adds that several migrants left home against their will. “Not all want to go but due to pressure they receive from their families and community they leave,” says Loprete.

Aboubakar, like Françoise, recalls a humiliating experience while trying to go to Morocco.  He called off his journey after a group of relatives were arrested crossing the Niger-Algeria border. Aboubakar, 22, who was traveling in a different vehicle chose not to continue.

By then, Aboubakar, along with his younger brother, had already escaped death more than once in the desert. He recalls being stopped by several armed men who abused and robbed them.  It is unclear who these men were. “They first asked for our IDs. Then they maltreated us. They asked us to do military push-ups. They forced us to kneel, then kicked and insulted us,” Aboubakar says. “They only let us go when they took our money.”

Aboubakar, 22 from Cameroon, lost both his parents and had to provide for his siblings. He believed he could find a better life in North Africa and later in Europe. “I truly regret embarking on this journey. I regret because of what we found on the roads, because we had to sleep in the desert, walk in the forest. I was far from understanding the dangers we faced,” Aboubakar says.

Aboubakar is not the only one who found out about the risks of illegal migration while already en-route. A survey carried out by IOM in Niamey and Agadez (Center Niger) last year showed that 74 percent of migrants have no information about the journey ahead and simply follow orders given by smugglers.

“Unfortunately, they often learn about the dangers when it is too late,” says Loprete. “They realize when they find themselves in detention in Libya, when their friends are killed in front of them or when they are forced to work to earn a little money to continue their journey.”

Fortunately, Aboubakar found safety at the IOM transit center in Niamey where he was able to stay until his departure to Yaounde. Aboubakar, like the other migrants there, was recovering from a traumatizing journey and receiving psychological counseling offered by the Italian NGO Coopi. 

In 2015, out of 120 000 migrants who transited through Niger, 7,718 migrants, including 145 women and 160 minors, ended up in one of the IOM migrant centers. While IOM assisted migrants from 15 different nationalities, the majority of them were from Senegal, Gambia and Mali, according to a survey.

One of the challenges, says Loprete, is that there are currently few alternatives to the smuggling business in Niger. “The migratory movements in the region of Agadez are increasing and consolidating. It is a huge income-generating business for the traffickers and smugglers,” he says. “I think no one is unemployed right now in Agadez, especially those working in services like transportation and accommodation. That’s the population which, a few years ago, was working in the tourism industry. “

The region of Agadez, once a top rated destination for its paleontological, archaeological and historic sites, has been suffering from a Tuareg rebellion in the north and some incursions of extremist elements from Al Qaida in Islamic Maghreb. To make ends meet, locals who once lived off the tourism activity have turned to the traffic of migrants.

In 2015, only 37 deaths were recorded in the Sahara desert, according to IOM’s Missing Migrants project, yet Loprete believes the number is higher.

Deaths are happening, he says, but “there is the difficulty to find bodies in the desert and this explains the current lack of news coverage.”

Hajer Naili is a journalist and the Communications and Social Media Officer at IOM Washington, D.C.

Watch related video: Death, Abuse, Extortion: A Migrant's Journey