YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Migrants fleeing Liberia are usually “disappointed and worse off,” according to a representative from a leading Catholic charity.
Liberia lived through a devastating civil war between 1989 and 2003, that led to the deaths of at least 250,000 people. The West African country now suffers from excruciating poverty, chronic unemployment and political instability.
The situation has led thousands to flee the country, joining the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled during the war.
But now they are coming back: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, nearly 400 Liberians voluntarily returned home between January and June 2019.
Many of the returnees had found themselves stranded in Niger, and came back with unsettling stories to tell: Stories of forced labor, hiding from authorities, physical abuse, sexual exploitation, kidnapping and even death.
“Migrants have said it’s not at all what they expected. It’s much harder than what they expected,” said Bill Rastetter, the Liberia country representative for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the international development arm of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
“They are generally disappointed and worse off than when they started because now they failed and let others down who counted on them,” he told Crux.
Rastetter said despite the hardship and the suffering, “many are ready to go again because they feel they don’t have another choice.”
He added that many migrants that return home have an expectation that they will have to work harder and be more prepared to try again, although this isn’t universally true.
“Migrants don’t often share their experiences and have often said, ‘everyone can make their own choice, everyone should try their own fate’,” he said.
CRS has not only been working to help resettle the returnees, but also has been trying to create an enabling environment that discourages labor migration which would let Liberians know that migrants generally get disappointed in their dreams of a better life abroad.
Rastetter mentioned the help offered by the UN’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration program (AVRR), noting the program supports returnees with stipends and psychological services.
He said it is not so easy for migrants who do not receive help.
“The road is much tougher for these people,” Rastetter told Crux.
“Some are shamed by their families and communities and live on the outskirts. They are stigmatized for failing to bring money home to support their families and carry a lot of shame for letting others down. For these reasons, some people delay their return home, preferring instead to settle into another West African country,” he explained.
“They’re stuck in transit—neither home nor on their way out towards Algeria or Libya from where they’ve already been expelled. Because of this shame, it is difficult to share the reality of the route and what they saw because they feel people won’t believe them or because they think they should’ve done something differently,” Rastetter said.
This pattern isn’t unique to Liberia – according to the UN’s migration office, West Africa provides the strongest example of intraregional migration flows in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for 70 percent of migratory movements linked to unemployment.
The UN estimates that about 8.4 million migrants, representing 2.8 percent of the total population, move around West Africa.
CRS has developed the Action for the Protection and Integration of Migrants in (West) Africa (APIMA) program that seeks to support returned migrants and migrants in transit, as well as community members in five countries: Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Senegal.
“Our goal is to help create economic opportunities for people at home—before departure and upon return,” Rastetter told Crux.
“We are also helping reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse along their journeys, and we work in communities to shift the perceptions of migration for migrants, their families, and community and religious leaders,” he continued.
Francis Mendy, director of the Catholic development office in Gambia notes that “it’s not enough to bring them back into the country without a program—an opportunity to settle in. They’re coming back worse than when they left.”
In 2017, CRS said more than 170,000 migrants arrived in Europe through dangerous crossings of the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea.
The agency says migrating and sending remittances home is often seen as a coming-of-age for youth, who feel they must leave home to improve their families’ financial and social wellbeing.
“People are migrating at great peril because they feel like they’ve run out of options,” said Petra Suric Jankov, who runs the CRS West Africa migration project.
“The pressure and responsibility on migrants is enormous, and it’s what makes our work even harder. We are not simply working with migrants who are looking for more economic opportunities. We are also working with people who are doing this in the name of their entire communities,” she said.
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