YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A leading Catholic aid agency is helping Africans stay in their home countries and avoid often perilous journeys abroad to seek work.

The need has been highlighted by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which has stranded thousands of Africans seeking to return home but prevented by border closures meant to stop the spread of the virus.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have reduced migration in the region by as much as 50 percent over the past few months,” said Erin Lockley, the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) program manager in West Africa. CRS is the international development and aid agency of the U.S. bishops conference.

“The border closures in all countries have led to migrants becoming stranded, especially in Agadez, Niger, which is a major hub for transit to North Africa,” Lockley told Crux.

According to the United Nations, over 30,000 migrants in West Africa are currently stranded at borders and more than 2,000 are waiting to be assisted in overcrowded transit centers where they are at heightened risk of COVID-19 infection.

The UN says thousands of migrants have been abandoned in the desert by smugglers and traffickers along migratory routes.

The UN migration agency notes that as governments in West and Central Africa are taking preventive measures such as border closures to protect their countries from the spread of COVID-19, “migrants, including those in irregular situations, may find themselves disproportionately impacted, unable to access healthcare, social services or protect themselves.”

In addition, the UN says border closures further limit regular migration options including return, while forcing migrants to take more dangerous migratory routes and putting them at risk to be exploited, extorted, or abused.

Lockley said the number of migrants passing through Agadez was estimated to be “as high as 150,000 in 2015 and about 300,000 for the first six months of 2016,” but although the numbers have declined recent years, COVID-19 lockdowns mean that people are trapped in the city.

“Migrants often believe there are ‘greener pastures’ in Europe or North Africa, that better economic opportunities await them there,” she told Crux.

“They hear from friends or acquaintances that have seemingly made better lives in those places. This isn’t always true, of course, but with such high unemployment in West Africa, even among those who are well-educated, migrants are willing to take the risk. Families and community members see these youth as a source of great hope for the family, especially economically, and encourage them to go,” Lockley added.

“Physically, the journeys are extremely dangerous, whether by land or sea. Many migrants have faced abuse or neglect from smugglers, and unfortunately many migrants have lost their lives along the way,” she said.

“In addition to the physical dangers, many young people face real stigmatization in their home communities if they are not successful in their journeys. Families and community members often sell assets or give their savings so that young people can make the journeys, and so when they come back without having recouped those resources, they often find they are not welcomed back,” Lockley explained.

To help tackle the problem, CRS has developed Action for the Protection and Integration of Migrants in (West) Africa (APIMA), a program that works with migrants in transit in Niger and Mali – since these countries are along major migration routes – and returned migrants and young people who are thinking about migrating in Senegal, The Gambia, and Ghana.

“The project helps migrants consider opportunities available to them locally through vocational training, life and employability skill workshops, and helps migrants process their experiences through trauma awareness workshops,” Lockley told Crux.

In Senegal, The Gambia, and Ghana, the project also “engages youth in community service activities and offers job fairs.”

“In addition to wanting youth to value their own competencies and consider how they can use them in their home communities, we also want communities to value their young people and encourage them to remain,” she said.

Lockley said the project helps young people and communities think about the risks involved in migrating and to consider alternatives to migration, and she claimed the activities have been well-received by migrants and communities alike and have reached 4,739 people directly and at least 20,000 more through radio messaging.

“We’ve established strong referral networks that CRS and our Caritas partners have put in place with other organizations – helping to match young people to vocational training, psychosocial support, and even healthcare,” Lockley told Crux. “The project addresses both short-term and medium-term needs of young people in all five countries.”