The government and a slew of NGOs are offering assistance to help returnees settle back in their native place.
Joy returned to Nigeria in late 2015 after two years of enduring sexual exploitation in Italy. She left for Europe in 2013, after separating from her husband, which left her struggling to cater for her four children.
Back in her village in southern Nigeria’s Edo state, it was hard to start afresh. A few months into 2016, she overheard a radio jingle sponsored by Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIC), discouraging people from travelling abroad illegally and asking returnees to visit their office in Benin City, the capital of Edo state, to receive business training and reintegration support.
She phoned a hotline included in the jingle and was later referred to the local NGO Idia Renaissance to learn tailoring.
Joy is among thousands of Nigerian women who have been trafficked, mostly to Europe, for commercial sexual exploitation. An estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Nigerian women work as sex workers in Italian streets.
And according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the majority of more than 181,000 migrants who arrived in Italy by sea in 2016 were from Nigeria (37,551), of which women and unaccompanied children accounted for 11,009 and 3,040 respectively.
Following a shipwreck 60 miles off Libyan coast in April 2015, in which more than 700 migrants were feared dead, European leaders met with African leaders in November that year at the Valletta Summit on Migration in Malta.
At the end the summit, the EU and its member states established the EU Emergency Trust Fund to tackle the drivers of irregular migration and promote economic opportunities. Around €3.3 billion (or $3.7 billion), largely from the EU and some from its member states and other donors, has been allocated to the initiative so far.
With support from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, as well as contributions from Germany and Italy, an EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration was launched in December 2016 to help the EU, IOM and African countries work together to combat irregular migration and promote safe migration.
The programme supports migrants who want to return to their countries of origin with a free flight ticket, accommodation upon arrival, and business training and reintegration support to help them restart their lives.
Since April 2017, the IOM has flown home more than 10,000 Nigerian migrants who could not get to Europe from countries such as Libya, Niger and Mali.
More than 60 percent of the returnees are from Joy’s state Edo, a major migration hub for several decades. Edo state accounts for more than half of irregular migrants leaving Nigeria.
Local NGOs like Idia Renaissance, which was established in 1999, have been working to combat trafficking. In 2004, Idia Renaissance collaborated with UNICEF with the backing of the Swedish International Development Agency to set up a Youth Resource Centre. It provides life management skills like decision-making and negotiation as well as counselling, vocational training, information and services that could help young people wade off traffickers and overcome common challenges such as cultism, unemployment, drug abuse, and sexually transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS.
Joy’s training at the youth centre lasted for six months. She and other participants in the tailoring course take practical, theory and oral examinations to be able to get a certificate and start-up support at the end of the programme.
“They gave me everything to learn tailoring,” Joy, 42, tells TRT World in Benin City. “When we graduated I was supported with money to buy a sewing machine.”
Today, she manages a small tailor shop at Uhunmwode town in Edo state.
The youth centre trains residents in Benin City, returnees and at-risk people in other skills like fashion design, catering and hotel management, computer studies, hairdressing, cosmetology and beadmaking. Trainees have to undergo counselling before they start their journey at the centre.
Mercy, 26, came back to Benin City in 2015, thanks to some Italian nuns who offered her shelter and helped her return home. She, too, was trained at the youth resource centre.
“After the training I used the sewing machine I received to start a small shop and now I have two sewing machines,” says Mercy, who left Nigeria in 2014.
Besides Idia Renaissance, a slew of other NGOs are also helping to tackle trafficking and offering assistance to help returnees, including Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI), and the Initiative for Youth Awareness on Migration, Immigration Development and Reintegration.
Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP also runs a safe house and the IOM, as part of reintegration support, has offered four-day business skills training to thousand of returnees.
State authorities in Edo, too, created the Edo State Taskforce Against Human Trafficking (ETAHT) in 2017, and started an agricultural development scheme that will tackle unemployment and help trafficked people in the state. Edo offered a monthly stipend of 20,000 naira ($56) to migrants who voluntarily returned from the state. About 60.17 million naira ($168,543) has been distributed as of August last year, according to a report from the task force on trafficking.
For GPI, which started in 1994, the mission is to address a wide range of social and health challenges affecting girls and young women. It is currently working with 10 Libyan returnees who are supported by the EU Trust Fund for Africa. The NGO helped the returned migrants set up hairdressing and catering businesses as well as stores selling food items.
These NGOs, IOM, ETAHT as well as NAPTIP, also run awareness programmes in markets and schools, in communities and through football competitions, film shows and radio drama, to teach people about the dangers of irregular migration and promote safe migration. Returnees like Joy often serve as valuable tools in this area as drawing on their horrifying experiences paints a better picture and spreads the message even faster.
For the staff working with these organisations, their mission is to address a problem that they are passionate about, a problem they saw growing up and now they want to be part of the solution.
“I was born here, I grew here and I lived in homes and saw everything,” says Roland Nwoha, the project coordinator of Idia Renaissance. “Migration itself is a human right, it is positive, brings about development but we are committed to fighting against irregular migration.”
Like Nwoha, May Ekido, GPI’s deputy coordinator in Edo state, has lived in the state for over 40 years.
“Why trafficking is of importance to us is that it affects girls who are often seen as a commodity,” says Ekido, who has been travelling around communities to spread the message against irregular migration since 2004. “A woman that is empowered would be able to say no to violence and exploitation.”
And for Sherifat Agbagwu there is far more joy in staying back to help find a fix for this major problem.
“I have a passion for it, I am always happy to put into them what they do not know,” says 45-year-old Agbagwu, who has been working with Idia Renaissance as a tailoring instructor since 2005.
“I enjoy seeing them getting empowered with skills and there is more joy in seeing them learn what they are taught and go out to begin on their own.”
And working with returned migrants has also shaped these NGO workers’ perception of the country.
“The reality on ground is that we don’t have jobs for our youth, the reality is that materialism has eroded our values,” GPI’s Ekido says. “People slave all day at work and earn peanuts but someone becomes a politician and becomes a millionaire [instantly].”
Nwoha of Idia Renaissance holds similar sentiments.
“In most rural communities, there is almost a complete absence of government presence, no industries, no infrastructure, no electricity, hospitals and schools, so young people are moving -- they don’t want to stay in such environment,” he says.
“We don’t need to talk too much just put things in place and people would come back themselves, they will stay and won’t even want to go away.”
Returnees like Mercy and Joy agree with them and even say the support they receive is not enough to help them settle in comfortably.
Most of the skills like tailoring, hairdressing, and barbing are packed with bigger competitors who dominate the market. A lack of basic infrastructure, like power and roads for example, mean returnees often have to find ways to run their businesses on small budgets often with little profit at the end.
Again, the financial support they receive is not enough to help them grow their businesses, leaving them at a small-scale level that does nothing beyond helping them to feed and cater for their basic expenses.
“Young people learn vocational skills but no encouragement, no electricity, no water, let’s not even talk about the roads -- these things makes life difficult,” Joy says, tears welling up in her eyes.
“It is not telling people to stay when there is nothing to offer them in return. If our government wakes up and work harder to make basic amenities available for us, people will like to stay. But nothing is happening, so people are still desperate to return again and you cannot blame them.”