“When I came back, I was scared to go home – I was so skinny that my family could not recognize me. In fact, my daughters said I was not their mother. I cried and cried,” Happiness recalled. A mother to two little girls, she was narrating the emotional distress of coming home after 19 traumatic months in Libya.
The psychological and psychiatric burden faced by returned migrants, whose dreams of a better life abroad never materialised, is a silent scourge affecting thousands of young Nigerians.
According to Otefe Edebi, Medical Director at Gracehill Behavioural Health Services (GBHS), the emotional distress caused by a failed migration constitutes a serious risk to mental health. He added that Nigeria’s public health system is neither geared to handle the problem, nor “fully aware” of its existence.
“A suicide mission”
Happiness was 22 when she set off from her home in Edo State with dreams of reaching Italy. Buoyed by the success stories of friends and neighbours living abroad, she never could have imagined the “suicide mission” that awaited her.
Throughout the ordeal, Happiness said she was twice kidnapped, spent months in Libya’s infamous prisons, was repeatedly tortured, watched as her pregnant friend was ‘raped to death, and slept on the streets; surviving on little else than sugar and rice.
Unable to cope with the dehumanising conditions any longer, she returned to Nigeria with the assistance of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – a United Nations agency assisting migrants in distress to return to their countries of origin.
Far from joyful, however, Happiness’ return was fraught with anguish as she came home ’empty-handed’, traumatised and ashamed. Adding to her distress, family members shunned Happiness for returning without the wealth they had hoped for and indebting the family in the process.
Four years later, and without adequate psychological support, she is still reeling from the experience.
IOM data reveals that the overwhelming majority of irregular migrants leave Nigeria for economic reasons, frustrated by persistent unemployment and unlivable wages – Nigeria’s not so silent scourge.
The hope of finding a better life abroad pushes vulnerable youth into the hands of human traffickers and smugglers, who place profit before human life. The intense hardship that migrants are often subjected to as a result of their vulnerability forces thousands to abandon the journey prematurely.
According to Jorge Galindo, IOM’s public information officer in Nigeria, his office has assisted a total of 21,246 migrants in distress to return to Nigeria, mainly from Libya and Niger, and other countries.
A lack of statistics means that it is unknown how many more migrants have returned via other channels – “invisible” returnees.
Taiwo, 25, is one such invisible returnee. She was deported by Saudi Arabian authorities after her employer – who regularly beat her – had the Oyo native jailed on false charges when she refused his sexual advances.
A victim of trafficking, she said she worked as a house help in slave-like conditions for nearly a year, receiving a mere N142,000 for her work, despite having paid her traffickers N400,000 for the journey.
“When I came home (to Nigeria) I slept at my friend’s place as I was too afraid to go back to my father’s house,” she said, expressing her shame at coming home without the money to reimburse her parents. Taiwo, who only agreed for the use of her first name, said her family had sold their land to finance part of the trip, with the belief that their daughter would find good fortunes abroad.
Mr Edebi says that “nobody is ready to be kind or understand” the deeply disturbing conditions that forced a migrant to return. He adds that this often leads to communities ostracising returnees, though Taiwo did not suffer that fate.
Discussions held with several returnees have shown that beyond trauma, there is often a palpable sense of shame and stigma that is associated with returning prematurely – especially when huge sums have been spent on the journey.
Jerry Adelu is familiar with that feeling of shame. After three “traumatic” years in Libya, where he ‘buried more companions than anyone ever should’, Mr Adelu decided that the promise of Europe was not worth his life and returned to Nigeria, having never reached Germany.
“So many people that left (Nigeria) before me got to where they were going, and when they came home, they brought goodies. I did not get to my destination and I had used so much money trying that I could not go home – I felt like a failure,” Mr Adelu said.
Unable to face his family and friends, the 31-year-old exiled himself and moved to Lagos to start a new life, rather than Benin from where he travelled. Self stigmatisation and shaming is prevalent among returnees.
Temitope Olanipekun, 25, had a small child waiting for her when she returned from Niger and Libya and so could not follow in Mr Adelu’s footsteps to move to a new city in Nigeria; though she too feared the reactions of her people back home.
After coming home from nearly three years abroad, Mrs Olanipekun says she was “neglected” by friends and family – stigmatised for not making it, when so many others had.
Mr Edebi says it is common for families to be “far more interested” in their relatives coming home “without financial support” than with serious mental health challenges.
Now the owner of a catering business, Mrs Olanipekun is doing better but is still haunted by the trauma of her journey.
Determined that no one else should live through her suffering, she volunteers with two organisations to educate youth in her hometown of Sagamu on the realities of irregular migration, and the distressing emotional toll it can take.
Beyond repatriation of migrants, IOM also provides reintegration assistance. Mr Galindo says the organisation has assisted 8,426 Nigerian returnees by supporting them in creating a business or by offering skills classes.
Several beneficiaries of this programme, including Mr Adelu and Mrs Olanipekun, told the PREMIUM TIMES that being financially autonomous has been a source of relief to their emotional distress.
Invisible returnees, like Taiwo, face an even more uphill battle as they are expected to reintegrate without the assistance of IOM, or the government. As a volunteer helping invisible returnees from countries such as Mali, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Mrs Olanipekun says she is most concerned for this at-risk group.
Mr Edebi confirmed that, based on interactions with his patients, IOM assistance provides returnees with “hope” and “helps with their general mental health”. As a psychiatrist at the GBHS, Mr Edebi and his team treat returnees with the most severe psychiatric challenges – mainly psychosis.
The returnee programme at GBHS is funded by IOM’s mental health reintegration programme.
Though a report showed that as of January 2020, 1,011 returnees had received some form of mental health assistance from IOM, it is a drop in the ocean when compared to the scale of the problem and the state of the public health system.
“The public health system (in Nigeria) is not adequate in itself to address all the challenges, considering the numbers (of returnees) and the (lack of) trained personnel. This population [returnees] is not being properly attended to, based on manpower, resources and the structure required to deal with this,” affirms Mr Edebi.
The consequences of a failed migration mean that returnees have “a higher than average” suicide rate and often become entrapped by alcohol and drug abuse.
For Mrs Olanipekun, she has found other ways to deal with her emotional distress. Mostly, she says, by opening up about her experiences with other returnees: “I still feel the trauma today (but) … when you talk about your experience, you help to heal (it).”