Photo: IOM/Moayad Zaghdani
The first IOM charter flight from Tripoli to Niamey touched down in Niger on September 6, 2016, carrying 171 migrants anxious to escape the turmoil of conflict-ridden Libya and eager to reunite with their families. Fifty-six more charter and commercial flights followed over the next four years for over 5,500 Nigerien migrants. Daouda is one of them.
“I am 46-years-old, but I never set foot in any school,” Daouda begins. “I had a small business in Niger, but it wasn’t going well. I saw friends and neighbors going to Libya to look for work so I went and looked as well.”
Daouda is one of the 166 Nigerien migrants who returned from Libya on a charter flight organized by IOM in February.
“I ended up staying for almost four years working in construction,” he recounts, waiting to be registered by IOM’s team in Niamey after his arrival.
“As long as there were new buildings to be built, there was work for everyone — the problem was whether you got paid at the end of the day.”
Once he arrived in Libya, Daouda moved into a neighborhood where many of his compatriots lived, sharing familiar food, speaking the same language and recreating a sense of home.
Close to a quarter of the approximately 650,000 migrants currently living in Libya are Nigeriens — the most prevalent migrant nationality (as of December 2019). Like many of his compatriots, Daouda traveled to Libya looking for seasonal work.
“I could have gone to Europe a long time ago if I wanted to, but the European dream was never my goal. I just wanted to earn enough to provide for my family and go back home,” he says.
After the conflict broke out in Tripoli and surrounding areas in April 2019, Daouda’s wife called relentlessly, begging him to come home. Though he wanted to return, he had no means to do so.
On the way to work one day he was picked up off the street and held by armed men.
“They took everything I had while I was in prison — everything. I worked all this time for nothing.”
Once released, he went back to his daily construction jobs, hoping he could save enough to pay for his return to Niger.
IOM’s outreach teams in Libya regularly visit migrant neighborhoods to inform them of the assistance available, including the Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme. Several of Daouda’s friends used the services and go back to their families in Niger with IOM’s support. They got in touch with him, and Daouda was persuaded to return as well.
IOM’s VHR teams in Libya assist both migrants in detention centers and urban areas. Close to 70 per cent of Nigeriens who availed themselves of the VHR programme were previously living in urban areas in Libya.
With the launch of IOM’s VHR hotline in 2018, the assistance became even more accessible. Since its launch, close to half of the calls have been placed by Nigeriens wanting to know more. To adapt to current needs, the hotline now also has operators who speak Hausa and Tamashek, both common local languages in Niger.
* Call +218 9100 11 491 if you are stranded in Libya *
Probably no other IOM mission understands more about organizing charter flights than IOM Libya which has, since November 2015, arranged more than 300 charter and 700 commercial flights for over 50,000 migrants wishing to return home. Migrants from 44 different countries of origin have been assisted with VHR over the years, most of them from Nigeria (15,729), Mali (6,440) and Niger (5,541).
In one week alone this February, IOM Libya’s 61 VHR staff successfully organized four charter flights to three different countries of origin. The key to understanding the VHR programme is the word ‘coordination’. Each seemingly straightforward two-hour flight takes, in fact, days or even weeks of planning with relevant authorities, embassies and consulates, migrant communities, IOM missions in countries of origin, and other partners.
The escalating conflict of the past 11 months has made humanitarian work both increasingly complicated and more significant, and added multiple security challenges to the already complex VHR operations. Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli for example has been shelled multiple times, forcing the postponement of charter flights, sometimes more than once.
“We stay at the airport late into the night to make sure the flights take off safely,” says Feisal Muhamud, a Returns Operations Officer with IOM Libya.
“Other times, the airport has to close down even if our staff already started boarding the migrants. We just sit tight and wait for the airport to reopen. There is only a brief moment of happiness when we see the wheels of the plane leave the ground — and then we start prepping for the next one.”
All these movements require scaled up operations and reinforced assistance for migrants wishing to return home. Nowadays, although still challenging, charter flights are a regular occurrence for the 16 IOM operations staff managing returns in Niger. Lists are made and WhatsApp groups created to ensure good coordination round the clock.
“Whenever there is a gap, staff from other units jumps in to assist. There is no programme manager who hasn’t at some point distributed food,” IOM Niger Operations Officer Esmel Essoh notes.
“We often end up working nights which requires a lot of flexibility. Stress levels can be high at times, but we do our best to support each other since we are all working towards the same goal — to support migrants in need.”
As Daouda’s plane finally lands in Niamey at 2 am — six hours later than scheduled — a team of IOM medical, protection, data management and operations staff is waiting impatiently for the returnees. Upon arrival, they provide migrants with food, technical and logistical support and medical and psychosocial care if needed. Each migrant also receives pocket money so they can pay for transport to their community of origin.
Daouda hasn’t seen his wife Rafya and his two children Ibrahim and Mariam for four years. The older one recently started school while little Miriam just turned six.
“I definitely missed out on many important moments in their lives, but I am determined to make up for it,” Daouda says optimistically.
“My experience in Libya hasn’t always been easy, but I’m glad I had it. I learned a lot from it and came out a better person.”
The Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) facilitates orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration management through the development of rights-based and development-focused policies and processes on protection and sustainable reintegration. Daouda, like all migrants returned from Libya via IOM’s VHR programme, is eligible for reintegration assistance. Reintegration projects aim to help returnees reach economic self-sufficiency, psychosocial well-being and social stability within their communities.
The goal of IOM’s Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism (MRRM) in Niger is to provide direct assistance to migrants in transit, carry out activities promoting viable alternatives to migration, inform individuals about safe migration, and encourage activities that ensure migrants can contribute to the economy in their countries of origin.
Both the VHR and MRRM programmes are part of the larger EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration supported by the European Union.