So when Mariam heard about the so-called “Italian Programme”, she decided she would go. It was June 2017. Without telling anyone, she sold her father’s land, turned the $2,500 over to the “connection agent” organising her trip, and left her hometown of Magburaka in the east of Sierra Leone (on a series of buses via Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso) for Agadez in Niger, where she was told she would catch a flight to Europe.
But in Niger, there was no flight, and the agent she had paid was unreachable.
A year later, Mariam has no money, nowhere to live. She is back in Sierra Leone sleeping on the concrete floor of a house in Makeni, three hours east of the capital, Freetown. If her hosts don’t share their food with her, she doesn’t eat. The police are pursuing her for an unpaid debt. Everyone looks down on her. Even her family has disowned her.
Mariam had been in nursing school before she left for Niger. She pulls a photo from her pocket, taken in the hospital ward before her departure. In it, she is wearing a nurse’s uniform and smiling broadly, a confident young woman on the brink of a professional future.
Tears roll down her cheeks as she looks at the picture.
It is a far cry from the woman she is today.
Sitting behind a tree in the dusty yard where no one can hear her, Mariam confides that she is barely coping. “I am worried – about everything. I am worried about prison. I am lonely, stressed, depressed.”
The stigma, she says, is the least of her problems. She is haunted by what happened to her in Niger and Libya. “My secret has already become part of me,” she says, biting her lip. “It is hard to work it through.”
What Mariam is trying to work through began in Agadez, long the gateway for traders travelling from sub-Saharan Africa to the north. For centuries, caravans of camels carried salt, gold, ivory, and slaves across the desert sands. In recent years, convoys of pick-up trucks overflowing with people and contraband have plied the vast, difficult to govern route.
The town once bustled with throngs of migrants, mostly looking for a way north to the coast and the chance to get to Europe. But in 2016, the Nigerien government began enforcing an EU-backed anti-smuggling law that drove the migration business underground.
Still, it didn’t take long for Mariam to join other stranded Sierra Leoneans shortly after she arrived in Agadez last year.
“When we saw all the Gambians and Senegalese and Nigerians and Ghanaians, all heading across the desert, we decided to go, too,” she explains. Piling into a pick-up, the group headed off.
Five months later, as Mariam left the Tripoli prison where she had been detained, again, after her second attempt to cross the Mediterranean failed, the better future she had dreamed of seemed further away than ever.
This time, however, she would not try again. She decided to return home.
Mariam had had enough. Along the way, she had been raped, starved, and beaten; bought and sold by captors who demanded money she didn’t have. Others phoned families back home who would go into debt cobbling funds together to free their loved ones. Not Mariam. “I didn’t have a phone, the money, or the guts to call back home,” she admits. “I would cry a lot and fear it was the end of my life, and all I could think of was how I would die here alone and no one would ever know.”
On 21 November 2017, Mariam boarded the first repatriation flight organised by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) from Tripoli to Freetown. It was not to be a happy homecoming.
A way back home
In early 2017, both UNICEF and IOM published reports documenting the abuses, violence, and slavery that migrants were suffering en route to Europe through Libya. But it wasn’t until CNN’s secretly filmed footage of migrants being sold in slave auctions aired in mid-November 2017 that the world took notice and calls for action echoed around the globe.
As governments focused efforts on their nationals in Libya, IOM scaled up its Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme – an initiative designed to help stranded migrants return home and reintegrate. Sierra Leone had not previously been part of the repatriation programme but quickly contacted IOM. Within weeks, two flights had brought 228 migrants home.
The repatriation programme is nominally voluntary – IOM will not force anyone to return – but these impossible choices are packed full of pressure.
IOM contacts migrants in the prisons and ask if they want to stay, proceed, or return. Even for those who have suffered horrific treatment before ending up in the appalling conditions where IOM often finds them, it is an agonising decision. Often the IOM’s programme is the only way to leave prison without paying the sums demanded by extortionists for release.
But returning home means giving up on the dream of Europe. And as many have borrowed or stolen money or property to finance the journey, they worry about the repercussions of returning empty-handed.
Of the 338 migrants registered for the two repatriation flights in November 2017, 110 failed to board. They slipped away from the airport, some having made arrangements with airport workers offering rooms to hide those awaiting passage across the Mediterranean.
‘I can’t forgive her’
The sale of the land and the money Mariam spent has left her father, Sheik Ali Conteh, 44, seeking assistance for the first time. Her failure has compromised her family’s position in the community.
“I didn’t know what my dad would say. I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but when I got back it was even worse,” Mariam says, wiping tears from her eyes. “My father and my whole family have disowned me.”
Fifteen miles away from where his daughter now resides, in Makeni, Conteh pulls up a bench in front of the his modest two-room home. He looks over at his wife, resplendent in a yellow dress, ready for Friday prayers. She is silent, staring sadly.
“Shame has impacted on us.” he confesses. “I can’t forgive her.”
The response of Mariam’s family reflects the depth of desperation in a society stretched to breaking point by poverty.
Fifteen years after war devastated the former British colony, Sierra Leone is ranked 212th out of 229 countries in terms of GDP. Poverty, unemployment, and corruption are rampant. Across the country, people struggle to put food on the table and send children to school.
Lack of job opportunities has long encouraged Sierra Leoneans to seek work outside the country. Libya was the prime destination until its collapse in 2011 – a collapse, Isata Kabia pointed out during a conversation in February, (before she was replaced as Sierra Leone’s minister of social welfare) that has contributed to the flow of migrants setting out for Europe. “Prior to that, internal migration within Africa worked,” she added.
The push and the pull
Given the difficulty of earning a decent living in Sierra Leone, having a family member in Europe or abroad can make all the difference.
“Everyone wants to have someone in Europe. They live fine! Fine!” exclaims Chief of Women Kuma Mbayo, 70, in the eastern town of Koidu. “If I had someone there, I wouldn’t be sitting here in the dust!”
The view of Europe from Sierra Leone is an alluring one and many migrants describe an unspoken pressure to go. “Those who left and made it to Europe are highly respected,” explains 25-year-old Sheku Kamara in Freetown. “Those that stay behind are seen as failures.”
“My family was always optimistic about people travelling – they saw it as a success story – so even while I was gone, they were positive,” says Sheku, who stole $1,000 from his uncle to fund his journey. “They even organised a funeral for me when they heard I was dead,” he adds.
Like Mariam, Sheku failed to reach Europe and his reception back in Sierra Leone has been similar. His stepfather Osman Kamara is far from happy to see him back again.
“Others made it over, but he didn’t, so now I can’t accept him,” Osman rages. “He is a failure. Even if his intention was to help, he failed. We cannot accept Sheku now. He should live in the streets.”
When parents discover children have stolen to make the trip, as they often have, they are initially furious, but this usually evolves into hope – hope that their debts will be repaid, hope that their loved one will reach Europe and send remittances back to help the whole family.
“When my daughter left, I was so angry about her selling my land,” Mariam’s father Conteh admits“But once I knew she had gone, I was hopeful.”
Social media also plays a role in encouraging people to make the journey. Those who have made it post pictures of themselves on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, dressed smartly and living enviable lives, despite what their actual experience might be.
“I want to believe poverty is the only problem,” says Masakama Kanamanka III, the 49-year-old Paramount Chief of Kholifa Rowalla in northern Sierra Leone. “But I also think they see greener pastures. They see people in Europe doing so well.”
The rigours of the journey are downplayed too. Travel is kept secret, by both migrants and their families. With details never discussed, the facts about the journey are only discovered when it is too late.
Sheku Bangura, 31, was a teacher before he left for Europe. Now that he has failed and come back, the school won’t employ him anymore.
“I know people who are in Italy, but they don’t explain how deep the problem [of travelling overland] is,” says Bangura. “They tell you to go to Niger and get a flight. But you get there, and there’s no flight. And then the smuggler disappears with all the money you’d already given them.”
Migrants describe having had no idea about the brutality and horror they invariably confront as gangs, police, rebels, and even other African migrants work the route, selling, exploiting, and extorting them – a route where beatings, starvation, kidnappings, and killings are routine, and on which women are seen as the most valuable “assets”.
“We were raped day and night,” Mariam whispers, recounting her experience in Libya at the hands of people-smugglers and drivers. “If you refused, they’d beat you and shoot you. Even small boys had guns.”
Many don’t survive.
“Five people died in the desert as we were walking,” Hamzatu Kamara, a 12-year-old girl who travelled with her mother, Fatima, says blankly as she talks about her time in Libya. Drivers and smugglers “killed people right in front of me,” she adds, recalling how one man was beaten and then shot dead after refusing to eat the food he was offered.
Mariam relates how a friend died in her arms after being beaten, raped, and denied water.
Seventeen-year-old Zainab says she was one of only seven out of a group of 23 migrants who survived their journey from Agadez into Libya. “Bodies were left where they died, not buried,” she says. “No one told their families.”
Fanta Koroma, 18, and her siblings Fatmata, 15, and Osman, six, who were travelling in the same group as Mariam, were left alone after their mother died in the desert shortly after they crossed into Libya from Niger.
“From Agadez is where we were suffering. People were dying as there was nothing to eat or drink,” explains Fanta. ”My mother started having chest pain. We only had a little water and we gave it to her, but she still had chest pain – and then she died.”
In Tripoli, migrants are imprisoned after failed sea crossings. They can be apprehended when the houses they stay in are raided, or simply when walking on the street. They can also be imprisoned by smugglers and armed gangs as well as security forces.
“The same people who captured us in boats were also the same ones who would push us out to sea and then just wait to capture us again,” says Sheku Bangura, referring to the smuggling gangs.
He holds up a photo taken in one of seven prison-like facilities where he was jailed, showing dozens of semi-naked men crushed and piled on top each other. Pointing to himself in red shorts amongst the tangle of bodies, he sighs: “When we paid out money to the agent to travel, he was so optimistic.”
Back, but broke
The first time most Sierra Leonean families find out a relative is home is when they receive a call after the migrant has arrived back at Freetown’s Lungi airport.
As part of the AVRR programme, IOM promised a reintegration allowance of €1,000 per person. Designed to kick-start new lives, the funds are given not in cash but as in-kind payments to suppliers, who then give their goods to returnees, according to pre-approved “business plans”. Many returnees – including Mariam – have found ways around this by finding suppliers who will submit false transactions to IOM and hand over the cash they receive in exchange for a cut.
Migrants were told the process would take at least three weeks to implement after their return. But there was no provision to take care of the immediate problem of arriving back penniless – often traumatised, sick, or disabled by beatings, and to families who have rejected them.
Making matters worse, the local media erroneously announced that the failed migrants had each been given $1,000 cash immediately upon return.
“The announcement set off a firestorm in the public,” Mohamed Sanusi, 28, head of youth programmes at Freetown’s Star Radio explains. “Everybody knew people had stolen things, sold property that wasn’t theirs, stolen cash – and they were clambering for their money. People were tracking the returnees.”
Publicly exposed and relentlessly mocked, rejected by families and with nowhere to stay, some penniless returnees, like Sheku Kamara, have little option but to flee into hiding.
Shortly after Isata Kabia was appointed minister of social welfare in January 2018, she discovered there was no comprehensive programme for returnees. “I was confused. I thought – what – you just send people home? And you leave them just like that?”
She moved swiftly to set up a programme to deal with the most immediate needs, offering clothing, counselling, medical treatment, and a mediation service to help mend relations between returnees and families. Kabia ultimately wanted to establish a “safe” house at Lungi airport to accommodate returnees upon arrival, but she was replaced recently by the new administration before these plans came to fruition.
The real solution, Paramount Chief Masakama Kanamanka III, political leader of the Kholifa Rowala Chiefdom in central Sierra Leone, believes, is to reduce the lure of Europe by creating opportunities at home.
The government has turned its focus to stopping migration. Part deterrence and part development, its strategy includes a media campaign featuring returnees recounting their experiences, and a programme to create more job opportunities at home.
It is a welcome initiative, but one that comes too late to help the hundreds of struggling returnees. Five months after their return, the rejection by families and mockery by society is undiminished, while any means to reintegrate and move on seem out of reach.
Few, if any, have been able to use the IOM money for its intended purpose to create a livelihood. Instead, the funds are often returnees’ only hope of beginning to repair relationships with families, to find accommodation, to eat, to avoid jail.
Depressed and worried, Sheku Kamara can’t sleep and barely leaves the room where he is hiding. He doesn’t see a future and is thinking of travelling again.
“If I don’t find anything here, I will use IOM funds to go again,” he says. “Even if I end up going back and dying in Libya.”