The article ‘What happens after victims of trafficking return to Nigeria?’, published on 16 April 2019 by openDemocracy on the status of voluntary Nigerian returning migrants from Norway in 2016, has caught our attention. This is a summarised version of another article, dated 29 April 2018, published by the Anti-Trafficking Review.
The report, authored by Sine Plambech, Erlend Paasche and May-Len Skilbrei rightly highlights some of the challenges involved with large caseloads of vulnerable migrants voluntarily returning to Nigeria. However, we are dismayed by various inaccuracies to which we would like to respond.
The article begins with the premise that the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme (AVRR) is aimed at enacting migration control. Far from stopping migration, this programme aims to ensure that migrants receive a safe and dignified return when they are unable or unwilling to remain in the host or transit countries, and that they are then supported in achieving sustainable reintegration in full respect for human rights. In Nigeria we have pursued this mission since 2001.
IOM assistance in Nigeria in this area has evolved over the years. We have sought to improve the chances of achieving a safe and dignified return and sustainable reintegration by taking into account economic, social and psychosocial needs across the individual, community and structural dimensions. This means that, contrary to a ‘one-size fits all’ approach, AVRR seeks to respond to the specific socio-economic needs of returning migrants as well as the needs of their communities of origin.
This includes conducting individual vulnerability assessments using standardised tools that allow us to identify marginalised groups in need of further assistance. Vulnerable migrants in need of medical and psychosocial support are treated as a matter of priority, and they are consulted when we develop the tailored rehabilitation and reintegration plans to which they are entitled. Our support requires careful planning and investment in order to assist returnees in achieving fulfilling and sustainable livelihoods. This is a far more complex and lengthier process than the one depicted in the article and includes a series of tailored, needs-based interventions which were omitted in the piece.
The article paints all actors involved in the return and rehabilitation of victims of trafficking with the same brush, arguing that “most professionals focused squarely on the sub-category of those trafficked for the purpose of prostitution”, and that “women were much more likely to be considered ‘vulnerable’ than men”. To argue that IOM has a preference on the type of exploitation is offensive and unsubstantiated by facts. Since 2016 to date, IOM has provided assistance to 854 victims of trafficking returning to Nigeria, including 106 male victims who have been subject to diverse forms of exploitation (internal case data).
A process of improvement
It is also worth noting that the article paints a rather outdated landscape of how the AVRR programme in Nigeria works. We have seen considerable gains ever since these testimonies were collected in 2016. The ‘bureaucratic’ challenges involved in providing cash grants to returnees, vulnerable or otherwise, that were highlighted in the report have been addressed. For example, IOM worked with a local bank to make it easier for returnees to open bank accounts, namely by making it possible for them to use scanned copies of the travel documents they used to return as identification.
In addition to cash grants, IOM also provides ‘in kind’ support to our beneficiaries. The article suggests that a returnee’s preference for cash is indicative of the failure of the AVRR programme, however we find that to be a short-sighted conclusion. In-kind reintegration, coupled with the right counselling support, help returnees navigate the challenging process of setting up an income generating activity which they might otherwise have been discouraged to attempt.
It is also important to note that, contrary to the article’s claims, the type of support given to returnees is duly conveyed to them all along their reintegration process, putting their rights and needs at the forefront. To hint at a deliberate attempt by IOM to deceive returnees and raise false expectations is dangerously untrue. This speaks against some of the anonymous testimonies presented in the article, which show returnees expressing dissatisfaction with the way they had received their reintegration support. For example, the article includes the following quote: “it was only when I landed here I realized that this was not going to be cash in hand”. We find this difficult to believe. Helping migrants make informed decisions is at the heart of the AVRR programme and is a key principle of the AVRR Framework referenced above. This includes thoroughly counselling returning migrants of the type and modalities of the assistance to be provided to them.
The fact that IOM was not consulted to corroborate the evolution of our programme to present a well-balanced picture in no way benefits the migrants at the centre of the story. The article closes with the suggestion that “AVRR-funding states should systematically monitor and evaluate their programmes”. IOM in Nigeria has a feedback collection and monitoring mechanism which allows us to integrate the opinions of returnees and other stakeholders into our programme. Indeed, this is part of our global standards aimed at setting a strong evidence-based approach for reintegration interventions. These and all other clarifications listed above could have been provided had IOM staff been contacted.
All partners involved in the voluntary return and reintegration process in Nigeria, including national and local government and civil society organisations, have made great strides over the past three years. We believe that the role of the media is instrumental in helping dispel the negative portrayals of migrants, including returnees, who are often subject to stigmatisation in their own communities of origin. We believe that there is more work to do to provide sustainable alternatives to irregular migration, and this includes opening the debate to all voices involved to find solutions together.
In view of the above, we would be glad to exercise the right of reply on your platform and clarify the authors’ statements and misunderstandings in order to provide the readers with the full picture.
Chief of Mission