At first, Evelyn Osahon stayed at her friend’s one bedroom apartment on Agho Street, Benin City, south-west Nigeria, ashamed to go out, until night when the streets became empty. In the afternoon, friends walked about, ready to pour scorn on her over her unemployment. Family members walked on the streets, and she wanted to avoid their stare, bitter and disappointed with her.
When Evelyn Osahon returned to Nigeria voluntarily from Italy, she suffered from depression through this condition. Unemployment pervaded her home town in Benin City, with the youth rate in Nigeria standing at 19.61 percent, from 17.72 percent when Evelyn left the country in 2018. However, she embraced the European Union-funded reintegration programme of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM), got some assistance, even though after a long while, and ended up with a perfume-making business.
Like Evelyn, Jennifer Ewemade returned to Nigeria from Italy, but a deportation caused her arrival and she suffered not just from depression and unemployment, but also from lots of pressures. Fifty-two percent of youths wanted to leave Nigeria in 2018, rising from 36 percent in 2014, so not many sympathised with Jennifer on her arrival. To make matters worse, she could not benefit from the IOM programme, because she was a deportee, not a returnee, meaning she got no assistance to set up a business from anybody.
Evelyn and Jennifer’s situations as migrants may look the same, but they typify the fate of returnees and deportees in Nigeria. While returnees get a semblance of hope through the IOM programme and others, deportees get little or no hope of assistance from the IOM programme, consigning them to poverty and suffering. “I am stressed about the situation. I am stressed with Nigeria, I am stressed by Benin City. I am troubled and stressed by not having assistance from anywhere,” Jennifer told EU Observer
A year before Evelyn left for Italy through the Sahara Desert, the European Union made Nigeria one of its five priority countries in its efforts to reduce migration. It intended to accelerate the funding of a voluntary return programme through IOM, an initiative that has since seen more than 19,452 Nigerians assisted to voluntarily return home between April 2017 and February 2022, with more than 500 assisted in 2022, after getting stuck or having a change of mind in the desire to stay in Europe.
On her return to Nigeria, Evelyn found herself back to square one. “People mocked me, saying I came back to Nigeria with nothing to show for it, asking why I bothered to return at all,” Evelyn told EU Observer. While waiting for the IOM reintegration course, she stayed with friends for months in Benin City, not daring to visit her parents, who were financially wrecked through borrowed money to ensure Evelyn traveled in 2018.
After five months, Evelyn got invited for the IOM reintegration course. “Many of us sat in classrooms and listened to talk about not seeing ourselves as failures. Many of us wept, when we told each other stories about what happened to us. One girl who came back from Libya went insane. Some died at the sea. Many perished in the Sahara Desert,” Evelyn said. At the end of the reintegration course, Evelyn joined five fellow returnees who lived in her area to develop plans towards establishing businesses.
Three members of the group dropped out of the programme, but Evelyn persisted, having remembered the story of the girl who went insane at the reintegration course, and realising she chose to come back after a rethink faraway in Italy. “I had so many things to pay for: food, transport, debts, family responsibility, and other things. I had to go on,” she said. A year after the course, she now operates a perfume-making business in Benin City, able to feed herself and stop thinking about the harrowing experiences on her journey to Italy.
Unfortunately, Jennifer Ewemade’s tale sounds different from Evelyn’s experiences. Six years after she left for Italy through the Sahara Desert, not only did the EU make Nigeria one of its priority countries in its efforts to reduce migration, it continued to deport thousands of Africans, with around 8,400 Nigerians sent home from Europe, and 13,245 deported from Africa nations such as Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso, etc.
On her return to Nigeria through deportation from Italy, Jennifer also found herself back on square one. “I’m almost running mad. My brain stops working very well. I look at every corner, expecting the people who gave me the money to travel to Italy to send thugs to me, because I’ve been unable to refund the money,” she told EU Observer, her eyes red. She did not get any opportunity to wait for any IOM reintegration programme, because the Italian authorities had deported her – she did not return to Nigeria on her own free will.
Five months after her deportation, Jennifer looked to be at the verge of desperation. “I had no money, nowhere to stay comfortably. I slept on the floor of a house at Mission Road. I didn’t eat well, and I was always on the run, because the people who borrowed me money to go to Italy were always on my neck, harassing me over the payment of the money,” Jennifer said. She joined fellow deportees in her neighborhood to weep over the harsh times they went through while crossing the Sahara Desert on their way to Europe.
With hope not in sight, two of Jennifer’s friends panicked, making another bid to get to Europe, but Jennifer hesitated, knowing it could lead to even more desperation in the future if the Italian police deported her again, as it could worsen her level of indebtedness, meaning she would be worse off then, by returning to a condition less than square one. “Many times, I think about killing myself, I think about ending it all, because my troubles in this life are too much. But I think of my mother who borrowed so much for me to travel, how would she pay back the debt if I kill myself?” Jennifer says. She also thinks about her son, Thomas, who stays with her sister because Jennifer cannot feed him. Who would cater for Thomas in the long term if she killed herself?
Evelyn and Jennifer’s stories show the contradictions in the life of a returnee and a deportee, one able to open a perfume-making business because she enjoyed advantages of an IOM programme for voluntary returnees, the other unable to open any business because she doesn’t enjoy the advantages of the IOM programme, having been forcibly deported from Europe.
Still, Evelyn could enjoy even better support through EU programmes, because though more funds have been injected into it since EU launched the reintegration strategy with $2 billion, various bottlenecks make the funds get to returnees in a slow manner. “When support is absent or slow to materialise, women have been pushed again into the hands of traffickers,” said Ruth Evon Idahosa, Founder of the Pathfinders Justice Initiative.
Jennifer and deportees like her could suffer fewer challenges, if programmes such as IOM’s become routine for people forcibly expelled from Europe. “An understanding of deportation that would not pay sufficient attention to gender might understate the experiences of the deportee woman,” wrote Emma Ratia in a study published in Brill.
Girls who want to emulate Evelyn and Jennifer could asily suffer less challenges, by not allowing themselves to be tricked by traffickers, because if they gain insight into the reception on their arrival in Europe, they won’t need to struggle to be reintegrated, since they won’t want to leave Nigeria for an uncertain life abroad. “A lot of people set out with the intention of migrating to greener pastures but become victims of traffickers because those who facilitate such movements are agents of traffickers,” said Grace Osakue of Girls Power Initiative.
These are not the true names of Evelyn Osahon and Jennifer Ewemade, because they wanted to remain anonymous, fearing their exposure may provoke a backlash in Benin City.