The pressure on migrants to 'succeed' can lead to psychological problems | Photo: picture alliance/J. Fergo
The pressure on migrants to 'succeed' can lead to psychological problems | Photo: picture alliance/J. Fergo

Tens of thousands of people have set out from West and Central Africa in recent years in the hope of reaching Europe. Not all have completed the dangerous journey – opting instead to retrace their steps and return to their families. But going home brings new risks – including being seen by the community as ‘a failure’.

Musa Colley’s story of trying to migrate from West Africa to Europe is all too common. In 2016, at the age of 24, he left the tiny nation of Gambia and headed north towards Libya. There he was captured by bandits and tortured. His kidnappers demanded a ransom, which the family managed to scrape together with the help of relatives. Musa finally gave up trying to get to Europe and returned home to his village.

Sadly, the next part of Musa’s story is also familiar. When he arrived back home, his family was happy to see him alive. But their feelings were mixed: Musa was supposed to earn money that would change their lives, but here he was back home and empty-handed.

Musa Colleys mother Sainey Sanyang  Source DWA KrieschYouTube

“It was a shock for me when he came back,” Musa’s mother Sainey Sanyang admitted a few weeks after his return. “I had hoped Musa would find a better future in Europe and would be able to help us. But that dream is over.”

Watch a story about Musa Colley by DW reporter Adrian Kriesch.

If Musa had continued his attempt to reach Italy, it could have cost him his life, but turning back also came at a high price. His abandoned journey cost thousands of euros, leaving his family with huge debts and Musa himself with feelings of shame.

Musa blames himself for letting down his mother, who raised seven children alone after their father died. “I wish I could have helped my mum,” he says, fighting back tears. “We should make our mum proud.”

Gambian returned migrant Musa Colley 2016  Source DWA KrieschYouTube

Most feel shame

For thousands of migrants across West and Central Africa, returning to the family or community having “failed” to reach Europe almost invariably causes deep distress. “The feeling of shame is one of the main challenges returning migrants have when they are back home,” says Gaia Quaranta, a psychologist for the IOM based in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

Often the returning migrant’s family and community had helped to arrange their departure, and they remain heavily invested in the success of the journey. As Papa Lamine Faye, a senior psychiatry professor at Fann Hospital, told the IOM: “The family has often contributed, it has sold cattle, it has made sacrifices to make the project possible. The migrant … has all these hopes placed on him.”

Migration is a collective decision, it's a family decision.
_ Gaia Quaranta, psychologist with IOM

“Sometimes it’s a self-perception of being excluded and marginalized,” Quaranta explains, “(but) sometimes it’s the reality that families and communities do stigmatize returning migrants, especially when they come back ‘emtpy-handed’.”

Failure to understand trauma

Many migrants returning from the Sahara region are not only suffering from a sense of shame or guilt – they are also under severe psychological strain as a result of what has happened to them since their departure.

Libyan authorities in Tripoli detain hundreds of people suspected of trying to reach Europe illegally  Photo EPASTRA high proportion of migrants returning from Libya and Niger, and those expelled from Algeria, have suffered a significant level of violence, which leads to a psychotraumatic reaction, according to Quaranta.

It is often a failure to understand the returnee’s trauma that leads to problems in the community. “Sometimes the families and communities don’t really know the psychosocial challenges the returnees have, so their first reaction is to exclude them, to stigmatize them,” says Quaranta.

Isolation and negative coping mechanisms

When Musa Colley returned to his village, his family was mostly happy to see him. But many others fear they will not be so lucky and decide to stay away. In Senegal, returnees sometimes remain in the capital, Dakar, rather than return to their communities in the south. As a result, they become isolated, says Quaranta, as they don’t reconnect with family members or friends.

In some cases the lack of psychological support means returnees turn to “negative coping mechanisms,” such as drug use. “Their needs are huge, but sometimes there is no one who can address those needs. In Senegal, Gambia and Cameroon, our teams have observed an increasing number of substance abuse situations,” Quaranta says.

More support needed

Migrants shunned by their families or communities when they return home, and those who stay away because of shame or a fear of rejection, are in urgent need of counselling and social support. In the West Central Africa region, there are not enough of these services. In particular, Quaranta says, there is a need for more intervention at the community level and more awareness-raising about the psychosocial difficulties returning migrants might have. “Returnees themselves also have a role in making their communities better understand those challenges.”

Returnees registering for job placement in The Gambia Credit IOMWith the support of the IOM, groups like the National Youth Council in Gambia are trying to boost community involvement in assisting returnees, with projects such as the mobile health caravan, which trains local volunteers to provide psychological first aid and basic counselling. The training includes a health education component on depression, stress, drug use and mental health disorders.

Positive messages

In August 2017 Muhammed Suso, a young Gambian, made the decision to return to his hometown of Soma, where he became involved with the mobile health caravan. Through his training he learned a lot about mental stressors that he was able to share with other returnees, he says.

In an IOM report published this week Muhammed puts the message simply: “Why should we be called failures? People migrate all the time for many reasons, but it does not mean we have no use when we come home.

“One failed journey is not the end of your life … have some faith”.


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