As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.
In May, IRIN's Tom Westcott gained rare access to detention centres inside Libya and spent weeks interviewing dozens of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. Westcott found time-consuming registration and evaluation procedures and misunderstandings about who is eligible for various programmes left anger and disenchantment in migrant communities, where news travels fast and often inaccurately. The first instalment of this two-part feature profiled the characters involved and told of their frustrations, fears, and dreams. This second part delves further into EU policies and UN return programmes to see if they are working or if, in the words of one senior Libyan immigration official, it's like digging a hole in the desert, it just keeps filling up with sand.
In the departure lounge of Tunis Airport, nine young men from Sierra Leone in matching light-grey tracksuits clutch boarding passes and travel documents; their only luggage a couple of white plastic bin-bags bearing the logo of the UN's migration agency, IOM. They are painfully thin but in good spirits. They are going home.
I'm so happy I'm going home because I want to start a new life, and I'm grateful to IOM for this opportunity, says 30-year-old Sallo. My two years in Libya were like a prison sentence, and finally I will be free.
When IOM officials visited the Tajoura Detention Centre on the outskirts of Tripoli � where Sallo was held for three months after being arrested in the house he shared with tens of other migrants � and offered him free repatriation under a scheme entitled Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR), he jumped at the chance, along with 119 other eligible detainees in his block.
It's terrible to be a black person in Libya, says Sallo. They treat us so badly, like slaves, and yet we're all Africans. I've had the hardest two years of my life, he says. If I knew it would be like that, I would never have left my home. Many people in Sierra Leone lied to us, saying it was easy to get to Libya, easy to work there and make money, and very easy to take the boat to Europe. But it was all lies. I want to be interviewed on the radio or television when I get home to tell my countrymen the truth about Libya and advise them not to go.
The many people to whom Sallo refers are part of a complex network of human traffickers working across swathes of Africa. Many migrants spoke of new friends in their home countries who claimed to be back from Libya on holiday and, over a period of weeks, built up relationships with them, describing enviable work scenarios, an easy sea crossing, and often promising lucrative jobs in Libya and even Europe. Some friends even made the journey with new migrants but then demanded money or sold them when they eventually reached Libya.
Sallo looks chronically malnourished, his cheekbones standing out sharply from his face. His teeth, framed by a broad grin, are worn down to little points. My wife won't recognise me when she sees me because I have lost so much weight. I was like Rambo, with a very strong physique, when I first came to Libya, he says.
Sallo hasn't spoken to his wife and two children since his arrest earlier this year. She doesn't know if I'm even alive, he says. I'm looking forward to surprising her. IOM said we'll each get $50 [in local currency] when we arrive and I will buy a big bag of rice because I can't go home with nothing. I will give her the rice and the rest of the money.
Sallo says IOM has promised to contact returnees after a month to see how they are getting on and might offer resettlement funds to help them start a new life. I think I'd like to be a taxi driver, although I tried it before and it was hard to make money, but I know it's something I can do, he says. Driving is nice work and I will enjoy my freedom. I didn't know what freedom was before I went to Libya.
Despite Sallo's optimism, the reality of the IOM-run, EU-funded repatriation scheme can disappoint those it is intended to help, particularly with regard to financial support for resettlement.
Tripoli's three functioning churches, all of which have a large number of African congregants, have been working regularly with IOM, registering many vulnerable cases for repatriation. But they are becoming disenchanted with the VHR programme, which initially seemed to provide a lifeline of hope.
David, a church volunteer, has helped many members of his congregation register for VHR. Increasingly, returnees are contacting him with complaints and pleas for help, saying they have not received promised support.
IOM are not very transparent with this situation. They say people will receive some money upon their return, but they refuse to say how much, which is odd, says David. Why is this information a secret? He adds that refugees from certain countries, including Nigeria, do not appear to be entitled to any monetary assistance at all.
IOM Libya public information assistant Safa Msehli explains that reintegration assistance varies from one region to another and is managed via different methodologies, depending on whether countries are covered by the EU Trust Fund, which pays for the VHR programme.
David shows IRIN a series of messages from a Kenyan woman named Sarah. She was found in a rubbish collection point near the church, where she had been dumped after being abused. David and his colleagues helped her regain her strength, register with IOM, and return home to Kenya via VHR. Over the course of the past several months, David has become concerned by the increasingly desperate tone of her WhatsApp messages; initially she pleaded for prayers and then for more practical help. David says the only assistance she has received since arriving back in Kenya was transport from the airport to her destination of choice.
They did interviews and told us to wait for their call, she wrote in one message, referring to workers from the IOM. A few weeks later she noted: IOM didn't call. We are still waiting. Pray for us. By mid-April, when Sarah said she was almost destitute, her final message read: Oh my God, we are going to die because of hunger. May the Lord intervene to our situation.
David says he has contacted IOM on behalf of several people who he believes are particularly vulnerable, but that each regional office attempts to shift the responsibility to another and none offer clear answers. IOM's Msehli confirmed that reintegration is the responsibility of regional offices.
I'm getting many messages like this, David says. Everyone's complaining they haven't been given the resettlement money and help they were promised by IOM. It's really shameful that an international organisation would behave like this with vulnerable people who are already in such a desperate situation.
In January, a crowd of angry returnees in Gambia attacked IOM offices with stones, dissatisfied with receiving only Pound 50 in pocket money instead of the Euros 3,000 they said they had expected to use to help them start new businesses.
Free 'holiday' flight home?
IOM has repatriated 27,051 people since January 2017, according to Msehli.
Those numbers may look good on paper, but the programme is open to widespread abuse and, in interviews with IRIN, several Libyan officials who work on illegal immigration questioned VHR's long-term effectiveness.
Many of the detainees here are already returnees from the repatriation programme, the head of Tripoli's Airport Road Detention Centre, Captain Wajidi al-Bashir al-Montassir, says, describing a cycle: They get sent home, return to Libya, get arrested again, and then registered as new arrivals.
He says detention centre staff have also overheard consular officials urging their nationals to use the repatriation scheme as an opportunity to get a free flight home to see their family, then simply return to Libya in the future.