Saturday, 2nd December 2023

After failed pursuit of greener pastures, female returnees refocus for better living 

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia and Mojisola Abatan
09 July 2023   |   4:14 am
“I didn’t know what I was going to do in Mali, I didn’t know that I had been trafficked. I thought I would get a job on arrival there, but I had a horrible experience,” said Oyinlola Aaron, a returnee from Mali.

Illegal migrants on their way to Europe

Integration of irregular migrants is increasingly becoming a major concern in global affairs with Nigeria also accounting for a huge number of women and girls who are embarking on this dangerous journey. A lot of them end up experiencing physical abuse, torture, rape, and enslavement. IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA and MOJISOLA ABATAN report a recent reintegration programme of female returnees.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do in Mali, I didn’t know that I had been trafficked. I thought I would get a job on arrival there, but I had a horrible experience,” said Oyinlola Aaron, a returnee from Mali.

Continuing she said, “I didn’t know that we were being trafficked because we went there with the mindset that we were going to get jobs. I went by road and spent nine days in transit without food, water, or a change of clothes.

“When we got to Mali, they told us that we had been trafficked, they threatened us that if we tried to make noise they would kill us and no one would know about it, we just had to keep calm, we were helpless.

“I was taken to one woman with two other girls. She didn’t treat us well or feed us. I was told I had a balance of 1.2 million Sefa to offset and would earn my living through sex trafficking. I was used as a sex slave, it was a bad experience, I was having sex with different men and when I got paid I remitted all the money to the woman. It took one and a half years before I could complete the payment of 1.2 million Sefa and got my freedom. I didn’t know what to do, so I stayed for another three months before returning.”

Oyinlola is one of the thousands of girls trafficked for reasons they weren’t clear about and made to go through horrible experiences at the hands of their traffickers.

With the phenomenal rise in the number of returnees who seek wholesome reintegration into society, organisations such as German Development Agency (GIZ) Nigeria, and Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC) initiated the project tagged, “Inspire, Empower, and Reintegrate women” to ensure that returnees are empowered through skill acquisition, vocational training, business mentorship, and coaching.

At a graduation ceremony for 100 participants, The Guardian met with Oyinlola who shared her emotions-laden encounter.

Director, Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, Lagos, Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi (third left); Team Leader, Nigerian-German Centre for Jobs, Migration and Reintegration, Sandra Vermuijten and others at the event

“After returning from Mali, my mum referred me to the NGO that gave me this opportunity to come for this training. When I came back to Nigeria with nothing, today, I am a certified hairdresser.

“My advice to young ladies out there is not be in a haste to travel, human traffickers are on the prowl. When you want to travel, make sure you follow the right part with your complete papers.”

The pathetic story of the 21-year-old Olayiwola Grace, who sought greener pastures in Lebanon also evoked passion. “I am a survivor returnee from Lebanon. My experience was very terrible and I could not share it with people when I got back to Nigeria because I know they will feel very bad. This is not what we planned for, but I had to take it as fate has presented to me.

“Getting to Lebanon in 2019, on arrival at the airport, the woman whom they claimed I would work with collected my phone and so I questioned her and she said she paid for me and I would not be allowed to use a phone. I resisted and told her I wanted to call my parents and she said it wasn’t possible till I had spent two years. I was helpless.”

Continuing she said, “On getting to her house, she showed me a toilet to stay in and asked me to pack my things in there, I cried and staged a protest to no avail. In the end, I realised there was no one to help me so I had to do what she dictated. So, I started to work there for six months, no salary, no good food. I fed from their bin, which was the leftover; she would not take the food to the table, but place it in the bin by herself, so, I would open the bin and eat from it.”

On the impact of the training, Grace said, “Glory be to God, I am here healthy and sound, I am happy today because I am independent. Coming to this training means a lot to me, I built my courage coming here, I am bold, I can stand anywhere and talk about what I have been through, and I am proud to be one of the surviving returnees in this training.

“Now, I am also running a programme in my area to encourage ladies to let them know that going there is not the best decision. I went there to look for greener pasture but that was not how it ended. Spending seven months in Lebanon was horrific, this also informed my campaign at that time, – ‘Bring back our girls from Lebanon’, and I was very happy to bring back 45 girls to Nigeria.

“My advice to young girls is for them to stay back in Nigeria, work here and earn a living. Going to Lebanon is not the best option, if you have your job here you will be able to feed yourself and your family with whatever you earn and not be in bondage.”

Another returnee, Asimiyu Asiata based in Ibadan, said, “My experience was tough, it was not an easy one but I thank God for my life. I went to Egypt in 2016, I was working as a nanny, and we stayed indoors for 26 days and couldn’t go back to our apartment for a four-day holiday. The people I worked for were not accommodating. I cannot advise anybody to go there to make a living, if at all you want to leave Nigeria; I will advise you to go to a European or an Asian country.”

Continuing, Asiata said, “I had travelled by air and came back in 2022, I heard about WARDC from a friend of mine who runs a foundation in Lagos. She told me about the programme, I came from Ibadan to attend the training in Lagos. The programme was very helpful because, at the time I returned to Nigeria, I didn’t know what to do. However, I learnt a bit about fashion for two months before leaving the country, so it was an opportunity to continue in that line.

Dr. Akiyode-Afolabi

“My mum also insisted that I go for the training to finish what I have learnt because of her love for fashion design. I thank God for the training, it is not easy but at the same time it was fun and I learnt enough to put food on my table, and I will learn more and push further because they empowered us.”

Having faced a whole lot abroad that affected her mental health, Cecilia Idowu said: “I had to also see a mental health specialist, that way I can gradually reintegrate myself back into society. This training has further helped me to get better. As a returnee migrant, I know what we are passing through especially female returnees and I want to further empower female returnees so that they also do not lose hope.”

THE Project, “Inspire, Empower and Reintegrate” targets returnees and potential migrants; vulnerable women including but not limited to sex workers, women with disabilities, and women who suffer physical and psychological, and economic violence.

Within the age bracket of 18-40, the 100 beneficiaries trained over eight weeks to learn catering and hotel management, fashion designing, and hairdressing. They had since graduated.

According to a WHO report, 30 per cent of girls and women aged between 15 and 49 reported having experienced sexual abuse. Violence against women and girls in Nigeria has remained high and in recent years, most especially during the period of the government-ordered lockdown in the face of COVID-19 rose to a near-epidemic level. As the pandemic raged and the federal government introduced lockdown, a monthly increase of 149 per cent in gender-based violence was experienced almost immediately.

Returnees experience mental health conditions, carry a double stigma, and struggle with prejudices of the general population, commonly by their family and community. Another challenge affecting women is irregular migration; the journey is particularly dangerous for women and girls as they experience physical abuse, torture, rape, enslavement, and other forms of psychological abuse. Perpetrators include criminal gangs, smugglers, traffickers, border guards, police, and fellow migrants.

In 2016, over 20,000 Nigerians were denied asylum in Europe and told to return. In addition to the Boko Haram insurgency and the accompanying violence and disruptions of school activities, several attacks on education and learning facilities and violence against students and educational personnel have been recorded in many areas of the country.

One of the trainees, Temitope Oluwastosin, who learnt skills in makeup, “The training was free, I am grateful for this opportunity that WARDC has given to me, I used two months in learning and I can say for myself that I am perfect in it already. As a makeup artist, I will be given a free makeup box and other makeup kits.”

Adeyinka Funmilayo learnt fashion designing. “Since we started this programme, it has been a very good thing for me because I have learnt a lot and I am better from where I was before. It took eight weeks for the training; I can say that with those eight weeks of training, I can make a living for myself. They also gave us free equipment including industrial machines each to take home.”

Founding Executive Director, WARDC, Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi noted that the challenges faced by women, particularly women migrants and deportees, informed the project. These challenges include irregular migration, which had adverse and fatal effects on women as they experience physical abuse, torture, rape, enslavement, and other forms of psychological abuse.

The vulnerability of women due to cultural norms, disabilities, and economic status is another challenge. Recent studies show that Nigeria has become a major country of origin, transit, and destination for irregular migrants with increasing statistics from 2019 till date.

Vermuijten presenting a certificate to one of the participant 

In 2020, over 35,600 irregular border crossings were recorded along the Central Mediterranean route, compared to 14,000 in year 2019 across West Africa according to a 2021 UNODC Report.

Oftentimes, Nigerians are denied asylum in Europe and told to return. Returnees experience mental health conditions, carry a double stigma, and struggle with prejudices of the general population, commonly by their family and community. Some become destitute and unable to access shelter as well as other basic services.

Survivors of sexual gender-based violence in the communities also face similar challenges to that of returnees such as stigmatization and most times economically disempowered.

It is as a result of these that the project sought to create opportunities to inspire, empower and protect vulnerable women, potential migrants, and returnees from exploitation, consequently supporting the beneficiaries with means to build their livelihoods, re-adjust psychologically, socially, and economically back into the society.

This support is encapsulated in capacity development and empowerment through skills acquisition, vocational training, business mentorship and coaching, psychosocial support therapy, counselling and legal aid.

Akiyode-Afolabi noted that over the past 20 years, WARDC has worked with over 20,000 women and is rooted in grassroots communities in Lagos, through its institutionalised community paralegal programmes across 50 Lagos communities. “We sourced for returnees and vulnerable women who are potential migrants, we also partnered with NAPTIP and other key stakeholders working in the area of migration, such as the Women Consortium of Nigeria (WOCON). There were two screening sessions. We developed Survey tools and interview guides to shortlist the most vulnerable. We had over 350 women and we selected through needs assessment the most vulnerable group.

“There were three departments- Catering and Hotel Management, Fashion Design, Hairdressing and Makeup. However, all the beneficiaries went through business training and mentorship sessions. Telemarketing and business plan development, costing, market negotiations, and pricing techniques. The project was also tailored to meet individual needs.

The impact on the participants, she asserted, is unquantifiable. “As the title of the project implies, the beneficiaries are inspired, empowered, and fully reintegrated into society. They have been equipped with the right skills to have a means of livelihood and eventually support others. They have been reminded that they can be a better version of themselves regardless of their past experiences in terms of finances, psychological well-being, and self-esteem. Some of them will be put on an internship programme to better their lot. We have been able to also develop a business plan for them, they have business names and we will encourage them to register and encourage them to establish themselves.”