Involuntary returns from Libya and reintegration in Ghana

Cover photo from GBC Website

Leander Kandilige and Geraldine Asiwome Adiku

Existing literature on return migration tends to focus on voluntary return and the potential developmental implications of such returns. However, a silent but key dimension of return migration are the involuntary returns that mostly result from administrative or judicial Acts. These Acts refer to the enforcement of immigration control measures by destination countries. Another less examined phenomenon is involuntary mass returns from countries in crisis situations such as political, social, economic and natural disasters and the role of collective action by multiple stakeholders in shaping the reintegration outcomes of unplanned returnees. Relying on findings from our empirical study on the experiences of Ghanaian migrants forcibly returned during the political crisis in Libya in 2011, this blog post highlights the key challenges that diverse stakeholders faced in coordinating migrants’ safe return and reintegration.

Most discourses on return migration place a lot of weight on the individual migrant’s own return preparedness as a measure of how likely they are to reintegrate successfully. However, we argue that an institutional approach to explaining return migration is equally important as it allows for an analysis of social and contextual issues at the origin that can impact negatively on return outcomes. IOM, for instance, implements programmes such as the Joint Initiative on Migrant Protection and Reintegration to safeguard the rights of trapped migrants in Libya as well as support their reintegration upon return. The over 35,000 beneficiaries of this initiative since 2017 have included trapped Ghanaian migrants.

We proceed by considering the roles of state agencies, community leaders and civil society organisations, intergovernmental organisations, and families in these return processes, before concluding with some reflections on policy implications.

The role of state agencies

During the evacuation of Ghanaian nationals from Libya in 2011, the Ghanaian state was ultimately responsible for their safe extraction and their reintegration upon return. Efforts began in February 2011 to evacuate trapped Ghanaian migrants. On March 22, 2011, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration reported that 16,822 Ghanaians had been evacuated from Libya. However, the Ghanaian authorities did not have any clear policy and institutional framework for evacuation from conflict situations. This lack of guidance triggered a chaotic and delayed response to the needs of trapped migrants. Belated attempts at securing logistical support from intergovernmental organisations such as IOM and UNHCR resulted in the exposure of migrants to traumatic experiences, physical assaults and even death in a limited number of cases. The Ghanaian embassy in Libya lacked financial and logistical resources to support displaced nationals, leading to a weakening of trust relations between trapped migrants and embassy staff. Furthermore, the mandate of the national agency responsible for managing emergencies (NADMO) was limited to events within the national territory thus rendering it unable to intervene until migrants arrived on Ghanaian soil. Upon arrival, logistical challenges constrained the agency’s ability to carry out thorough assessments of returnees against the effects of trauma and the delivery of therapies for psychosocial and post-traumatic stress disorders.

The role of community leaders and Civil Society Organisations

Photo by supriyaam on Flickr

Beyond the state, community leaders and Civil Society Organisations were instrumental in facilitating return and reintegration processes for involuntary returnees. By means of community radio broadcasts, community leaders created a platform for trapped migrants to directly lobby their elected officials at home to galvanise support for emergency evacuation flights out of Libya. The same medium was used in sensitising community members to the circumstances surrounding the unplanned return of their relatives. This proactive step helped minimise incidents of rejection, feelings of humiliation and possible tensions between community members and returnees. In addition, health screening, humanitarian relief and access to subsidised primary education for the involuntarily returned migrants were all secured through acts of solidarity championed by community leaders and civil society organisations.

The role of intergovernmental organisations

IOM played a key role in supporting the transportation of migrants to safe border crossings in Libya as part of the evacuation process. In Ghana, IOM also provided reintegration support in the form of agricultural tools and equipment, training in basic business management and financial literacy, the formation of returnee associations to bolster chances of attracting credit from financial institutions and extension of psychosocial counselling to returnees. We found that a critical challenge faced was the lack of reliable data on the Ghanaian migrant stock in Libya and the likely number of returnees to plan for during the crisis. ‘Guestimates’ provided by national agencies and the Embassy in Libya frustrated intergovernmental agencies’ ability to effectively support reintegration efforts. 

The role of families

While migrant households left behind tend to benefit directly from remittances, they equally endure the burden of hosting and providing for forcibly returned migrants. Unplanned returns abruptly sever funding lifelines to migrant households, leading to loss of social standing and respectability. In addition, households face the challenge of caring for mentally and emotionally distressed returnees, sharing limited family resources with persons who no longer generate an income, and coping with the stigma associated with a ‘failure of return’. Despite their vulnerabilities, family members are essential stakeholders in the reintegration process.

While migrant households left behind tend to benefit directly from remittances, they equally endure the burden of hosting and providing for forcibly returned migrants

They provided accommodation to returnees, especially those who had lost all their property as result of the crisis in Libya. Some shared parcels of farmlands with returnees as a means of earning a livelihood. Family members also negotiated relations between returnees and community members in order to reduce incidents of stigmatisation.

Photo by Guerric on Flickr

Policy implications

The key challenges that diverse stakeholders faced in coordinating Ghanaian migrants’ safe return and reintegration include the lack of clear evacuation policy, weak institutional frameworks, and a lack of data on the migrants in need of evacuation, which left them ill-prepared for the extraction of Ghanaians from Libya. These shortcomings have real implications for the return and reintegration of individuals during crisis situations. The mere existence of a policy is not enough: it must be budgeted for; have a clearly delineated mandate assigned to relevant stakeholders; and provide adequate training to facilitate an efficient response. National emergency agencies also need to work closely with security attachés based at missions abroad to coordinate the management of disaster incidents.

We found that families are important stakeholders in return and reintegration situations. As such, migrant families should be supported by intervening agencies during unplanned returns to help cater for returnees who may be considered vulnerable because of the circumstances surrounding their return. In addition to recognising the importance of migrant families for returnee rehabilitation and reintegration, a policy on the provision of emotional, psychosocial and psychological support to involuntary returnees should be mainstreamed into national migration policies.

Moreover, migrant source countries should pre-emptively construct at least one purpose-built reception centre, comprising among other things a reception unit, a psychosocial orientation unit, a temporary camp and offices for medics in order to facilitate the process of screening, profiling and record taking of returnees from countries in crisis in a more humane manner.

When the unexpected occurs in destination countries, and the general safety of migrants is at risk, assistance from origin countries eases migrants’ fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities in an already dangerous and unsettling situation. Horror stories abound about the torture and mistreatment that migrants are subjected to in Libya. A well-coordinated multi-stakeholder collaboration between the state, non-governmental institutions, intergovernmental organisations, the family and civil society organisations makes it easier to remove people from harm’s way in times of crisis. The main impediments to multi-stakeholder coordination, as the Ghanaian example shows, are the divergent agendas and priorities, which affect resource allocation. A refocusing and coordination of agendas and priorities will ensure that adequate help is presented and received when citizens abroad need it the most.

The main impediments to multi-stakeholder coordination, as the Ghanaian example shows, are the divergent agendas and priorities, which affect resource allocation

As mentioned in the introduction, this blog is based on our paper; Kandilige Leander and Geraldine Adiku (2020). ‘The quagmire of return and reintegration: Challenges to multi-stakeholder co-ordination of involuntary return’. International Migration 58(4) pp. 37-53.

Author Bios

Dr. Leander Kandilige is a Senior Lecturer in Migration Studies at the Centre for Migration Studies, University of Ghana. His research interests include migration policy development, theories of migration, migration and development. He is a Country Lead for Ghana on the MIGNEX Project and a Researcher on the MIDEQ Project.

Dr. Geraldine Asiwome Adiku teaches Sociology at the University of Ghana. Her research focuses on migration and development with specific emphasis on remittances and reverse remittance practices.

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