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“We are a big family”: in Côte d’Ivoire, associations help returning migrants to “rebuild”

After an excessively difficult exile or several failed attempts, some Ivorian migrants choose to return home. But this return mixed with failure, shame and financial precariousness, is for many very difficult to face. To help them, they can count on various associations based in the capital Abidjan.

After a year and a half in exile, Boniface returned to Côte d’Ivoire in December 2017. His year in Tunisia, where he spent his health on construction sites, left him exhausted. His violent arrest, the following year, and two stays in prisons in Libya, traumatized. “It was not easy,” he comments soberly.

In his district of Yopongon, in Abidjan, the candidates for departure are numerous. For the past ten years, the number of Ivorians who have embarked on the road to exile for Europe has been increasing. From 3,800 people in 2000, they were nearly 13,500 in 2019, according to the OECD. This year, Ivorian nationals also represent the 6th nationality among migrants landed in Italy, behind Afghanistan. Since January 1, 2022, 4,825 Ivorians have arrived in the country by sea, out of 97,236 people.

Among those who choose to leave everything for a better life elsewhere, there are many, forced or not, to turn back. For many, this return is painful. Boniface admits having had “moments of deep despair” when he returned to Côte d’Ivoire. “I had a lot of regrets in my head. I kept asking myself why I left like that. And then, above all, I had to start all over again.”

Boniface during a presentation of the activities of his association, in Abidjan. Credit: DR

Because he knows this distress and this loneliness common to many returning migrants, he wanted to act. First, by participating in the “Migrants as Messengers” initiative led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Then by creating, in August 2021, the Association for the reintegration of migrants returning to Côte d’Ivoire (Arm-ci).

“The objective is to help former exiles to reintegrate into the social fabric, he explains. Firstly by allowing them to gain their financial independence, because many returning migrants have to reimburse people who lent money for their trip. Ruined, they then hide with friends and live like fugitives”. To help them find work, Arm-Ci – sometimes in collaboration with the Abidjan Youth Employment Agency – supports these people in building a professional project. “We do a little assessment of their skills and then we guide them to the competent structures or organizations that can finance their project. If a young person has mechanical skills, for example, with our networks, we can direct him to a garage that going to use it”.

>> To (re)read: Maïmouna, Ivorian: “Back from Libya, I was so afraid of the eyes of my family”

After a difficult year in Tunisia where she lived with her one-year-old son, Hortense confirms: “Starting a new project gave me a lot of courage. When I returned, I felt incapable of anything, but we had to live. I didn’t want to be dependent on my parents”. After the creation of a hairdressing salon, whose profits dried up with the Covid-19, the young Ivorian finally opened a small clothing store in Yopougon.

“We don’t judge young people”

Just as important as helping with financial independence, the association provides psychological support. “The feeling of failure is mixed almost every time with a malaise caused by the atrocities experienced by migrants, in Libya or elsewhere. Many women have suffered unwanted pregnancies, for example, says Boniface. We, at Arm-ci, we surround them, we are a big family where everyone has more or less the same stories. This creates a climate of trust which reassures them and helps them to rebuild themselves”. “When that’s not enough, he adds, we direct them to the psychological services of the IOM”.

The Realic association is based in the Angré district of Abidjan. Credit: InfoMigrants
The Realic association is based in the Angré district of Abidjan. Credit: InfoMigrants

On the side of the African Network for the Fight against Illegal Immigration (Realic), the approach is the same: “When we feel that the trauma is too deep, that we are not able to manage it, we direct the former exiled to suitable structures”, abounds Florentine Djiro, its president. From its premises in the Angré district, in Abidjan, the small team of the association founded in 2017 receives returning migrants, but focuses mainly on migration awareness projects.

“We don’t judge the young people who tell us they want to leave, but we alert them to the dangers they may face on the road. Here in Côte d’Ivoire, there is a real trivialization of risks. It must be deconstructed, explains Florentine Djiro. They are told, for example, that going to Morocco or Tunisia with a tourist visa, even if it is quick and easy, will not guarantee them to stay there. We know that many Ivorians opt for this method, and then they find themselves in hiding, vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and violence”. Stuck, “their only way out is the Mediterranean”.

>> To (re)read: “Young Ivorians know the dangers of the migratory route, but they risk it to become someone”

“When I see people of my age dying in the sea, it pinches my heart, confides Brice, a volunteer with the association. So I tell myself that those who want to leave must know the truth. Migrating is not not a bad thing. But you have to have the right information before you leave everything.”

“Leaving was the logical next step”

To “tell the truth” to candidates for exile, Realic regularly organizes migration awareness caravans in schools and football clubs across the country, and in localities familiar with departures, such as the neighborhoods of Abobo and Yopougon in Abidjan, and in the cities of Port-Boué and Daloua. Volunteers from the association also travel to community leaders and tontines [groupe d’amis ou de proches un groupe d’amis qui se réunissent régulièrement pour mettre leur épargne en commun ndlr] “whose word is very listened to among young people”, assures Florentine Djiro.

Beyond risk prevention, Realic also explains to them “the other solutions” available to them. “We explain to them the procedures for legal migration, or we guide them towards opportunities that exist locally and that they hadn’t even thought of. For some, leaving is so common, family pressure is such that they don’t didn’t consider anything else”.

Hortense spent a little over a year in Tunisia before returning to Côte d'Ivoire. Credit: DR
Hortense spent a little over a year in Tunisia before returning to Côte d’Ivoire. Credit: DR

“Leaving was the logical next step,” confirms Hortense, who chose to go into exile after losing her first job in Côte d’Ivoire. “The return was much less so. But my father was so happy to see me that it eased my bitterness a little”.

Most exiles are not so lucky. “Once returned, out of shame, many hide and do not warn their parents, sighs Florentine Djiro. The look of the family and those around them is very hard. In certain areas of the country, these returning migrants, call them ‘the cursed ones'”.

Association Arm-ci: +225 0757005352; armci2022@gmail.com

Association Realic: +225 0151964524; contact@realic-ci.org

France 24-Trans

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