1. Home
  2. West Africa
  3. Sierra Leone

Destination Europe: Homecoming

What happens when migrants end up back where they started

Susan Schulman/IRIN

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.
Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Overlooked

Mariam Sesay, 28, knew her family would be delighted if she were in Europe. The benefits of having someone there were obvious – better houses, children well dressed and never lacking school fees or food. Sons and daughters in Europe were the pride of their families. Everyone in Sierra Leone wanted someone in the family to be abroad.

So when Mariam heard about the so-called “Italian Programme”, she decided she would go.  

It was June 2017. Without telling anyone, she sold her father’s land, turned the $2,500 over to the “connection agent” organising her trip, and left her hometown of Magburaka in the east of Sierra Leone (on a series of buses via Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso) for Agadez in Niger, where she was told she would catch a flight to Europe.

But in Niger, there was no flight, and the agent she had paid was unreachable.

A year later, Mariam has no money, nowhere to live. She is back in Sierra Leone sleeping on the concrete floor of a house in Makeni, three hours east of the capital, Freetown. If her hosts don’t share their food with her, she doesn’t eat. The police are pursuing her for an unpaid debt. Everyone looks down on her. Even her family has disowned her.

Mariam had been in nursing school before she left for Niger. She pulls a photo from her pocket, taken in the hospital ward before her departure. In it, she is wearing a nurse’s uniform and smiling broadly, a confident young woman on the brink of a professional future.

Tears roll down her cheeks as she looks at the picture.

It is a far cry from the woman she is today.

Sitting behind a tree in the dusty yard where no one can hear her, Mariam confides that she is barely coping. “I am worried – about everything. I am worried about prison. I am lonely, stressed, depressed.”

Susan Schulman/IRIN

The stigma, she says, is the least of her problems. She is haunted by what happened to her in Niger and Libya. “My secret has already become part of me,” she says, biting her lip. “It is hard to work it through.”

The journey

What Mariam is trying to work through began in Agadez, long the gateway for traders travelling from sub-Saharan Africa to the north. For centuries, caravans of camels carried salt, gold, ivory, and slaves across the desert sands. In recent years, convoys of pick-up trucks overflowing with people and contraband have plied the vast, difficult to govern route.

The town once bustled with throngs of migrants, mostly looking for a way north to the coast and the chance to get to Europe. But in 2016, the Nigerien government began enforcing an EU-backed anti-smuggling law that drove the migration business underground.

Still, it didn't take long for Mariam to join other stranded Sierra Leoneans shortly after she arrived in Agadez last year.

“When we saw all the Gambians and Senegalese and Nigerians and Ghanaians, all heading across the desert, we decided to go, too,” she explains. Piling into a pick-up, the group headed off.

Five months later, as Mariam left the Tripoli prison where she had been detained, again, after her second attempt to cross the Mediterranean failed, the better future she had dreamed of seemed further away than ever.

This time, however, she would not try again. She decided to return home.

Mariam had had enough. Along the way, she had been raped, starved, and beaten; bought and sold by captors who demanded money she didn’t have. Others phoned families back home who would go into debt cobbling funds together to free their loved ones. Not Mariam. “I didn’t have a phone, the money, or the guts to call back home,” she admits. “I would cry a lot and fear it was the end of my life, and all I could think of was how I would die here alone and no one would ever know.”

On 21 November 2017, Mariam boarded the first repatriation flight organised by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) from Tripoli to Freetown. It was not to be a happy homecoming.

A way back home

In early 2017, both UNICEF and IOM published reports documenting the abuses, violence, and slavery that migrants were suffering en route to Europe through Libya. But it wasn’t until CNN’s secretly filmed footage of migrants being sold in slave auctions aired in mid-November 2017 that the world took notice and calls for action echoed around the globe.

As governments focused efforts on their nationals in Libya, IOM scaled up its Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme – an initiative designed to help stranded migrants return home and reintegrate. Sierra Leone had not previously been part of the repatriation programme but quickly contacted IOM. Within weeks, two flights had brought 228 migrants home.  

The repatriation programme is nominally voluntary – IOM will not force anyone to return – but these impossible choices are packed full of pressure.

IOM contacts migrants in the prisons and ask if they want to stay, proceed, or return. Even for those who have suffered horrific treatment before ending up in the appalling conditions where IOM often finds them, it is an agonising decision. Often the IOM’s programme is the only way to leave prison without paying the sums demanded by extortionists for release.

But returning home means giving up on the dream of Europe. And as many have borrowed or stolen money or property to finance the journey, they worry about the repercussions of returning empty-handed.  

Of the 338 migrants registered for the two repatriation flights in November 2017, 110 failed to board. They slipped away from the airport, some having made arrangements with airport workers offering rooms to hide those awaiting passage across the Mediterranean.  

‘I can’t forgive her’

The sale of the land and the money Mariam spent has left her father, Sheik Ali Conteh, 44, seeking assistance for the first time. Her failure has compromised her family’s position in the community.

Susan Schulman/IRIN

“I didn’t know what my dad would say. I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but when I got back it was even worse,” Mariam says, wiping tears from her eyes. “My father and my whole family have disowned me.”

Fifteen miles away from where his daughter now resides, in Makeni, Conteh pulls up a bench in front of the his modest two-room home. He looks over at his wife, resplendent in a yellow dress, ready for Friday prayers. She is silent, staring sadly.

“Shame has impacted on us.” he confesses. “I can’t forgive her.”

The response of Mariam’s family reflects the depth of desperation in a society stretched to breaking point by poverty.

Fifteen years after war devastated the former British colony, Sierra Leone is ranked 212th out of 229 countries in terms of GDP. Poverty, unemployment, and corruption are rampant. Across the country, people struggle to put food on the table and send children to school.

Lack of job opportunities has long encouraged Sierra Leoneans to seek work outside the country. Libya was the prime destination until its collapse in 2011 – a collapse, Isata Kabia pointed out during a conversation in February, (before she was replaced as Sierra Leone’s minister of social welfare) that has contributed to the flow of migrants setting out for Europe. “Prior to that, internal migration within Africa worked,” she added.

The 2013-2016 Ebola crisis in West Africa further compounded the country’s problems, imposing an economic impact equivalent to $125 per person as businesses closed, tens of thousands were laid off, and agriculture went into decline.

The push and the pull

Given the difficulty of earning a decent living in Sierra Leone, having a family member in Europe or abroad can make all the difference.

“Everyone wants to have someone in Europe. They live fine! Fine!” exclaims Chief of Women Kuma Mbayo, 70, in the eastern town of Koidu. “If I had someone there, I wouldn’t be sitting here in the dust!”

Susan Schulman/IRIN

The view of Europe from Sierra Leone is an alluring one and many migrants describe an unspoken pressure to go. “Those who left and made it to Europe are highly respected,” explains 25-year-old Sheku Kamara in Freetown. “Those that stay behind are seen as failures.”

“My family was always optimistic about people travelling – they saw it as a success story – so even while I was gone, they were positive,” says Sheku, who stole $1,000 from his uncle to fund his journey. “They even organised a funeral for me when they heard I was dead,” he adds.

Like Mariam, Sheku failed to reach Europe and his reception back in Sierra Leone has been similar. His stepfather Osman Kamara is far from happy to see him back again.

Anywhere but home: Sheku Kamara’s story

1 / 5
Sheku Kamara spent two years trying to get to Europe.
2 / 5
His early attempts to cross via Morocco ended in hospital in Rabat, recovering from a near-lethal beating by security forces. After being discharged, he begged on the streets until he had enough money to make his way to Libya. But each time he tried to cross the Mediterranean he ended up in prison.
3 / 5
Reluctant to return home empty-handed, he tried to get sent anywhere other than Sierra Leone. “First I registered [with IOM] as Malian, then Senegalese, then Nigerian, but the Libyans took me away and when I came back the flights to those places had already gone,” he says.
4 / 5
‘If I had made it – even if I didn’t send him his money, my uncle would have been able to boast and say it had been for a worthy cause and the family would have been proud someone had made it... But now, coming back after two years with nothing, my uncle sees me as a failure.’
Still owing his uncle the money he stole, Sheku is now in hiding after his cousins threatened to stab him.
5 / 5
“If it were up to me,” says Sheku’s mother, Jenuba Kargbo,
“I would have told him to continue his travelling and not come home.”

“Others made it over, but he didn’t, so now I can’t accept him,” Osman rages. “He is a failure. Even if his intention was to help, he failed. We cannot accept Sheku now. He should live in the streets.”

When parents discover children have stolen to make the trip, as they often have, they are initially furious, but this usually evolves into hope – hope that their debts will be repaid, hope that their loved one will reach Europe and send remittances back to help the whole family.

“When my daughter left, I was so angry about her selling my land,” Mariam’s father Conteh admits. “But once I knew she had gone, I was hopeful.”

Social media also plays a role in encouraging people to make the journey. Those who have made it post pictures of themselves on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, dressed smartly and living enviable lives, despite what their actual experience might be.

“I want to believe poverty is the only problem,” says Masakama Kanamanka III, the 49-year-old Paramount Chief of Kholifa Rowalla in northern Sierra Leone. “But I also think they see greener pastures. They see people in Europe doing so well.”

Susan Schulman/IRIN
Paramount Chief Masakama Kanamanka.

Horrors untold

The rigours of the journey are downplayed too. Travel is kept secret, by both migrants and their families. With details never discussed, the facts about the journey are only discovered when it is too late.  

Sheku Bangura, 31, was a teacher before he left for Europe. Now that he has failed and come back, the school won’t employ him anymore.

“I know people who are in Italy, but they don’t explain how deep the problem [of travelling overland] is,” says Bangura. “They tell you to go to Niger and get a flight. But you get there, and there’s no flight. And then the smuggler disappears with all the money you’d already given them.”

Susan Schulman/IRIN

Migrants describe having had no idea about the brutality and horror they invariably confront as gangs, police, rebels, and even other African migrants work the route, selling, exploiting, and extorting them – a route where beatings, starvation, kidnappings, and killings are routine, and on which women are seen as the most valuable “assets”.

“We were raped day and night,” Mariam whispers, recounting her experience in Libya at the hands of people-smugglers and drivers. “If you refused, they’d beat you and shoot you. Even small boys had guns.”

Many don’t survive.

“Five people died in the desert as we were walking,” Hamzatu Kamara, a 12-year-old girl who travelled with her mother, Fatima, says blankly as she talks about her time in Libya. Drivers and smugglers “killed people right in front of me,” she adds, recalling how one man was beaten and then shot dead after refusing to eat the food he was offered.

Susan Schulman/IRIN
Hamzatu Kamara

Mariam relates how a friend died in her arms after being beaten, raped, and denied water.

Seventeen-year-old Zainab says she was one of only seven out of a group of 23 migrants who survived their journey from Agadez into Libya. “Bodies were left where they died, not buried,” she says. “No one told their families.”

Fanta Koroma, 18, and her siblings Fatmata, 15, and Osman, six, who were travelling in the same group as Mariam, were left alone after their mother died in the desert shortly after they crossed into Libya from Niger.

“From Agadez is where we were suffering. People were dying as there was nothing to eat or drink,” explains Fanta. ”My mother started having chest pain. We only had a little water and we gave it to her, but she still had chest pain – and then she died.”

The children who lost their mother: the Koroma siblings’ story

1 / 2
Fanta Koroma, 18, had just been promoted to the second year of junior high school when her mother, Kadijatu, told Fanta, sister Fatmata, 15, and brother Osman, six, they would be travelling to Europe from their home in Kona, the heart of Sierra Leone’s diamond mining industry. It was June 2017.
1 / 11
“I knew people who had gone and reached there. They are sending money back home and some are even building houses,” Fanta says. “People would always say a lot of good things about the people who made it over. So I felt it was a good thing, as, if we had made it over, things would have been much better.”
2 / 11
The family set out, travelling by bus to Guinea, then onwards to Mali, and, finally, to Agadez in Niger, where they piled into a pick-up truck and set off into the desert.
3 / 11
They had barely crossed the border into Libya when their mother, complaining of chest pains, lay down to rest. “When we saw her leaning on the sticks, resting, we thought she was sleeping. But when we tried to wake her, she didn’t wake up.”
4 / 11
Alone and distraught, the children had no choice but to continue on the journey. They described how fellow travellers died around them from lack of food and drink, while others were beaten and sold.
Reaching the Libyan coast at Sabratha, armed men came and took them to the first of the three prison-like facilities where they were beaten, terrorised and starved. Six-year-old Osman was inconsolable with hunger and fear.
5 / 11
Eventually found and rescued by the UN, the three children boarded the IOM flight home on 24 November. The sisters gripped Osman’s hands tightly as the plane climbed and headed south over the desert where they had left their mother’s body.
When she heard of her sister’s death, the children’s aunt, Fatmata Jalloh, 38, left her six children behind in Guinea and rushed to Sierra Leone to await the return of her nephew and nieces. “All of them were sick when they got back,” she recalls.
6 / 11
Osman spent a week in hospital getting blood transfusions. Ever since arriving back from Libya, Fanta has had a hacking cough and has been losing weight. She is sad she can no longer go to school – IOM will only allocate fees to those under 18. Her regret at not having reached Italy is becoming ever more acute.
“I was hoping that getting over there would be worth the suffering,” she says. “But now we came back, and we came back with nothing, not even with our mother.”
7 / 11
As nothing else seemed to help Fanta, her aunt took her to traditional doctor Rugiatu Conteh. She leads Fanta into a small stall in the back of her house. Rubbing half a lime vigorously over the girl’s bare torso, Conteh turns it over and carefully examines it. Six tiny black seeds are lying on the desiccated flesh.
8 / 11
‘‘My life is all derailed now,” Fanta murmurs.
“She has been affected by witchcraft,” Conteh says, after examining the seeds.
9 / 11
Although back at school, 15-year-old Fatmata feels isolated and lonely. Haunted by nightmares, she misses her mother and tries to avoid the ridicule of classmates by refusing to tell anyone where she has been.
10 / 11
“It [the trip] changed me a little bit,” she explains. “Now, I feel sadder.”
But it has also made her value her own country more and left her determined and ambitious for the future.
“I want my country to be a better country,” she says, pausing before declaring proudly: ‘‘I want to be president.”
11 / 11
Her more immediate problem is becoming financially stable. “If not, then we won’t be able to continue our education,” she says, looking up. “And then it would be all over for us.”

In Tripoli, migrants are imprisoned after failed sea crossings. They can be apprehended when the houses they stay in are raided, or simply when walking on the street. They can also be imprisoned by smugglers and armed gangs as well as security forces.

“The same people who captured us in boats were also the same ones who would push us out to sea and then just wait to capture us again,” says Sheku Bangura, referring to the smuggling gangs.

He holds up a photo taken in one of seven prison-like facilities where he was jailed, showing dozens of semi-naked men crushed and piled on top each other. Pointing to himself in red shorts amongst the tangle of bodies, he sighs: “When we paid out money to the agent to travel, he was so optimistic.”

Back, but broke

The first time most Sierra Leonean families find out a relative is home is when they receive a call after the migrant has arrived back at Freetown’s Lungi airport.

As part of the AVRR programme, IOM promised a reintegration allowance of €1,000 per person. Designed to kick-start new lives, the funds are given not in cash but as in-kind payments to suppliers, who then give their goods to returnees, according to pre-approved “business plans”. Many returnees – including Mariam – have found ways around this by finding suppliers who will submit false transactions to IOM and hand over the cash they receive in exchange for a cut.

☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief

1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:

In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.

2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard

The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.

3. Co-opting militias

July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.

4.  Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration

European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.

5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism

For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.


Migrants were told the process would take at least three weeks to implement after their return. But there was no provision to take care of the immediate problem of arriving back penniless – often traumatised, sick, or disabled by beatings, and to families who have rejected them.

Making matters worse, the local media erroneously announced that the failed migrants had each been given $1,000 cash immediately upon return.  

“The announcement set off a firestorm in the public,” Mohamed Sanusi, 28, head of youth programmes at Freetown’s Star Radio explains. “Everybody knew people had stolen things, sold property that wasn’t theirs, stolen cash – and they were clambering for their money. People were tracking the returnees.”

Publicly exposed and relentlessly mocked, rejected by families and with nowhere to stay, some penniless returnees, like Sheku Kamara, have little option but to flee into hiding.

What future?

Shortly after Isata Kabia was appointed minister of social welfare in January 2018, she discovered there was no comprehensive programme for returnees. “I was confused. I thought – what – you just send people home? And you leave them just like that?”

Susan Schulman/IRIN
Minister of social welfare Isata Kabia.

She moved swiftly to set up a programme to deal with the most immediate needs, offering clothing, counselling, medical treatment, and a mediation service to help mend relations between returnees and families. Kabia ultimately wanted to establish a “safe” house at Lungi airport to accommodate returnees upon arrival, but she was replaced recently by the new administration before these plans came to fruition.

The real solution, Paramount Chief Masakama Kanamanka III, political leader of the Kholifa Rowala Chiefdom in central Sierra Leone, believes, is to reduce the lure of Europe by creating opportunities at home.

The government has turned its focus to stopping migration. Part deterrence and part development, its strategy includes a media campaign featuring returnees recounting their experiences, and a programme to create more job opportunities at home.  

It is a welcome initiative, but one that comes too late to help the hundreds of struggling returnees. Five months after their return, the rejection by families and mockery by society is undiminished, while any means to reintegrate and move on seem out of reach.

Few, if any, have been able to use the IOM money for its intended purpose to create a livelihood. Instead, the funds are often returnees’ only hope of beginning to repair relationships with families, to find accommodation, to eat, to avoid jail.   

Depressed and worried, Sheku Kamara can’t sleep and barely leaves the room where he is hiding. He doesn’t see a future and is thinking of travelling again.

“If I don’t find anything here, I will use IOM funds to go again,” he says. “Even if I end up going back and dying in Libya.”

His family wouldn’t stop him.   

“If it were up to me,” says Sheku’s mother, Jenuba Kargbo, quietly, her face etched with pain, “I would have told him to continue his travelling and not come home.”


Next in Destination Europe: Evacuation
The small village of Thal-Marmoutier in France seems like it belongs to a different world than the teeming migrant detention centers of Libya. The road to the village runs between gently rolling hills covered in grapevines and winds through small towns of half-timbered houses. A repurposed section of a Franciscan convent is home to 55 people: Thirty of them  arrived from Chad, where they had been long-time residents of refugee camps after fleeing Boko Haram violence or conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur. The other 25 – from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan – were the first migrants evacuated from Libya. They had the prize so many seek: Europe. They had reached France, but many felt as if their lives were on pause, isolated in the small village with little access to transportation. “I haven’t benefited from anything yet,” said Intissar, a 35-year-old woman. “Time is just running from my life.”
Eric Reidy reports from Thal-Marmoutier, France and Niamey, Niger on an evacuation and resettlement programme that is perhaps the best face of European migration policy – a policy that otherwise centres on curbing clandestine migration. But unless European countries speed up the pace of resettlement and offer more spots for refugees, it is unclear if it will develop into a viable pathway to safety for more than a small handful who get the luck of the draw.
Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Overlooked


Share this article

Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.

Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.

We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.

Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian. 

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.