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Gambian returnee migrants tackle COVID-19 head-on

Since her return to The Gambia, Rosamond’s thriving grocery shop has helped her pay for her daughter’s education. IOM/Alhagie Manka

Resilience? What does it mean for returned migrants who have survived dangerous and traumatic journeys?

“To me, resilience means protecting myself and being able to withstand an unfavorable situation,” says Rosamond Erica Johnson, who returned to The Gambia after a harrowing seven-month journey to try and reach Europe that ended in Niger.

Then COVID-19 hit. The pandemic threatened to turn Rosamond’s newly established life upside down in an instant. The crisis is challenging the resilience she built up over months of struggle, putting her grocery shop at risk — her sole source of income.

In late March, shortly after The Gambia’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported, a national state of emergency was declared. Restrictions imposed on everyday life under lockdown, seen all over the world to prevent the spread of the virus, have hit trade and market activity hard. Rosamond had to act fast to keep her new business afloat.

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“The business I operate sells attaya (green tea), sugar, milk tin, stationery and other similar items. It was going well, and I was using the profit to pay my rent, cover for my daughter’s education and healthcare and support my family,” she says. With schools now closed, stationery, one of her most popular products is no longer profitable.

With her business on the edge of collapse, Rosamond adapted quickly. “I assessed the market to understand what people want now, then invested in products that are marketable.” With the growing demand for ingredients, Rosamond began selling palm oil and gari (tapioca). She also took advantage of increasing reliance on online activities and is now selling mobile phone credit. “This business is not bad at all for me, despite the pandemic,” she notes, with relief.

Rosamond demonstrates resilience, like thousands of other returnees, who survive life-threatening ordeals to try and reach Europe. Rosamond’s attempt left her stranded in the Sahara. With assistance from the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, she returned home. Along with thousands of other returnees, she has made a name for herself, despite the stigma and whispers of being a failure.

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Like Rosamond, Oumie Camara is another returnee grappling with the impact of COVID-19. Oumie is learning how to maximize her profits from a rise in demand for seasonal produce. After nine months of attempting to reach Europe, she returned to The Gambia from Libya. She initially opened a cosmetic shop, using the profits to diversify her market garden. “I was making money growing and selling vegetables such as cabbage, cucumber and lettuce,” says Oumie.

With horticulture as her passion, Oumie continues to work hard at her garden. IOM/Alhagie Manka

Her business has not been spared by COVID-19. “The vegetable markets are only allowed to open for a very short period, and some of my vegetables are perishable.” Ramadan gave Oumie a glimmer of hope. As the demand for vegetables rose, she worked double-time to grow them in her garden. “I explored this opportunity and made as many sales as I could,” she states. “It shows that even amid the pandemic, we need to grab opportunities when they arise.”

As many returnees innovatively adapt their businesses in this difficult climate, others are finding ways to support their communities. Ebrima Sambou now spends his time volunteering. Ebrima established a grocery shop as part of his reintegration package after returning from Libya in 2017. He passed the shop’s management to his brother as he pursued work at a construction company. With the construction industry at a standstill and his brother overseeing the shop, Ebrima has joined the Kanifing Municipality Red Cross Link to deliver hygiene items and health information to the most vulnerable.

“As a former Red Cross volunteer prior to leaving for Libya in 2015, I already had experience in sensitizing people about Ebola during the outbreak in the region. I even utilized this skill along the backway, providing first aid service to fellow migrants on our route to Libya,” explains Ebrima, highlighting how the skills he has learned as a result of his migration experiences are being put to use in this pandemic.

Ebrima, Oumie and Rosamond all share one skill they are putting to use — a gift for public speaking and encouraging people to take positive actions in their communities. After returning to The Gambia, Ebrima and Oumie joined the Youths Against Irregular Migration (YAIM) association. The organization has embarked on multiple nationwide initiatives to sensitize youth on the risks of and alternatives to irregular migration. Meanwhile, Rosamond has participated in a number of radio programs covering migration.

Ebrima is incredibly passionate about sharing his story to young Gambians, to help them make informed migration decisions. IOM/Alhagie Manka

All three have joined the Migrants as Messengers volunteer network, through which they have eagerly participated in digital COVID-19 campaigns. “I did a handwashing demonstration video,” Ebrima says. He reveals with pride that his friends called him to say they watched his video. “I encouraged them to further learn the proper procedures from the World Health Organization.”

Rosamond accepted the “Stay Home Challenge”, inviting volunteers to show how they stay busy and healthy at home while respecting distancing protocol. Her advice? Sing and be joyful. Oumie took on the challenge as well, displaying her passion for horticulture in a clip of her gardening at home.

“There are people in The Gambia who do not believe the reality of the virus,” laments Oumie. “We are glad to participate in awareness-raising initiatives to counter some of these myths.”

Despite the continuing threat COVID-19 poses to communities, it has done little to quash Ebrima’s, Oumie’s and Rosamond’s resilience.

Ebrima Oumie and Rosamond received return and reintegration assistance through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. Their participation in digital COVID-19 campaigns is supported through the Migrants as Messengers initiative.

This story was written by Lamin W. Sanneh, IOM The Gambia’s Media and Communications Assistant

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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

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“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

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UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

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“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

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“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

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Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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