In late August 2020, 118 Ghanaian migrants stranded in Libya due to COVID-19 restrictions were able to go back home. The flight was the first under the International Organization for Migration’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Several VHR flights to different countries in Africa have since followed, providing a lifeline to migrants who were unable to leave conflict-torn Libya by themselves due to COVID-19 related travel and movement restrictions.
They were made possible through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, which marks its fourth anniversary this month. The programme was launched in December 2016, under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa agreed in the Valetta Summit in response to the urgent need to protect and save migrants’ lives and strengthen migration governance along Central Mediterranean migration routes. Sustained investment is needed to consolidate these results and continue providing urgent protection and critical assistance to vulnerable migrants along these routes.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative has been working with governments to ensure that migrants are protected and, where necessary, supported with voluntary return home. IOM has successfully negotiated with the Nigerien government and governments of origin the opening of humanitarian corridors to allow for the voluntary return of close to 2 500 migrants to Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon.
Six special voluntary return flights organised with support from the Government of Algeria since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic enabled 468 stranded migrants and international students to return safely from Algeria to 10 countries of origin.
As the impact of COVID-19 started to be felt in communities across the Sahel and Lake Chad, North Africa, and Horn of Africa regions, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative stepped in to empower local authorities, residents and migrants to address and mitigate the spread of the virus and prepare for the future.
In Senegal, the programme helped authorities assess the health of cross-border travellers by providing personal protective equipment, training to border agents and community engagement activities along its borders with Mali, Guinea and The Gambia.
In Mauritania, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative conducted training and donated medical and protective equipment in partnership with the World Health Organisation to strengthen the Government’s management of the pandemic.
In Burkina Faso, Chad, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and Niger, the programme revised ongoing awareness raising activities to include information sessions and sensitisation on COVID-19 prevention measures.
The COVID-19 outbreak has reinforced uncertainty and anxiety among returnees, exacerbating their existing psychosocial vulnerabilities. In West Africa, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative has put in place remote psychosocial support and regular follow-up for vulnerable returnees and other migrants stranded in transit centres to facilitate their reintegration process in the pandemic context.
In the Horn of Africa, the seven Migration Response Centres (MRCs) in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland continued to fill a critical gap by providing direct life-saving assistance, including medical assistance and psychosocial support to vulnerable migrants.
In Sudan, the programme extended psychosocial support via tele-counselling to returnees and migrants whose situation had been worsened by the pandemic. In Bosasso, Puntland, MRC staff expanded outreach activities to informal settlements populated by migrants. A hotline enables migrants to request information, and to make appointments for medical assistance or assisted voluntary return.
In North Africa, migrants hosted in the two transit centres in Algeria’s capital Algiers benefitted from remote group and individual mental health and psychosocial support sessions (MHPSS) during their extended waiting time for departure due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The sessions were conducted in cooperation with the Algerian Association of Psychologists. MHPSS sessions were also occasionally provided in response to urgent needs to migrants outside transit centres.
In Egypt, in response to requests for support from migrants, community leaders, partner organisations and embassies, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative distributed more than 2 500 food and hygiene kits in Alexandria, Cairo, Hurghada and Al-Fayoum, and increased COVID-19 related awareness raising activities through community leaders.
As COVID-19 restrictions are being gradually lifted across the three regions, the programme is working closely with national authorities in countries of origin, transit and destination to facilitate the voluntary return of vulnerable and stranded migrants that need protection and lifesaving assistance along key migration routes.
Upon return, migrants are eligible for reintegration assistance, including counselling, referral to existing programmes and services (training, medical and psychosocial assistance), or in-kind support. Additionally, they can join collective or community-based projects to set up a business with other returnees or community members.
Since May 2017, over 87 700 migrants were supported with voluntary return assistance, while more than 102 500 received post-arrival and reintegration support.
The EU-IOM Joint initiative provides critical support to local partners, including capacity building for migration data collection and analysis. The programme has a key role in improving coordination among countries of origin, transit, and destination.
The EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration brings together 26 African countries of the Sahel and Lake Chad region, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa, the EU and IOM around the shared goal of ensuring that migration is safer, more informed and better governed for both migrants and their communities.
The EU and its Member States have provided €450 million in funding for the EU-IOM Joint Initiative.