Fourteen Days in Limbo: What Happens to Returning Migrant Workers During The COVID-19 Crisis

Human Wrongs Watch

By Monica Chiriac | IOM*

Thirty-four children were part of the group returning from Burkina Faso this May 1.

photo_1Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Boubacar, 65, and his two sons, consider themselves to be excellent farmers, but Niger’s adverse weather and persistent droughts make it difficult to have a stable income from the land. In the off season, Nigeriens like Boubacar look for alternatives to make ends meet, and many choose to work in the goldmines in neighboring Burkina Faso.

“In my village, we don’t really know any profession other than agriculture,” says Boubacar.

More than 1,400 people arrived from Burkina Faso in the span of 24 hours. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac


“Last year’s harvest was disappointing. We cultivated until there was nothing more to cultivate and we ate until there was nothing left to eat.”

IOM staff assisted the continuous arrivals of migrants until the following morning. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Mustafa, 25, also left his village in Niger’s southern region of Tillabéri, with three of his friends looking for greener pastures. It was his seventh consecutive year going to Burkina Faso. He usually stays for 3 or 4 months, but this year he couldn’t.

“Sometimes we make money, sometimes we don’t,” says Mustafa.

“It’s about surviving, not saving money, otherwise, we are just another mouth to feed at the dinner table. We are at the age where we should be helping our families, and not be a burden to them.”

 IOM is assisting this group together with the ministries of Interior, Humanitarian Action, Public Health and Foreign Affairs in Niger. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Burkina Faso’s goldmining sites are often an attractive option for those looking to make some quick money, but the working and living conditions are harsh as Boubacar points out. In addition, in late April, violence ignited on the site where the gold miners were staying. Thousands of people had to drop their possessions and flee for their lives in the middle of the night.

“Everything we owned was lost in the fire. We were lucky to come out of it alive,” Boubacar says.

“We walked 300 kilometers until we reached Ouagadougou where the authorities and IOM told us we could finally rest; that they would help us get back home.”

Many of the returnees were looking for their friends or relatives upon arrival at the humanitarian site. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

IOM and its partners in Burkina Faso assisted this group of goldminers, 45 women and 34 children, for more than two weeks before they facilitated their transportation to Niamey in 37 buses early May. Upon arrival, IOM Niger provided them with food, core relief items, hygiene kits and medical assistance in coordination with national authorities.

The following day, the staff took advantage of the buses bound for Burkina Faso to facilitate the assisted voluntary return of 203 Burkinabe students who were stranded at the Islamic University of Say, 50 kilometers outside Niamey, and who had requested assistance to return home.

“It’s been very challenging to organize this intervention in such a short amount of time,” says Hamma, who works in IOM’s Emergency unit as a UN Volunteer. A refugee from Mali, Hamma says he finds it rewarding to see the returnees doing well on the site.

“You can see how in the span of three days, people managed to make this site their own. There are some frying fish on one corner while others are selling coffee at another. This is what makes the site alive.”

Over ten days, IOM and its partners erected over 500 shelters, built 40 latrines and showers and installed 30 handwashing stations. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

In late April, information still had not reached the “brousse” where the goldminers were staying, so they knew little of the COVID-19 pandemic that had taken the world by storm. It was only when they reached Ouagadougou that they were briefed about the global health crisis and what it entailed for them to travel back home.

Initially, Boubacar didn’t fully understand the reason he needed to stay on the site for two weeks. He says he needs to go home and cultivate the land – if not, it will be too late by the time he gets back. Similarly, Mustafa and his friends all had the chance to talk to their families who are impatiently waiting for them to get back home and start working the land.

“All we want to do is to go home and work,” they echo.

 A brief moment of rest. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

In line with IOM’s Global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SPRP), IOM Niger has launched an appeal for USD 9,984,000 to implement its Strategic Response Plan and support the Government of Niger with the prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 in migrant and host communities in Niger.

Video Barbara Rijks, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Niger: English | French

IOM is able to provide vital assistance to these vulnerable returnees with support from the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration financed by the European Union, in the framework of the Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the United States Department of State, and the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France.

This story was written by Monica Chiriac, IOM’s Media and Communications Officer in Niger.


2020 Human Wrongs Watch

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