Migration governance: Trade Unions in Nigeria move to ease condition of returning migrants

With Covid-19 pandemic taking its toll on global economy, labour migrants are returning in large numbers to their countries of origin. In Nigeria, trade unions are building capacity in readiness to play critical roles in the reintegration of returning migrants especially in post Covid-19 pandemic era. Michael Oche writes.


Experts in Migration agree that returning migrants are usually vulnerable to exploitation and stigmatisation, especially in cases where they are coming back to countries that are experiencing serious unemployment crisis and economic hardship as in the case of Nigeria.

“When I came back, the first thing I needed was shelter. I didn’t have anywhere to go to and couldn’t appear before my family and friends empty handed. I would be seen as a failure”, says Emmanuel Osemudiamhen, a young Nigerian from Edo State who left Nigeria to Libya with hopes of reaching Europe.

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown that followed, Nigeria received a large number of migrants stranded in different African countries, such as Libya, Mali and Niger Republic as well as in UAE, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Osemudiamhen was one of the many Nigerians who opted for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) facilitated repatriation after being stuck in a detention centre in Libya.

The Challenges

As the masses of migrants return, the government faces a new challenge: what to do with them.

“Are they going to give us job? Will the government help us with capital to go on with our business?” a returnee, Ifunaya Isreal Onuwa who hails from Ebonyi queried when asked how she felt to be home.

Onuwa, a tailor, left Nigeria six months ago in search of greener pastures, she was however trapped in the desert, tortured and went days without food.

Often times, many stranded migrants from Nigeria are reluctant to return home due to concerns of the uncertainty that awaits them back home.

For many returning migrants, it is difficult to start all over. Many had sold off all of their possessions, while others had taken loans in the quest to make the long trip to Europe. Returning home “empty handed” to the country they thought they had escaped can be difficult.

Majority of them, especially those who migrated irregularly, return broke and broken. The psychological impact of their community seeing them as “failures” rather than “victims” can be traumatic.

Vanessa Phala, the Director of ILO office in Abuja, said from the testimonies of returnees who had migrated irregularly, the stigmatisation they have to face on returning is making it harder for them to return

“We (have) heard testimonies of some young Nigerians who had travelled outside of Nigeria irregularly to Libya and other countries; and some of the challenges that they have experienced. And the biggest challenges was how to come back to Nigeria ashamed of what they have to go through simply because they could not reach Europe or they didn’t reach their destination. So coming back was actually harder than leaving,” She says.

Phala was speaking in Abuja at a one day capacity building workshop on return and reintegration for trade unions.

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) focal person on Migration, Comrade Eustace James says, “returnees face challenges of reintegration, they face challenges of identity and they face challenges of protection of their labour and human rights. Many People are returned under inhumane conditions, they are forced and dehumanised in the return process. Some are left without being cater for.”

Trade Unions re-strategizes.

Experts in migration governance therefore agree that reintegration programs helps returning migrants get back on their feet if they decide to come back home.

Tired of lamenting the poor treatment meted out to returning labour migrants, the NLC is now building capacity of its affiliates on how to get more involved in the migration governance.

“For trade unions, we view it very important that all of these challenges that migrants face in their return and reintegration process are done with a human face. We want to ensure that these challenges are addressed with a view of giving human dignity to returnee migrant workers and by extension, all returnee migrants,” Comrade James says.

Already, the NLC in partnership with the ILO is developing a guide to help returning labour migrants on what to expect as they return to the country.

James says further, “Part of these activities we are organising in building capacity of our affiliate unions and engaging in advocacy on a broader level for better governance processes in the return and reintegration peocess is contributing to many other things that the NLC is doing to ensure that returnees have a better life when they come back.”

The NLC has also held capacity building for its affiliates operating at border posts. They include unions in Aviation, Cross Border Road Transport and Maritime Sector), Construction, Mining, Textile, Public Sectors and Informal Sector.

“The NLC shares in the vision and desire to bring Trade Unions and other Social Partners and their allies in Nigeria to explore imaginative ways collectively to promote Fair, Orderly and Regular Migration”, Comrade Ismail Bello, the acting general Secretary of the NLC said during a one day training for its affiliates operating at border posts.

On a larger scale, Comrade James says, “We (NLC) are discussing issues around social protection. One of the things the NLC is championing now is the universal application of social protection or social protection programmes and policies at the national level which also targets returnee migrants and other migrant workers that are in Nigeria for them to have a decent life and better living.

“The NLC is also working towards having collaborative agreements and understanding with countries of destination so that return of migrant workers should be defined and possibly migrant workers assisted to return to their countries and reintegrated into the system properly.”

Why is the NLC concerned about the welfare of returning migrants? Comrade James says, “Migrant workers are workers and are potential members of Trade Unions. Therefore, it is very important for Trade unions to come out in defence of workers to add their voice for better return and reintegration programmes.

For trade unions, our slogan is an injury to one is an injury to all. And in display of solidarity, we take it as a responsibility to be in the vanguard of advocacy for better return and reintegration programmes particularly for migrant workers. So that they can fit into the society and have a sense of belonging within the context of inclusiveness. Therefore, it is very important for Trade unions to continue to intensify activities that will ensure better return of migrant workers”

Re-integration in Pre-Covid-19

The National Migration Policy prescribes the creation of standards and procedures, based on international law and policy, for the return, readmission and reintegration of voluntary returnees, in line with relevant international legal instruments. These guidelines apply to Nigerians who may have been returned by virtue of their irregular migratory status or are stranded in transit or by virtue of the unfavorable socio-economic or political situation or voluntarily returned because of failed asylum or any other reason which must not be criminal in nature.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nigerian government with the support of the International Organization Migration (IOM) ensured that returnees were trained in various programmes, and equipped with business skills to assist them reintegrate properly.

The pandemic has however made it difficult for reintegration programmes which helps the returnees with some skills acquisition.

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