Middle East

Migrants rescued from Libya prisons ‘start from zero’

YAOUNDE: Franck’s return to Cameroon was nothing short of a miracle for Doris, who lost hope of ever seeing her brother alive when friends said his boat from Libya to Italy had capsized. But she found him among 164 Cameroonians – tired, dazed and gaunt – who were flown home from Libya by the International Organization for Migration this month.

“I couldn’t believe it,” 30-year-old Doris told Reuters, after tightly embracing Franck in a hotel in downtown Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon.

“I didn’t want anyone to give me any false hope.”

Franck, 28, who declined to give his full name, survived the shipwreck, as well as kidnap and torture in Libya, the main launching point for tens of thousands of African migrants to cross the Mediterranean to Europe each year.

Amid the several emotional reunions, the returnees described their anxiety about the future, in particular, finding work back home – the problem that pushed them abroad in the first place.

Cameroon, IOM and the European Union have brought more than 1,000 migrants back home from Libya, Mauritania, Mali and Niger since November.

Most returnees were rescued from Libyan prisons, where the line between official detention centers and exploitative smuggling enterprises is hazy, after reports emerged of Africans being sold in slave markets for forced labor.

Some returnees at the Yaounde hotel had injuries or were limping, and were keen to tell of the horrors they had suffered.

Others stood back, surveying their new surroundings with bemusement and disbelief.

Thousands of migrants drown each year trying to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats, with more than 400 deaths on the hazardous route since the start of 2018, IOM said.

Franck nearly lost his life when his friend fell into the sea as their boat – intended for 100 passengers but crammed with more than 500 – partially capsized.

“I wanted to jump in the water after him, but as I stood up a boy next to me just clasped his arms around my waist and wouldn’t let go, crying out of terror,” he said, sitting in a cafe, staring at youths washing cars and hawking fruit.

“That saved me as I wouldn’t have been able to get on the boat afterward,” he added.

After being rescued by Libyan fishermen, he was taken to a prison, where he secured his freedom after paying his kidnappers 1,500 euros ($1,851). But he was captured again by men with Kalashnikovs while walking home and taken to another prison. He then got in touch with a Cameroonian Embassy official who arranged for his repatriation.

Haunted by his memories, Franck has yet to tell his family much about what happened to him. He said he does not want to dwell on the past; he needs to find work.

In that, Franck may benefit from the EU’s 3.2 billion euro Trust Fund for Africa, set up in a bid to stem the flow of migrants to Europe with skills training and jobs back home.

It is funding a joint initiative with IOM to reintegrate migrants who have returned to Cameroon and help them learn trades and set up businesses with loans.

“The trauma of what they went through won’t disappear overnight” said Felix Mbayu, secretary-general of Cameroon’s External Relations Ministry.

“But they do come back with a certain advantage over other youths in Cameroon, which is that they now know that the grass is not greener on the other side – so they are more motivated to take advantage of the opportunities back home.”

The scheme encourages migrants to set up community-oriented projects in farming, cattle rearing and other fields, which can become self-sustaining, IOM Cameroon head Boubacar Saybou said.

“We’re looking into setting up the best options possible for them because we need to create lasting opportunities,” he said.

Cameroon also launched a pilot project in January setting up job centers to provide information and advice to those seeking work or to obtain or even upgrade their skills and qualifications.

Franck, who is trained in making and laying floor tiles, said he plans to going into business with a plumber and a carpenter that he met in prison in Libya and returned on the same flight.

He is reluctant to migrate again.

“It’s too risky. I would not recommend anyone to take that route,” he said.

But Franck said he will have no choice but to leave if his new business fails.

“We don’t know how life here is anymore,” he said.

“We have to really start again from zero.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 22, 2018, on page 8.

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