After a six-month hiatus due to COVID-19 border closures, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) resumed its Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme from Niger to The Gambia, with the support of the European Union.
On Wednesday 23rd Septembr 2020, 26 Gambian migrants finally returned home, after months stranded in IOM’s transit centres in Niger.
The group returned home on a charter flight from Niamey, Niger’s capital, passing by Conakry in Guinea, for the return of 100 Guinean migrants. With The Gambia’s airspace still officially closed, this humanitarian corridor was exceptionally approved by authorities.
Mobility restrictions related to COVID-19 have stranded hundreds of thousands of migrants around the world. An IOM Issue Brief has analysed the broad impacts of border closures on stranded migrants and proposed innovative steps nations can take, in particular ensuring stranded migrants regardless of nationality or migratory status are included in all national COVID-19 response plans.
Prior to their departure, in collaboration with the European Union Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP Sahel) and the Centre for Medical and Health Research (CERMES) in Niger, IOM organized COVID-19 testing for migrants hosted at transit centres in Agadez and Niamey. Before their travels, the migrants were all given hand sanitizer and masks, and pre-packaged food and water to minimize contact.
Upon arrival, the returnees underwent temperature screenings and were issued arrival assistance cards before being transported to an overnight temporary accommodation facility, where they were provided meals and core relief items, including essential hygiene supplies.
“AVRR has always been an indispensable tool for migration management – a lifeline for migrants who wish to return home but do not have the means to do so,” said Fumiko Nagano, IOM’s Chief of Mission in The Gambia.
“This mechanism has become even more vital amidst the pandemic. Despite the current challenges, IOM remains committed to supporting safe and dignified returns, in close coordination with the government authorities who made this return possible.”
The following day, the returnees received further medical and psycho social support and took part in an orientation session on the process of receiving reintegration assistance. Each migrant received an allowance to cover immediate needs and onward transport.
“The European Union remains strongly committed to protecting migrants and supporting returnees in their reintegration, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said H.E. Attila Lajos, EU Ambassador to The Gambia, on the importance of the return programme.
With Niger currently the top sending country of returning migrants to The Gambia, the resumption of the AVRR programme was critical. Since 2017, 1,600 Gambians returned home from Niger, representing more than half of all returns to The Gambia in 2019 and 2020.
In March, in order to contain the spread of the virus, the governments of The Gambia and Niger imposed several restrictions, including the closure of all borders. This affected IOM’s AVRR programme and left thousands of migrants stranded in IOM’s six transit centres across Niger.
“I have been in Niger for over nine months,” said Lamin Darboe, one of the returnees. “It wasn’t easy. I’m just happy to finally be back home because I have wanted to go home for so long.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic migrants at IOM’s transit centres in Niger were provided with masks and hand washing stations and underwent regular health checks. Prior to their departure, the returnees attended special awareness-raising sessions on the corona virus and underwent mandatory COVID-19 PCR tests.
IOM last assisted with AVRR from Niger to The Gambia on 19 March 2020, shortly before The Gambia’s borders closed in response to its first confirmed COVID-19 case. Until this week, only seven Gambians had been able to return home with IOM’s assistance – voluntary returnees from Germany and Switzerland, through exceptionally approved commercial flights.
As COVID-19 continues to impact the socioeconomic climate, the returnees will begin receiving their reintegration assistance in the coming weeks. The assistance aims to address economic, social and psycho social needs, with various types of support tailored to the returnees’ needs and interests.