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59 Stranded Sierra Leonean Migrants Return Home As 36221 Others Enter Europe By Sea

IOM providing post-arrival assistance to returnees at the Freetown International Airport. Photo: IOM Sierra Leone

Fifty-nine Sierra Leonean migrants who were stranded in Senegal since the outbreak of COVID-19 have finally returned home safely via air charter flight.

This brings to 2,800 the number of people assisted with voluntary return in the region by the United Nations migration agency with financial support from the European Union.

This happened as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reports that 36,221 migrants and refugees successfully entered Europe by sea through August 12, with almost half of that volume coming via the Central Mediterranean route connecting North Africa to Italy and Malta.

The 36,221 total compares with 41,501 arrivals through this date last year, a 13 per cent decrease across the entire region.

Just during 2020’s months of May, June, July and nearly half of August, 12,000 men, women and children arrived from Africa via Italian waters – or more than all irregular arrivals to Italy in 2019, throughout that entire year.

During 2020, typical migration patterns that emerged during six years of a Mediterranean migration emergency have been altered considerably.

Arrivals to Greece and Spain – the so-called Eastern and Western Mediterranean routes – are both down, respectively, almost 59 per cent and 26 per cent from this period last year (see chart below).

Deaths on the Central Mediterranean route remain the highest in the region, as they have each year since 2013.

Through August 12, IOM’s Missing Migrant Project reports 303 deaths on the Central Mediterranean corridor, plus another 71 deaths on routes to Greece and Cyprus and 70 to Spain for a total of 444 for the entire region.

At this point last year, IOM recorded 926 sea deaths across the region, suggesting that 2019 would mark the sixth straight year Mediterranean migrant deaths would exceed 1,000 – a total that was reached just a few weeks later.

In addition to deaths in Spanish waters of migrants seeking to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, this year IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has reported a surge in sea deaths in the Atlantic, as migrants risk their lives trying to reach Spain’s Canarias archipelago west of Africa. So far in 2020, IOM has recorded 201 deaths on the route to the Canarias between the months of January and July, including at least 63 migrants who disappeared en route to the islands on 18 July.

In the meantime, the returnees were among 87 men and women stranded in Senegal after crackdowns on trafficking and smuggling in persons by Senegalese Security Officials.

Two smugglers were arrested, with the migrants testifying they each had paid between $600 and $700 to reach employment opportunities in the Middle East.

The COVID-19 pandemic and mobility restrictions such as border closures put in place to limit the spread of the pandemic left thousands of migrants stranded at borders and in third countries in the region.

“An increased number of migrants and governments have approached IOM for support in the organisation of return operations to countries of origin”, explains Michele Bombassei, IOM Regional Senior Programme Coordinator for West and Central Africa.

As per Sierra Leone health regulations, all returnees were tested for COVID-19 before they left Senegal. Upon their return, they underwent a rapid diagnosis test before reuniting with their families and their communities.

In addition, all returnees received food and economic assistance to cover their immediate needs such as onward transportation to their various communities. Those in need of psychosocial support will be contacted by a mental health specialist in the coming days.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the establishment of mobility restrictions, IOM has been working with regional governments to ensure that migrants, including the most vulnerable, are protected, and where requested, supported with voluntary return home through humanitarian corridors.

“Governments are approving exceptions to the closure of borders for IOM to operate and to support the safe and dignified return of stranded migrants”, Bombassei adds.

IOM has been supporting stranded migrants along their migratory journey or working in the informal sector in regions with a volatile economic environment, and who suddenly found themselves without any job, and sometimes no food, water, and no way to go back home.

Most of the returns took place from Niger, where thousands of migrants were awaiting departure before the measures were taken.

IOM has successfully negotiated with the Nigerien government and governments of origin the opening of humanitarian corridors to allow for their voluntary return to Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon, so far.

Return operations continue throughout the region. While some borders are beginning to reopen, IOM will keep supporting governments implementing health prevention measures before and after departure.

On August 6, 147 Nigeriens returned home from Côte d’Ivoire. Over 500 others will receive the same assistance in the following weeks.

These returns were made possible with support from the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrants Protection and Reintegration.



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