Bruised but Not Broken: Cameroonian Migrants Return Home to Find Solace

November 17, 2018 Updated: November 21, 2018

YAOUNDE, Cameroon—Still recovering from gunshot wounds on his left index finger and left leg, Jean Toukam sits in a semi-recumbent position in his small bungalow in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.

Toukam’s many costly endeavors to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, which he had hoped would positively change his life, proved futile. But the young agriculture and livestock technician is quick to thank God for bringing him back home in one piece.

Returnees from Libya wait at the Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport.
Returnees from Libya wait at the Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport lounge on April 19, 2018. (IOM/Serena Pescatore)

“I was fortunate to cheat death on several occasions, but other migrants didn’t have such luck—they died in the desert. In fact, I have been to hell and back,” Toukam said of his journey. He left Yaounde, passing through Nigeria and Niger, to the city of Sabratha on the Libyan coast, before falling victim to multiple instances of modern slavery.

Toukam, in his early 30s, is among thousands of desperate young people from sub-Saharan African wanting to migrate to Europe, traveling often dangerous routes, and enduring the harsh climatic conditions of the Sahara Desert and uncertain waters of the Mediterranean.

It is almost impossible to tally the number of “adventurers” who are Europe-bound, as they often use trafficking networks whose operations largely remain clandestine. The U.S. Department of State in its 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report says that “the Government of Cameroon does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

Against this backdrop, Cameroon continues to register new departures of economic migrants on a daily basis, just like Toukam’s case.

Illegal Migrants Cross

Toukam initially left Cameroon in November 2016 with the intention of meeting a Libyan friend to work on an agricultural project in Libya. With cash in hand, and a plan in mind, Toukam set out on a more than 3,000-mile trip to Libya.

The migrant says the journey from Yaounde to Ngaoundere in Cameroon, and then from Ngaoundere to Yola, right up to Kano in Nigeria was smooth. But that wouldn’t last long.

One of the returnees from Mali poses for a photo in her sewing accessories shop in Yaounde, Cameroon.
One of the returnees from Mali poses for a photo in her sewing accessories shop in Yaounde, Cameroon. (Amindeh Blaise Atabong/Special to The Epoch Times)

“Before I left Nigeria to Niger, I was robbed of all my cash. Fortunately, I had paid the connection agents [‘passeurs’]. When we got to Niger, the smugglers who received us locked about 200 of us in a room in a bid to evade a state crackdown,” Toukam told The Epoch Times. With tears filling his eyes, he described his three-month stay in one of the ghettos in Agadez, Niger, as “life-threatening.”

When it was time to move from Niger to Libya, Toukam says 25 of the migrants were wedged into the back of a pickup truck. Among the travelers, two died of dehydration in the Sahara Desert, while the smuggler just abandoned the rest.

Toukam succeeded in reaching Libya after a second attempt two weeks later, only to be sold as goods by his “passeur.” He was again locked up in an encampment, alongside others, by armed smugglers.

“We were tortured several times with electric wires and given very little food and water. Two people even died,” Toukam recounted. He says he bought his freedom with 800 euros ($900)—money sent by his family back home. He then decided to cross to Italy.

Toukam’s attempt to reach Italy only landed him in more trouble, as he suffered another abduction by armed smugglers. It was then that he incurred the bullet wounds, when he tried to escape after four months in captivity. Toukam says it was thanks to the European Union that he was moved out of the detention facility and taken to a repatriation camp in Tripoli, Libya.

Returnees from Niger undergo border controls at the Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport in Cameroon.
Returnees from Niger undergo border controls at the Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport in Cameroon on May 9, 2018. (IOM/Serena Pescatore)

As with Toukam, Malvina (who preferred not to use her real name) was invited to Mali by her friend for a well-paid job. She used her wages to pay for a flight and set off with her 3-year-old son.

“I stayed for six months without the promised job upon arrival in Mali. Life began turning a little frustrating,” she said. “I did a crash training course in transport and logistics, and got a job with a salary of 100,000 CFA francs [$173], less than half of what I used to earn back home,” Malvina told The Epoch Times.

Already faced with an adverse situation, Malvina could manage life with her son, but it wasn’t long until the company that she worked for faced a financial crunch and she was retrenched.

“Life became extremely difficult. At this time, I was sleeping on a bare floor in an air-tight room with no furniture,” Malvina recalled, almost breaking down in tears. She said that was the best accommodation she could afford.

She then decided to try her luck in neighboring Algeria. But after crossing the desert on foot, with her child strapped to her back and just two liters of water to survive the scorching sun, her mission wasn’t fruitful—she was repatriated to Mali.

Such are the awful experiences that are spoken about by many returnees from the road to Europe.

Joseph Ambi recounted how he spent over 800,000 CFA francs ($1,381), only to be sold as a laborer in Algeria by an agent in Cameroon.

“My dream of setting foot in Europe never came to pass,” he said. But his desire to return home wasn’t easy either, though it did happen.

Home Sweet Home

Cameroon is overwhelmed with dissuading its youth from engaging in uncertain adventures in search of greener pastures. At the same time, the country is faced with the challenging task of increasing repatriation assistance to its migrant citizens in distress.

Local NGOs say most young people, especially girls, are trafficked out of the country to Europe and Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait and Lebanon, where they end up as domestic or sex workers. Their conditions of work and living are often inhumane, characterized by forced labor, torture, and other acts of violence.

Under a joint initiative for migrant protection and reintegration, the U.N. migration agency—the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—is helping migrants along the central Mediterranean routes to voluntarily return to their home country.

Since June 2017, the number of Cameroonian migrants assisted with return and/or reintegration stands at 2,397, Seybou Boubacar, IOM Chief of Mission in Cameroon, said.

“We have so far chartered 10 flights—five from Tripoli and five from Agadez—to bring home migrants who voluntarily wanted to come back,” Boubacar said. He says the agency has also covered the cost of returnees who came home on commercial flights.

In addition to giving each returnee 65,000 FCA francs ($112) for incidental expenses and as much as 750,000 FCA francs ($1,295) as seed capital, the agency, in partnership with government, has developed programs for the returnees and also given them psychological support.

More than 850 returnees are now gainfully self-employed in the cities of Yaounde and Douala, IOM officials told The Epoch Times.

Boubacar posits that false information about the successes of those who have migrated is responsible for the rise in new departures.

Now, Toukam, who faced “hell” on his way to Europe, has created a local association of returnees to make young people aware of the risk of irregular migration.

Others, such as Malvina, have set up small businesses that are flourishing and keep them away from the thought of embarking on such an adventure again.

“Home is really home,” Malvina said.