The crossroad to death, prosperity, or profit- the illegal migration story in Sierra Leone
By: Sulaiman Stom Koroma.
The thirst for overseas travel is gaining interest from youths in Sierra Leone, Africa, and other parts of the world. For some, it’s a real struggle, a struggle that will see them go through the huddles and difficulties of Africa crossing points to their final destination of hope, for others, it’s a new way of making money, spending less to travel to an Africa country and seek repatriation home and make more money, while for others, they are duped and literally sold to work in other counties as slaves.
Ibrahim Yayah Kamara has attempted to travel abroad two consecutive times, and even with those failed attempts, he is still considering a third. “I still want to travel no matter what, this is my ambition to fulfill. My mother and other relatives are looking up to me as the current breadwinner, it is not possible to achieve what I want in Sierra Leone, overseas is where the possibility lies, and I must go there” he said. Ibrahim Kamara was introduced to this idea by a certain Bailor Bah he met in Guinea, their contact in Guinea introduced them to an agent who to this day he has not met, they were asked to pay one thousand two hundred dollars through money gram.
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2021, Kadiatu Kamara is sitting with his son and other close relatives waiting for his husband Abu who had left Freetown for Niger three months ago. With her, is Ibrahim the elder brother of his husband. Abu came to Freetown a few years ago to further his schooling, unfortunately, he ended up as a stone miner and mason as a per time job. Three months ago, a guy called Ishmael approached Ibrahim (the brother of Abu) and explain to him a ‘deal’ he has been engaged in for years now. The deal was to travel with people by road to Niger, while in Niger, they will present themselves to IOM officials who will then repatriate them to sierra Leone, on their return, the IMO and the government will give them one thousand five hundred dollars (1,500) as compensation, which they will then share.
Zainab shaman is a trader who takes care of his kids and mother in Freetown, she was introduced to a program that provides jobs for people in Dubai, by an area friend called Musa. Zainab showed interest and paid the sum of fifteen million Leones. They transited to guinea and later, find themselves in Kuwait where she said she was literally sold to a family living there “I was kept in that house every day without going outside, I work all round the clock and eat the remains of those I stayed with, I suffered a lot, it was unbearably for me and so I planned an escape with finally served as a solution”. She said.
Amidu is 21 years of age, and he has heard so many stories of both the good, bad, and the ugly sides of illegal migration, even with those stories, he is still bent on giving it a try “people tell me it’s a difficult journey, you have to be strong, and hopeful, they say people die, some are kidnaped and all…, but we here good stories of many who made it and now leaving a better life. If they can do it, I can also give it a try”.
Broadly, poverty, overpopulation, family reunification, asylum, education, and some others are the key reason for illegal migration. Those who take the risk to make such a journey are always faced with the risk of lack of access to services, slavery, kidnapping and ransom, sexual exploitation, exploitation of labor, injury and illness, deaths and so much more. But for most in Sierra Leone, the reason is to make money and live a better life.
Unemployment is one of the biggest challenges faced by many youths in Sierra Leone. According to Statistics Sierra Leone, the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 4.30 percent in 2019 from 4.30 percent in 2018. The Word Bank chat shows youth unemployment (15-24) years in 2019 at 8.8. Morlai Conteh is the Director at the National Youth Coalition, he blamed the rampant youth migration on many issues in the country “Youth unemployment in Sierra Leone is caused by mainly bad governance, archaic and incompatible educational curriculum, corruption and abject poverty”.
According to IOM Sierra Leone, coupled with the issue of rural-urban migration, transnational Migration has become an outlet for Sierra Leonean youth and young women to escape from lacking opportunities at home. Consequently, the youth have come to perceive ‘Temple Run’ as a solution to issues, such as the lack of employment and opportunity. Alfred Fornah is the Communication Office for IOM, he continued by saying that “The other reason also, some don’t know/have the right information about traveling overseas. So if they are presented with an opportunity by smugglers/traffickers they fall for it, they most of the time use the services of a fraudulent agent who require them to pay huge amount of money for fake job or study abroad”.
Frances Kamara is the Deputy Commissioner at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, he agrees it is difficult to stop illegal migration, but says it can be minimized, and by doing so, there should be an enabling environment in the country by making the country business-friendly, providing job opportunities, developing and implementing policies like the National labor migration policy which was introduced in 2017.
For Morlai, Sierra Leone doesn’t have the market facilities to employ its citizens. Because he says there is an acute shortage of qualified and competent youths for the few available jobs. “The available employment opportunities are very slim. Apart from the highly partisan public/government employment, labor-intensive mining companies, few banks and two major mobile companies, the rest is either commercial motorbike renting or petty trading”.
Ibrahim Kamara blames his journey overseas on unemployment in his country. “hahaha, you should know now, I want to travel out because I don’t have a job here and it’s difficult to have also, so I am looking for any opportunity that will change my life and by extension that of my family”. On his second journey, Ibrahim went with his friend Ibrahim Bah, they travel through Guinea, Mali, and Algeria where they ran out of money. They were then employed by a local construction company, and his friend who had financial support from home furthered to France, but Ibrahim presented himself to the IOM office in Algeria for repatriation. “I worked for over six months with a construction company, I cannot raise the money I needed to continue my journey, every day we have officials chasing us for documents and our residential permit, I got fed up and so I presented myself to IOM officials, they brought me home”.
Zainab was desperate to return “so I made a voice note and share it all over social media to draw people’s attention to the awful way I am living here, I have been told of how girls are gang-raped by police officers or men who would ask them for documents and could not present them, but I was fortunate, as I escaped through the help of another sierra Leonean Mohamed how saw the video I posted and said he will take me to the Sierra Leone embassy, where my repatriation was arranged”.
Meanwhile, on the 22nd of June, 2021 57 Sierra Leoneans who were allegedly promised job offers in Senegal but turned out to be a hoax upon their arrival got stranded. It was believed that these Sierra Leoneans were recruited with some Guineans by agents in Sierra Leone and in Guinea, they paid about $1,000 each to work in Senegal. These jobs, which ranges from welding, construction, agriculture, and security, to electrician pay from 400,000cfa ($800), 300,000cfa ($600) to 250,000cfa ($500) per week.
Abdul Karim Kamara was one of the victims, he told officials at the Sierra Leone Embassy in Senegal “They shared with us an excel document bearing the various jobs they were recruiting for which salaries attached. They asked for $1,000 each for the recruitment, one Lamin Kondeh, a Sierra Leonean, and Abdul Salam Jalloh, a Guinean recruited us “.
Similarly, on September 1, 2021, Thirty-two (32) Sierra Leoneans duped online for jobs in Senegal were repatriated from Senegal by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to Sierra Leone. In 2019, 17 Sierra Leoneans were repatriated courtesy of the Sierra Leone Embassy in Senegal which paid the bills to the tune of $5,000USD. Tuesday, August 11th, 2020, 61 out of 87 Sierra Leoneans were trafficked to Senegal and were repatriated back home.
I was reliable informed that the Network of traffickers operates on three Levels: The first level is in Sierra Leone where the recruitment is done. In the second level, the victims are brought to Senegal through Guinea by road. Upon arrival in Senegal, the Senegalese agent provides accommodation and all the necessary documentation through another agent residing in the Gulf Countries.
Unlike those stories above, for Abu it’s different, he just needs to find the fee for his agents and bear the long journey from Freetown to Niger, when they reached there, it was an easy workover “we had some difficulties on our way but from the day we reached Niger and hand ourselves to the IOM officials we are properly taken care of, we eat three times a day, get medical and other facilities”.
Over the past three years, many Sierra Leoneans who had migrated illegally to counties like Senegal, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Dubai, and other countries were successfully repatriated to Sierra Leone and given a new life.
The new way of making money now among many youths is through the government and IOM’s traveling plan, knowing that when they return to Sierra Leone they will be provided with money and other packages. so their only target is to secure the agent fee and the trip is arranged.
A joint report by IOM and the Office of National Security in 2017 estimated that the number of youths and young women departing from Sierra Leone through irregular means annually is between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals. “In 2019 and 2020 alone, 2, 758 Sierra Leoneans stranded along migration routes were assisted by IOM to return home voluntarily, safely, and in dignity in the framework of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration”. Says the communication officer of IOM.
Sheku Bangura is the Director of the Advocacy Network against Irregular Migrations, his organization seeks the welfare of migrants in Sierra Leone and they have been operating since 2017 to advocate for the repatriation of migrants who are stranded in other countries and want to come home “our key attention is focused on migrants who have gone to other countries through fraudulent ways, and those who work for and are either not paid or underpaid and those who are into some form of slavery”. We seek funds from other organizations which we give to them so that they can start their lives all over again.
Ibrahim Kamara is currently a bike rider living in Makeni, he told me his bike was bought for him by Ibrahim Bah, the same guy who left him in Algeria and successfully made it to France. He hopes that one day he will raise more money and take the risk of another trip. Zainab is now in Freetown after a successful repatriation, she is into a small-scale business. Abu has undergone weeks of training with the IOM but is still continuing with stone-breaking and mason. Amidu still has the hopes of traveling, the last time I spoke to him, he told me he is on the search for the cash.
Sheku Bangura said they are currently working on a project with IOM called ‘Migrants as messengers’ which is a project introduced by IMO to use repatriated migrants to go into their communities to sensitize others and to also identify local opportunities to engage in, rather than plan for trade in other counties. A similar program was launched by IOM in Ghana on the 25th of May 2022 called the ‘WAKAWell, Fa Kwan Pa So’ campaign, which aims at preventing exploitation associated with irregular migration by empowering young people in Bono and Bono East region to make informed migration-related decisions.
The Deputy Commissioner of Labor also agrees with the identification of local opportunities as he says through the support they had, they are now developing a Labor market information system to see what labor forces they have as against the jobs available. “Also, the government of Serra Leone is working hard to sign a memorandum of those countries where migrants are going (bilateral migration agreement). And to also ensure that we regulate private employment agencies”.
For Civil Society activist Morlai, the problem could be mitigated by providing immediate solutions like basic financial management training skills, and providing loans for youths, “The government and its partners should construct a state of the earth studio and an entertainment hall for talented youths to produce their songs and enjoy their intellectual proper rights. There should be special funds decentralized across the country to promote youth in their different talents”. He said.
Apart from civil society, government, and public cries, musicians like Ambassador Kao Denero and Mr. 1 have also sang songs highlighting the challenges and causes faced by youths that have led them to such options, they have also called on the youths to find better options home.
It is clear that most of the jobs here are the same or similar to that which most people are migrating for, but because those jobs are decent and better paid compared to what obtains here, they will prefer the struggle. The Sustainable Development Goals 8 talked about decent work and economic growth “Over the past 25 years, the number of workers living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, despite the lasting impact of the 2008 economic crisis and global recession. In developing countries, the middle class now makes up more than 34 percent of total employment – a number that has almost tripled between 1991 and 2015. However, as the global economy continues to recover we are seeing slower growth, widening inequalities, and not enough jobs to keep up with a growing labor force.
According to the International Labor Organization, more than 204 million people were unemployed in 2015”.
It is apparent that illegal migration can’t be stopped or minimized easily, but it will take a concerted effort, dedication, conscientization, and a lot of awareness and willingness to minimize it.