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IOM responds to Euronews' investigation into the EU-IOM Joint Initiative

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IOM responds to Euronews' investigation into the EU-IOM Joint Initiative
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What follows is a right-to-reply article written by The International Organization for Migration.

Euronews’ recent three-part series focusing on the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration (Joint Initiative) was a missed opportunity for the news organization to make its mark as a credible and balanced journalistic resource with a welcome interest in the subject of migration.

IOM welcomes interest in the topic of migration and its operations and supports efforts to improve services and conditions for migrants and vulnerable people through constructive discussions and objective assessments.

Despite IOM’s assisting this investigation, Euronews has produced a one-sided account of the realities of the Joint Initiative, generally and Voluntary Humanitarian Return assistance and the complexities of humanitarian responses in Libya, Eritrea and Nigeria specifically.

The series ignores the operational challenges and harsh realities on the ground faced by migrants and IOM staff working in multiple volatile settings to alleviate the suffering of those detained, forcibly displaced and stranded, at a time when those same vulnerable people face mounting xenophobia, misinformation and sometimes violence.

Specific Concerns:

1. Euronews suggests that the “Joint Initiative” is a one-sided or Euro-centric approach, ignoring the central role played by the African Union member states, individuals and organizations in Africa who shaped the evolution of these efforts over the past three years.

In fact, the Joint Initiative stems from the Africa-EU commitments under the Valletta Declaration and Action Plan and relies on pillars of protection, human rights, and health. IOM’s involvement is based on strong tri-lateral cooperation between the Organization, its African and European Member States, and the EU.

Every action this partnership takes is fully coordinated and agreed upon by authorities in our African member states and seeks to respond to their migration governance priorities and needs. More than 50 working groups, technical committees and referral networks are supported by the Joint Initiative. Agreements have been concluded with more than 130 local partners to provide reintegration assistance.

IOM has been working in Libya since 2006. In April 2017, it was IOM which revealed the existence of slave markets in Libya where migrants coming into the country, fleeing poverty and conflict were being traded like commodities. In November of that year, CNN reported on the same issue, documenting appalling and shocking human rights violations.

As a result of this revelation, the EU and the African Union asked IOM to scale up its voluntary humanitarian return assistance, among other programmes targeting vulnerable people in Libya, to better address their right of return - the principle under international law that guarantees an individual’s right to re-enter or voluntarily return to their country of origin – provide emergency and lifesaving assistance, and prevent the further exploitation and suffering of migrants stranded or detained in Libya.

Since then, more than 50,000 people have been safely returned home.

2. The assumption that this initiative can or aims at resolving the root causes of migration or acts as a deterrent for migrants attempting to reach Europe, does not only go beyond objectives defined by partners involved, but is simply unfounded.

Its operational focus is on saving lives, protecting the most vulnerable, facilitating access to critical consular services and improving conditions for migrants along the migration routes.

Guided by the humanitarian imperative to save lives, Search and Rescue operations (SAR) and Humanitarian Rescue Operations (HRO) provide assistance to migrants who find themselves destitute and in extremely vulnerable conditions in the most remote parts of Niger. Euronews did not report that between 2016 and Dec 2019, close to 29,000 people have been rescued and that most would have likely died in the desert or drowned without these critical Joint Initiative operations.

Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) from Libya, is an immediate and necessary live saving option for thousands of people both inside and outside of detention centers. It is not the solution to systemic migration challenges and migrant exploitation or abuse in the country or along the migration routes towards Libya and Europe. To dismiss this life saving policy in a headline as “Paying for Migrants to Go Back Home”, dismisses the importance of humanitarian efforts to alleviate the suffering and privation of tens of thousands of migrants in Libya.

3. Euronews presents as fact an incident during which several Eritrean men changed their minds about their voluntary return when they arrived at the airport and “were bundled onto the plane in view of UN staff.” IOM is aware of this incident and contrary to the Euronews account, none of the six migrants who changed their minds boarded the plane, and to suggest otherwise is false.

Faced with an increasingly reduced protection space, restrictive migration policies and a lack of legal pathways, VHR is an immediate and necessary live saving option for thousands of people both inside and outside of detention centers. Without it, more than 50,000 people who have safely returned home would instead continue to be exposed to gross human rights violations, exploitation, abuse and in certain cases death in Libya. Denying them this crucial lifeline, would be to compound their misery and cheat them of the fundamental right of return.

IOM’s VHR programme is built on pillars of protection, human rights and health. To be considered voluntary a migrant’s return needs to address:

• The principle of non-refoulement, in collaboration with UNHCR;

• The absence of physical or psychological coercion, intimidation or manipulation;

• The provision of timely, unbiased and reliable information communicated in a language and format that is accessible and understood;

• Sufficient time to consider other available options and to ready oneself for the return;

• The possibility of withdrawing or reconsidering one’s consent if the proposed activities, circumstances, or available information change.

4. The statement that “Two-thirds of migrants don't complete the reintegration programmes”

is a misrepresentation of facts Euronews was provided, as many returnees are still engaged in the reintegration process and have not completed it.

Reintegration is a complex, time-consuming process that looks at the needs of the individual returnees as well as their communities. Its goal is to address returnees’ economic, social and psychosocial needs and foster inclusion of communities of return in reintegration planning and support whenever possible. In no way is reintegration assistance attempting to prevent new migration, it rather enables migrants to make migration-related decisions a matter of choice, rather than necessity.

Facilitating the sustainable long-term reintegration of returning migrants goes beyond the Joint Initiative’s mandate. That requires strong leadership from national authorities in countries of origin as well as active contributions at all levels of society. The actions implemented by the Joint Initiative therefore focus on the sustainability of reintegration through local ownership, partnership, and closer alignment with local and national partners.

The time required to complete the reintegration process is affected by multiple variables including a readjustment period and rehabilitation process that includes time to address health challenges, assess business opportunities to ensure their sustainability, to organize and complete trainings, and procure in-kind materials in a systematic and accountable manner.

IOM is continuing to address delays that occurred in the months after the joint AU-EU-UN Taskforce requested IOM’s assistance to accelerate returns in the wake of the reporting about slave markets in Libya. This humanitarian surge overwhelmed the ability of IOM and local institutions to absorb and process returnees creating a significant backlog at a time when discussions with governments in countries of return had only begun.

Despite this and numerous other operational challenges, feedback based on more than 27,000 returnee internal surveys across the Sahel region, Lake Chad, Horn of Africa and North Africa regions showed 74 per cent were satisfied with their reintegration assistance, 94 per cent believe their decision to return was the correct one. On average 60 per cent reported they are currently employed, a solid result given the regions’ challenging economic climates.

5. In querying the voluntary nature of return to Eritrea, Euronews makes the assertion that a “recent” enquiry by the UN found that “returnees are systematically ill-treated to the point of torture during the interrogation phase” by local authorities. They “are inevitably considered as having left the country unlawfully, and are consequently regarded as serious offenders, but also as ‘traitors’,” it said.

In fact, the citation comes from the Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea published in June 2015 more than three years prior to the commencement of IOM’s return operations to Eritrea. This is a willful distortion of the truth.

IOM recognizes its limited access and presence in Eritrea and follows strict protocols for the return to Eritreans who seek IOM’s VHR assistance. This lengthy process, which includes thorough joint counseling sessions with UNHCR, is founded in the organization’s approach to protection and the fundamental human right of return.

6. Flawed and Misrepresented Research

In the article “Paying for Migrants to Go Home” cites the work of researcher Jill Alpes based her interviews with 23 returnees from Libya and 15 migrants in Niger and Mali. This is hardly a representative sample of the roughly 50,000 people whose voluntary return and reintegration has been assisted by IOM under the Joint Initiative. IOM cooperated with Ms. Alpes and agreed to review her draft paper prior to publication however this cannot be interpreted as the Organization’s endorsement of her approach or conclusions.

IOM was not asked to comment on the report prior to Euronews publishing its details and thus had no opportunity to present our serious misgivings.

The article continues:: “Meanwhile, a Harvard study on Nigerian returnees from Libya estimates that 61.3% of the respondents were not working after their return, and an additional 16.8% only worked for a short period of time, not long enough to generate a stable source of income. Upon return, the vast majority of returnees, 98.3%, were not in any form of regular education.”

There is no doubt that returnees, particularly those arriving prior to July 2018 when the study was conducted, faced very difficult circumstances in Nigeria in part due to the ‘surge’ of returns following the CNN reporting nine months earlier.

Overlooked in the reporting is that this “pilot study” was commissioned by IOM due to concerns about the lack information about the “many challenges returnees face post-return”. Its focus was exclusively on returnees between the ages of 17-24, and the researchers indicate that it is not representative of either youth returnees or the “entire returning population” as Euronews asserts.

IOM maintains that the task of informing the public is one that should be handled with great responsibility and is committed to values of transparency and cooperation with the media. No organization is perfect, but IOM, working in conflict-torn Libya and across West and Central Africa has its boots on the ground where it matters.

Despite challenging circumstances, our staff work tirelessly on behalf of migrants, their own governments and the European Union to manage what has become a very disorderly situation which has cost many lives and seen countless vulnerable migrants abused and exploited, facts that were unfortunately disregarded in the Euronews reporting.