Sometimes African migrants travel long distance in the Sahara desert in crowded vehicles before boat travels / Photo: Reuters archive / Photo: AP

By Staff reporter

It was a balmy Moroccan autumn day on October 27, 2013, when Sam Goncolo, 31, descended the aircraft that flew him into Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca.

Sam had travelled over 2,000 km from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, to study International Relations at a Moroccan university.

Sam’s plan was to emigrate to Europe after his studies.

Like most migrants, he had left his home country in a desperate bid to escape grinding poverty and get the ‘dream’ life.

But many of those who travel from Liberia and other African countries are misinformed of a fast path to wealth.

In Liberia, the misinformation stems from the country’s economic situation as it battles to recover from the aftermaths of two bloody civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003, killing over 200,000 people.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), over 200,000 Liberians leave the country every year in search of a better future.

“There was so much expectation back home. My parents are poor and not working. They were counting on me to make it big out there in Europe,” he recalls.

But upon graduating from university, Sam had a change of heart. He completely abandoned his lofty dream of Europe and returned home to Liberia. He also convinced and helped other migrants return to their home countries.

A global emergency

Sam’s resolve to stay in Morocco or travel across the Mediterranean into Europe after his studies began to waver after several interactions with African migrants stranded in the North African country.

As of 2023, the United Nations Refugee Agency says, over 22,000 migrants are currently in Morocco.

According to the World Bank, six countries in Northern Africa – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia – have historically been and remain significant countries of migrant destination, transit and departure to Europe.

The UN said January to March 2023 was the deadliest quarter for migrants since 2017 with 441 deaths on the Mediterranean. Photo/AP archive

By mid-2020, the North African sub-region hosted an estimated 3.2 million international migrants, nearly 61 percent of whom were either from the same sub-region or other African sub-regions.

“I was moved by the stories of these migrants and the difficult journeys they’ve been on. I saw young and extremely talented people who had so much to offer to their home countries but have suffered so much on a very perilous journey… and all for what?” Sam tells TRT Afrika.

Desperate journeys

In 2017, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that up to 40 migrants died of thirst in northern Niger when their vehicle broke down during an attempt to reach Europe via Libya. Nigerien officials said babies and women were among the 44 migrants found dead.

The IOM further reported in December 2022 that more than 5,600 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Sahara Desert in the last eight years, with 110 migrant deaths recorded in Chad.

In April 2022, the UN reported that more than 3,000 people died or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, hoping to reach Europe.

“I had seen the conditions of the migrants. Many were homeless and sleeping out in the heat or cold. Many of them with children were ill. I interacted with them, and many of them were young and talented. Many had amazing business ideas. They had everything that should have helped them succeed in their home countries.”

“But they had been misinformed and embarked on this journey that wasn’t at all what it promised. I made up my mind to henceforth work to get them back on the right path, and this begins with them heading back home.”

The birth of Sam’s daughter made his resolve to return to Liberia even firmer.

“I realised that after my graduation, if I should travel to Europe, I would become exactly like one of these migrants, embarking on dangerous routes and ending up homeless because I do not have the right documentation. I couldn’t imagine putting my child through such a terrible condition”.

According to data from UNICEF, the number of migrant children increased from around 24 million from 1990–2000 by 50 per cent to 36 million in 2020.

UNICEF also estimates that more than one child dies every day along the perilous Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy. In general, more than 29,000 migrant deaths have been recorded for 2021, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Kingsley Okoye, an Immigration lawyer in the West African country of Nigeria, tells TRT Afrika, “Many are forced to leave because of the harsh economic and sometimes political climate in their home countries.”

Nigeria has seen at least 1.7 million citizens emigrate in the year 2020 alone, according to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “Some of these youngsters sell all they have to pay for plane tickets, hoping to make it big over there,” Kingsley adds.

Sam’s account corroborates this.

“I had invested heavily in my trip. I sold everything. That’s why returning home was a very difficult decision to make. To abandon this dream and face my poor parents, who were expecting so much from me. I knew they would be heartbroken,” Sam says.

As Sam’s studies approached the final year, he raced to help as many stranded migrants as possible.

“I told them, I had dreams like them to go into Europe, but it’s suicidal trying to enter at all costs without proper documentation.”

Libya was the main departure hub for migrants travelling via the Mediterranean but Tunisia has now become the new hub. Photo/ AP archive 

“It was difficult convincing some of the migrants to make the decision to return home. Many said they would never be able to look their family in the face and die from shame”

But Sam kept going back to the migrants and held several awareness workshops. He worked with multiple aid agencies and helped with French translations. There were also many legal hurdles to scale.

“I drafted sponsorship request letters and facilitated several intervention meetings with international aid agencies. These meetings helped speed up the screening process of some migrants and their eventual repatriation.”

In dealing with the legal red tape, Sam says, his course on international relations “came quite handy”.

Face to face with reality

But after completing his studies, it was time for Sam to meet his own family.

“The night before I travelled, I couldn’t sleep a wink. It was in April 2021 I returned home to Liberia with my daughter, who was then three-year-old.”

“There was shock and disbelief from people who knew me. My parents and friends kept asking me ‘why?’ They had so many expectations. That I would come back a very wealthy person. I could tell how deeply disappointed they were”

Sam’s immediate family soon came to accept his decision, but he continued to be isolated at big family events, especially by some members of his extended family.

“There were a lot of cold shoulders. They didn’t need to say it. I just felt it. It was very depressing, especially as I struggled to take care of my daughter, who fell sick shortly after our arrival because of the change in weather and environment. I needed to ask for funds from my family, but I didn’t know who to turn to for help”

A chance encounter

But life soon began to brighten up for Sam. A few months after his return, the IOM in Liberia connected him with the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Programme in Liberia, where he underwent counselling and psychosocial therapy.

He is now working as a councillor with the programme and helping to connect migrants who have reached out overseas, helping to connect them with IOM officials in the countries where they are stranded.

“I had a big dent in my self-confidence after I returned. I’m glad my story has changed.”

The Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Programme are active in Liberia, speaking on the radio and constantly handing out fliers that warn people of the perils of illegal migration.

Reverend Philip Nushan, who heads the Truth and Reconciliation Project, tells TRT Afrika, “It can be tough repairing returnee migrants who are already broken.”

“This is made worse by the rejection they face in society. They are tagged as failures. Many try to commit suicide and must be put on strict surveillance watch. Our society must learn to be more forgiving,” he says.

Reverend Nushan and his team at the foundation work with psychologists and create an elaborate programme that trains returnee migrants on job skills that could help them find employment.

“We are shocked when we hear their families say mean things to their faces. We try to become their new family, and this has really helped so many of them heal”

Sam says his life is now back on course. He recently finished two diploma courses in hotel and tourism management and customer service management.

“It’s because I have so much faith in my country and what it has to offer the world. I believe that someday it is the world who would come racing to visit Liberia, and I would be here… ready and waiting.”

TRT Afrika