By Sophie Bouillon | AFP
Mike hasn’t told any of his friends or family that he’s left France, even though he’s been back in Nigeria for nearly six months. “They’d say I was mad,” he said.
The 25-year-old returned to Benin City in Nigeria’s south, more than 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from the region where he grew up — and far from the uncle who paid over the odds to get him to Paris.
For Mike, Europe stopped being a promised land when he was refused leave to stay. He still has the letter from the authorities which turned his world upside down.
It stated simply he could either appeal the decision or go home. He chose the latter after four years in France where the reality of life didn’t meet his expectations.
“The conditions were very difficult,” he told AFP. “When we’re in our country we feel that if you go to Europe… it’s better.
“But when we arrived there, you discover it’s more difficult.”
– Voluntary returns –
In 2015, 153,000 migrants arrived in the European Union via the Italian coast, according to the International Organization for Migration. The largest number — about 22,000 — were Nigerians.
In May last year, Brussels opened talks with Abuja to make “readmission agreements” easier and oblige Nigeria to take back its nationals.
Return, however, is not always straightforward.
Often there are fears of extortion by those who helped migrants to leave in the first place, of being killed by people-smuggling gangs or simply not having enough money to start a new life.
The EU’s Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs says some 400,000 to 500,000 non-EU nationals are ordered to leave the bloc every year because they are staying irregularly.
But only 40 percent are sent back to their home country or the country from where they left to reach the EU.
In 2013, France’s then-interior minister Manuel Valls drastically reduced financial support to help undocumented immigrants return home.
Last year, there were only 4,748 voluntary returnees, down from 15,840 in 2011, according to France’s integration and immigration bureau, the OFII.
Mike was one of only four Nigerians whose return was approved in 2015.
He has since been able to start a business selling cement. He runs it with pride, even though it doesn’t bring in much money.
– Drop in the ocean –
Benin City has long been known as Nigeria’s capital of human trafficking and especially prostitution.
A number of projects are running in the city to both prevent locals being tempted to risk everything to reach Europe and to help those who have returned. One of them is run by Idia Renaissance.
The local non-profit group was founded in 1999 by the wife of the former Edo state governor and has worked with the Roman Catholic charity Caritas across Europe.
But project coordinator Roland Nwoha said that since 2009 there have only been 50 voluntary returnees — a drop in the ocean given the huge increase in migration to Europe in recent years.
Fear is the main factor: women are often subjected to black magic rituals before they leave, with dire warnings about what will happen if they don’t repay their debts of up to 60,000 euros ($66,000).
For others, few want to return to a life of extreme hardship or simply admit failure to family and friends, said Nwoha.
“As long as the economic situation (in Nigeria) remains in a very terrible shape, people will continue to move in search for better opportunities,” he added.
– ‘Where is your money?’ –
Gloria — not her real name — only lasted a month working as a prostitute on the streets of Naples, in southern Italy and says she is much happier now she has left.
She told her “madam” she was going to see a client, then for two days the 21-year-old hid in the city before finding the Nigerian consulate.
“When I got there they asked me, ‘Where is your money to buy your return ticket? Go away’,” she recalled.
Mike had a similar experience, having to prove his nationality to his government to get a temporary passport.
Gloria returned to Nigeria two months after she turned up at the consulate but only thanks to Caritas. She stayed in Lagos before deciding to return home, where she now works as a seamstress.
She finally explained to her family “the time it would take for me to amass the 10 million naira to build you a house, my body would already be broken”.
“Now they understand,” she added.