In late 2019, Ali returned from visiting his family in Guinea and Sierra Leone to discover his father had passed away while he was gone. Too distraught and heartbroken to continue his studies, he decided to take the backway and migrate irregularly to Europe, having little hope for his future in The Gambia.

“I felt like I lost everything because I didn’t believe anyone would be there for me like my father,” Ali explains. After facing many hardships upon his journey, he returned to The Gambia with the support of the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM’s) assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR) programme.

The backway, as Gambians often call it, refers to the phenomenon of irregular migration from Africa to Europe. The journey is harrowing and filled many threats such as smugglers, theft and risks of exploitation, making the chances of success slim. For those who return from it like Ali, reintegration can be as challenging as the journey.

Upon his return, Ali struggled to feel welcome in his community and fit in with his family members. “Since I took this road and came back, I have changed. I don’t trust people as much as I used to especially since I have been disappointed by people close to me,” Ali shares.

Group activities such as tie dye create an enabling environment for returnees to discuss their mental health needs and develop healthy coping mechanisms. ©IOM 2022/Robert Kovacs

One thing that helped Ali cope with the emotional trauma brought on by his journey was being able to share the challenges he faced both abroad and at home with fellow returnees in his migrant peer-support group (MPSG).

These groups offer a platform where returnees meet to discuss mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) needs and provide community-based, peer-to-peer support to each other. “They feel comfortable, this group is like a safe haven for them,” explains Mustapha S. Minteh, Ministry of Health (MoH) MHPSS Officer.

To help members feel comfortable with sharing their thoughts, group psychosocial initiatives such as tie dye or art-based activities are leveraged to engage the returnees and break down emotional barriers. “They are happiest when they have these activities and when they are together,” Mustapha says while watching the group members hang up their tie dye shirts to dry.

Mustapha S. Minteh, from the MoH helps to facilitate the tie dye activity in Greater Banjul Area. ©IOM 2022/Robert Kovacs

Since the creation of the groups in April 2022, the facilitation of the group meetings and activities has  been led by MoH’s Regional MHPSS officers. “I am facilitating discussions, making sure they have an informed choice as far as what activities they want to do and how they can help each other,” Mustapha goes on to say.

The MPSGs – established in four regions in The Gambia: Greater Banjul Area (GBA), North Bank Region (NBR), Upper River Region (URR) and West Coast Region (WCR) – are primarily comprised of returnees. Some groups, such as the one in NBR, also include friends or family members of victims who died in the December 2019 shipwreck that affected many families.

Pa Malick, a member of the group, in NBR explains, “we created this support group to have connections with the parents of those who passed so that they have a community to talk with. We can help each other to heal and manage our distress.”

Pa Malick shares his thoughts on mental health after participating in a group activity in North Bank Region. ©IOM 2022/Robert Kovacs

For families that are skeptical of the group, the MPSGs conduct home visits to help family members understand the purpose of peer support groups. “It helps them to be more empathetic and understand what returning migrants need to be productive,” Mustapha explains.

In addition to the peer-to-peer psychosocial support, the groups also hold community sensitizations to help improve the perceptions of returnees. At the sensitizations, the MPSG members share the impact of stigma and discrimination on returning migrants and what support returnees need from their community to fully reintegrate.

Going beyond issues of migration, the MPSGs are also helping to dispel myths and misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccine acceptance. “These groups were actually trained on certain skills like COVID-19 and public speaking,” Mustapha explains. Developing life skills is key for the members to move on from the past.

While home visits, awareness-raising activities and skills development are helping to improve the mental health and psychological wellbeing of its members, the monthly peer-to-peer activities they conduct remain very much at the core of the MPSGs.

Mustapha Juwara, the head of the MPSG in West Coast Region, helped organize a beach football game to create a safe space for the members to provide psychosocial support to each other. “We all know football is a game that brings a lot of joy. After the game we talk about the experiences we went through and try to help each other.”

Mustapha is helped up by Demba, a member of the group in WCR, after a hard tackle. ©IOM 2022/Robert Kovacs

“Before, I had some mental health challenges, and [this support] helped me overcome that,” Mustapha Juwara shares. “Talking to people in the group helps a lot. The relationships I’ve built here will last my whole life.”

For Ali, the groups have renewed his connections and given him a new community. “The people here understand me and support me. It is helping us trust each other and work together,” he says smiling.

“The impact of these support groups is that when these activities are going on, you can see how their faces light up because they are in a group where they have a sense of belonging,” adds Mustapha S. Minteh.

The Migrant Peer-Support Groups were established through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. This is part of an ongoing initiative to support the reintegration process of returning migrants in an integrated approach which addresses economic, social, and psychosocial dimensions and fosters the inclusion of communities of return.

Written by Robert Kovacs, IOM Reporting and Communications Consultant in The Gambia.

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities