For over seven years now, Ernest Milla-Essomba has been working as a reintegration and immigration officer for the French Office for Immigration and Integration (OFII) in Cameroon. ERRIN spoke to him about his experience on the ground and the added value of OFII approach to reintegration.
[ERRIN:] Tell us more about your job.
[Ernest:] Usually I contact the returnee immediately upon their arrival to present the programme and make an appointment for an orientation meeting. Returnees often have doubts about the reintegration assistance, sometimes even its very existence, or they might have received some conflicting information. During the first meeting, we discuss their reintegration plan together, and it is really important to establish a relationship of trust. Afterwards, we match them with a relevant partner, based on the location and the nature of their project.
In case of returnees who go back to the countries where OFII does not have an office, we put them in touch with a local service provider right away. It’s them who work with the returnee to draft what we call “a feasibility study,” which consists of a market analysis, business plan, project description and an explanation about how the idea matches the returnee’s skills and ambitions. We also take into account the project’s impact on the community. During this time, I am in contact with both the returnee and the service provider to ensure that all goes smoothly. What is also important is that the returnee receives psychosocial support at all stages of the process.
Once the feasibility study has been finalised, I run the last check to make sure it looks fine before sending it to partners sitting at the selection committee. The committee, including representatives of local authorities, embassies and others, meets once we have five or six projects to assess.
What happens next?
If the selection committee validates the project, we can finance it. Our local service providers take care of the necessary steps and assist the returnees. At the beginning, we organise a field visit to validate the expenses and see if everything has gone as planned. We also run additional visits throughout the implementation year to follow up on the project’s evolution. We receive monitoring reports from the service partners, too – these help us understand if the projects are going in the right direction and if that’s not the case, give us a chance to steer them.
Even if our contractual obligation is to monitor each project ends after 12 months, it does not mean that we lose contact with the returnees afterwards. We often refer them to additional programmes and partners, such as Dias Invest in Cameroon.
What is the added value of the OFII approach?
The assistance is really diverse, we can finance all types of projects, it really depends on the individual; we can also cover for a mix of psychosocial support and a business start-up. It is also very flexible – the first meeting with the returnee helps us to us determine what might have changed in the person’s project idea since their departure from Europe.
What has been the impact of COVID-19 on your activities?
Beside a lower number of returns, the impact of COVID-19 has been limited here in Cameroon. We have maintained the selection committees and field visits, taking the necessary precautions. It is really important for us to keep the field visits going as it shows the returnees that they are not alone amidst the pandemic, but that OFII is there to support them throughout this difficult period.
How you work with the returnees’ families?
I am usually in touch with the family before the returnee’s arrival. Returnees often provide a number of one family member as a contact point. Some people come back and do not wish to inform their family, and I respect that.
We also had a case where the returnee was extremely vulnerable and fragile. He was suffering from serious psychological issues and for months we could not make progress due to his mental state. But after some discussions with him, the service provider and his family, we reached an agreement that his mother would launch and manage a store on his behalf, and that he would assist to his best ability. This really worked out well. The store is now up and running under the mother’s supervision and he is in the process of healing with psychological support from us. It was a good strategy, with OFII adapting the mode of assistance.
In your experience, what difficulties returnees might face upon their return?
For some, it is the lack of motivation. They might have been forced to return, not necessary via an official return decision, but cause of the lack of opportunities in Europe. These people just want to come back, without thinking much about the reintegration opportunities. We can already sense that during the first orientation meeting. So we talk to them, try to convince them to invest their energy in a project and shape their own future. Then of course, there’s a lack of understanding of the local landscape, different expectations – like, finding a job immediately – and the pressure coming from their families.
What is important to understand is that a reintegration project is not the end point, the final goal in itself. It is a way to facilitate the return, to make a transition. The person can launch the project, keep it for a couple of years then switch to something else. And it is more than ok.
Are there any projects that had a personal impact on you?
There was this one project which was an ultimate success story, a young Cameroonian who started an IT business. His project was validated in 2018 and he managed to employ 30 people already during the first year. It was really incredible. Now he launched an IT skills training centre and reached out to partner with OFII. We hope to collaborate with his training center when we have returnees interested in the IT field.
What about your job made you stay for already 7 years?
Every time I meet a returnee, I follow their migration journey. The places they have been to, they countries they have crossed, the reasons they set off in the first place. I always listen and try to understand their motivation.
The irregular routes to Europe are extremely dangerous, while the only thing that the aspiring migrants see are the few successful returnees – the ones with big cars and houses – and they hope it will be the same for them. But the hardships they face on the way… I hear the stories about Libya, about kidnappings, families paying ransom for their children to go on. And once in Europe, their situation is usually extremely precarious, as they often need to work illegally. By the time they come back, they would have often lost all the vital energy.
What I like about reintegration is that it gives back a sense of purpose after all the hardships of migration journeys. During the first meeting with a returnee, I tell them “well, we will work together to try to find something that gives you joy, a project that you want to commit to.” It is a good feeling to be able to help people who have suffered a lot.