Robert Ketor counsels a returnee in Accra following a two-week quarantine amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: IOM Ghana/Juliane Reissig

Ghana, 20 September 2021 - After five years in Libya, Dotse’s return to Ghana was not what he had hoped for – an initial struggle coping with mental health issues.

“It took me a lot of effort to heal when I came back. I was disoriented when I arrived and don’t remember anything that happened,” he says. Another returnee, Lincoln, faced similar hurdles. “I felt abandoned.”

Today, things are different for both men, who are among the more than 1,800 returnees the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has supported to voluntarily return to Ghana since 2017 as part of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, funded by the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

Some migrants experience stigmatization, exploitation, violence, and life under inhumane conditions when they travel, especially when using irregular means, but the decision to return home is not easy. Expectations are high, and the pressure can affect their mental health, hindering successful reintegration into their communities.

“When IOM called, it gave me that psychological fitness that, yes, there’s some support,” Lincoln says. Dotse is also grateful for IOM’s help in addressing his anguish. “Thanks to the psychosocial support, I am a better person and I feel much healthier and happier.”

IOM counsels the migrants upon return to Ghana and guides them on reintegration.  A comprehensive plan for returnees encompasses economic, social and psychosocial needs, and may also include identifying income-generating activities, housing, education, or training to develop business and other skills. More than 800 returnees so far have benefitted from this innovative and holistic approach.

“IOM recognizes the importance of migrants’ and returnees’ mental health in ensuring their successful and sustainable reintegration back into their communities of origin,” says Pooja Bhalla, IOM Project Manager for the EU-IOM Joint Initiative.

Returnee and musician Lincoln Mensah performs at last month's inauguration of a new basketball court as part of IOM’s youth engagement project “Playground” in Accra. Photo: IOM Ghana/Francis Kokoroko

“To manage the complex process of reintegration effectively, including the psychosocial dimension, IOM, together with the Government of Ghana, developed the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for Return and Reintegration,” Bhalla says. 

The SOPs were launched in September 2020 to ensure a consistent approach to the management of returns to Ghana and the returnees’ subsequent reintegration. Since then, more than 80 government and non-government migration stakeholders have been trained across Ghana. Community influencers have also been a channel to inform on the need for psychosocial wellbeing of the returnee.

Robert Ketor is IOM’s Psychosocial Assistant and Clinical Psychologist who offers psychosocial support services, including virtual counselling. With the outbreak of COVID-19, much of IOM’s psychosocial support to returnees has been virtual and by phone.

After many virtual counselling sessions, Robert recently met Dotse for the first time since his arrival at Kotoka International Airport in Accra.

“Remembering the state in which he arrived in Ghana, and looking at him now, I would say, there has been vast improvement in his general health and especially his mental health.”

For some returnees, group counselling, focus group discussions or collective psychosocial activities are important first steps, and for others, one-on-one sessions are a better option.

IOM also runs trainings on psychological first aid for migration stakeholders and community members so they can provide basic psychological first assistance.

Lincoln is surrounded by cheering youth during his performance at the “Playground” launch. Photo: IOM Ghana/Juliane Reissig

Family support, a key pillar for returnees

In Libya, Dotse – not his real name – suffered a series of challenges: being cheated by his employer, low payment and difficult work, and a bullet which smashed his hand. He is lucky he can count on his family’s support, which psychologist Robert Ketor says can be crucial.  

“I counsel those who need psychosocial therapy and will also get in touch with the family if needed. Support through the immediate family and the larger community contributes greatly to a successful and sustainable reintegration process. If there is family support for returnees, there is much improvement in their healing process and sometimes it is quicker because the support system is solid,” he says.

Dotse’s wife recounts her husband’s return: “If not for IOM, I don’t know if my husband would be alive.  When I first saw him at the airport, I was shaken, and I feared I had lost my husband. If not for the instant and immediate support, maybe he could have lost his life.”

While community support is key, a psychologist might be needed to help migrants cope. “I try to equip my patients with strategies to overcome stigma.  I might encourage them to stand up for themselves, to refrain from self-stigmatization, to educate others, to be strong and to prove themselves," says Robert.  “If someone realizes that stigma is affecting their actions, emotions and thinking, subsequently affecting their daily functioning, they should seek help.”

Going through therapy can be challenging. “I am a very quiet person, so it was difficult for me in the beginning stages but eventually I warmed up to the counsellor," says Dotse. "He was able to see through me and help me, and now I am even expecting a baby.”

 Lincoln shares his migration story with IOM in Takoradi. Photo: IOM Ghana/Apag Studios

Using music for healing and for advocacy

Lincoln, a returnee from Takoradi, in the Western Region of Ghana – one of the migration-prone regions of the country, according to statistics collected under the EU-IOM Joint Initiative since 2017 – had left for Libya, hoping to go on to Italy.

“I dropped out of university and started recording music. But I couldn’t make ends meet from recording music. All my friends that I had made growing up were taking the same route. So, I decided, OK, let me join them in Italy,” Lincoln says.

“I have always felt that there might be a better option outside but looking back now…. It is not easy out there. Not knowing if you are going to make it or not. Being alive is just by the grace of God.”

When Lincoln returned to Ghana in 2020, he felt like he had failed and lost hope in life. A perilous journey through the desert, during which he was kidnapped, saw people die and experienced violence first-hand, affected his mental health.

“One day, out of the blue, an unknown number called. It was IOM!” he says.  Lincoln was offered support by IOM’s Psychosocial Project Assistant.

“We spoke about a lot of issues, some of which were really challenging, actually. By God’s grace, I am getting better.”

Lincoln now not only uses music to heal but also to spread a message. In one of his songs, “Guns from Tripoli” for example, he narrates his migration experience. Through his creativity he has become a safe migration advocate.

In July, in Jamestown, Accra, Lincoln performed his track at IOM’s launch of its new youth empowerment project “Playground”. More than 200 in the audience reacted enthusiastically.

Lincoln in his studio in Takoradi – his dream is to make it as a musician. Photo: IOM Ghana/Apag Studios

Optimistic about the future

After much progress, Dotse is optimistic. He wants to start an agro-chemical business because he comes from a remote farming community which needs improved farming yields. As part of his reintegration package, IOM Ghana is supporting him to start up his business.

Lincoln is keen to try life as an artist. “The support of IOM in this process has been very helpful for me to get equipment.”  His advice to young people is to find passion in whatever they do.

“Just look at that one thing that brings you joy and happiness and keep at it. Do not go and risk your life; it’s not safe out there.” He adds: “The thing about irregular migration is that it can get you killed. I'd say if you want to migrate, exercise a bit of patience and use the right channel.”

Dotse’s advice is similar. “If you wish to travel, make sure you have the right documents.”

Robert Ketor runs a group counselling session for returnees at the IOM Ghana premises. Photo: IOM Ghana/David Darko

Story written by Juliane Reissig and Angela Bortey, IOM Ghana.

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions