Association pour l’anthropologie du changement social et du développement
Association for the anthropology of social change and development

Performing a “Returnee” in Benin City, Nigeria

Auteur(s) : Shaidrova Mariia ;

In the last years, with the support of the EU-funded NGOs hundreds of irregular migrants are “returning” to West Africa from the EU itself and so-called “transit” countries such as Niger (IOM). Naturally, the “returnees” become the subject of further “empowerment” and “reintegration” with an implicit agenda to prevent them from further attempts to cross the borders in the direction of the EU (Bonjour & Servent, 2018; Europe; EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration Report, 2019). In these policy dialogues, where externalization of borders meets “empowerment” and “development” I found myself watching how the “returnee” narrative is shaping the life of Edo State people in Nigeria. “Are you here to research returnees?” – the first question I got from the family who hosted me during my stay in Benin City; It made it so clear that the “returnee” narrative went far beyond the policy papers and project tenders, on the opposite, it entered the daily life of the Benin city inhabitants. I started inquiring who this “returnee” is: the one returned from the EU only or other countries from the Global South as well (e.g., South Africa after xenophobic attacks in 2019 ).There were no clear answers, but the word appeared to be a recent invention (starting from 2017). After significant returns of migrants from Libya facilitated by the Nigerian Government and the IOM, the term was reinvented in the city. By returning, returnees from the EU and Libya gave Nigerian (Benin based) NGOs work and made the NGO leaders mobile. Returnees became a defined group, an investment opportunity, they have a sense of identity and to some extent belonging.

Starting out my ethnographic journey in Nigeria with the question of what shapes the persistence of high risk migration, I discovered the emerging “returnee” narrative and continue exploring it throughout my stay in Nigeria. Once again, although the EU is developing the ways to promote the empowerment and reintegration of the failed Nigerian migrants, the “returnee” narrative became self-sustained and is developing its own trajectory. The policies create the working spaces for the future NGO workers making the social work in University of Benin one of the most prestigious faculties. Returnee shelters are being built (Nigerian Task Force Against Human Trafficking Shelter). Finally, the returnees are needed for the system to work. Special returnees to be precise, coming from Libya and the EU. Although as a NGO worker one might not adhere to the idea that the attempts will prevent migration, you have to play along. Looking at the phenomenon through the eyes or performativity, we can see how all mentioned actors are “doing” returnee assistance and how failed migrant “become” returnees (Butler, 1993; Hakli et al.,2017). This circle creates an interesting dynamics where policies to prevent migration are unintentionally creating a new category. They reshape the perception of this category, and possibilities/restrictions that come along with being labeled as a “returnee”. In my PhD project, I explore these connections and narratives throughout a yearlong fieldwork in Nigeria and consequently following the trajectories that are being created by the “returnee” narratives in Europe, South Africa, and Niger. I use both traditional among returnees/helping institutions and experimental ethnography (trajectories and video).

Mot-clé : Benin City, ethnography of returns, Nigeria, reintegration EU policies, et returnees

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