Reintegration of Returnees: A Challenge to the Mission of the Catholic Church in Benin City, Nigeria


Migration, generally, has gained attention from different thoughts of schools as the inflow of people does not only precipitate conflicts and controversies such that it affects not only the migrants but as well as the receiving communities, which is thus making migration an increasingly volatile and contentious be it political or religious issue. In the face of accelerating immigration vis-à-vis rapid changes in immigration policies, which tend to demonstrate an uncertain future for migrants, it is predictable that the increase of returnees will grow exceedingly as a result of economic crisis in most parts of European countries, the upsurge of xenophobic within African countries and anti-migrant discourses and practices. The return and reintegration of returnees thus becomes very timely, since it is more than the explicit belief that reintegration does not require much attention since the returnees are simply returning to their country which does not require a specific process being their usual culture and home of origin.

On the Issue of Return Migration

It is quite laudable that the field of migration studies, particularly on the missiological studies in recent years has included a specific number of works with focus such as the theological aspect of migration, the relationship between migration and mission, the remarkable role of religion identifying with migrants helping them to assimilate into a new civil environment. However most of the focus has been in the area of welcoming and caring for migrants in their receiving countries while little or nothing is channeled to the returned migrants or returnees in their home of origin.

Clinging on this fact, it is seen in the article of Russell King titled “Generalizations from the History of Return Migration”; it states that Return Migration is the great unwritten chapter in the history of migration. Return is usually the process of returning home while reintegration or rehabilitation is generally a process or story of what is yet to happen to the returnees. The issue of returnees have actually not been given utmost and keen attention as the focus is mostly on immediate measure to ease the sudden needs of returnees. The reintegration of returnees into the mainstream of the society to enable them function independently and engage in gainfully activities that will deter the returnees from youth restiveness and other contemporary issues in the society is deficient.

 Examining Return Migration in Benin City

 In Nigeria, there are basically no convincing data on the number and characteristics of Nigerians who return to the country after some years of sojourn abroad. However, return migration is common especially among Nigerians. Benin City is a City in Southern Nigeria, which is a famous hub for both intending migrants and returnees. It is a modern metropolis of over one million people. It was constructed on the ruins of Great Benin, one of the wealthiest settlements in Africa before a British-led massacre in 1897 razed the city. Despite the absolute decline following the British conquest of Benin in 1897, the creation of the Midwest State in 1963, whose administrative seat was in Benin helped in restoring in some way the administrative functions of the City. Presently, Benin City is the regional capital of Edo state, and is one of the major urban centres in Nigeria. It is a pre-colonial City and its urban history dates back seven centuries.

More than 50% of Nigerian migrants in the European Union (EU) come from Benin City. Although there might seem to be only a few peculiarities about Benin City, it is a City where most families have a family member in Europe. For a better understanding of Benin City as a dependence of irregular migration to Europe, history traced back to the 1980s during the period Italian businesses were being established in Edo State. Most of these Italian businessmen got married to women from Benin City who eventually moved back to Italy with their spouses and started conducting business such as trade in textiles, lace and leather, gold and jewellery etc. As their businesses expand they began to consider bringing fellow women to Italy, through a legal means since Italian agriculture needs labourers to pick tomatoes and grapes in their farms. The drastic change of movement however came when plunging oil prices brought the Nigerian economy to a virtual standstill at the end of the 1980s, and this has a great effect on these businesswomen who went bankrupt. This effect also extended to the women working in the Italian farms as their jobs were transferred to the eastern European labourers. Majority of these women had no alternative than to resort to prostitution, which seem to be more lucrative than working in the farms. Many others however who could not cope with the change were faced with forced return back to Nigeria either through voluntary return or deportation. Hence the Genesis of the phenomenon of returnees in the Benin City.

 Some Challenges of Returnees in Benin City

 There is no gainsaying that the efforts of the IOM and various organization in the management of migration movements worldwide has been invaluable, especially offering incentives to returnees. However, life after such a return typically generates a different set of challenges. The enormous realities upon return can be quite worrisome with huge debt to pay back, job opportunities, coupled with inhuman treatments they received from their traffickers as such a lot go into depression, confused on how to begin life afresh. These enormous realities are not farfetched from that which returnees in Benin City experience. Hence returnees in Benin City are continuously faced with some of the challenges below:

 Lack of identification documents

The non-availability of obtaining official identification documents is an immediate challenge for most of the returnees as lack of such documents may act as obstacle to access of basic rights and services. Examples are repatriated migrants who may lack identification documents such as international passport, Voters card and National identity cards most often are withheld either by their sponsors, traffickers or persons who receive them. Most traffickers deceive the returnees that travelling documents will be processed, and this gives the returnees conviction before departure or while they were at their destination to hand their means of Identification to these traffickers.

 Lack of data of returnees and their patterns of reintegration

In countries of origin generally, there are usually register of outflows of departing migrants while little or nothing is put in place to monitor the flows of returnees or to maintain their database. This absence of registered information makes it difficult to provide targeted services or interventions regarding the returnee’s profile and their geographical spread. Returnees are received with hasty programmes initiated and hurriedly executed by government and other non-governmental agencies to ease immediate tension or trauma; this is sometimes not a long-term remedy to situation of these returnees.

 Health Challenges

Diverse health issues are inherent in some of these returnees, caused by adverse weather conditions such as high intensity of scorching sun, cold and frost, unhealthy sexual activities, malnutrition and starvation. Emotional and psychological imbalances are also core health challenges of some returnees.

 High expectations from Family members and friends

For some of the returnees, their suffering is worsened by family members who ostracize them because they returned without money. The news of somebody leaving the shores of his country to other country for greener pastures is welcomed with warm relief by the hearers, there are high expectations of poverty defeat and financial success. Sojourners are crowned with success stories by family members and friends, even before getting to their destinations. The envisaged wealthy status of these persons may be brought abrupt which emanate from repatriation, loss of job, deceit and change of destination. When high expectations from these returnees are not actualized, worst still, when they return to their country, some become subject of ridicule and mistreat.


Returnees are sometimes labeled as failures and irresponsible persons because of their failed success stories. Some of the men are coined as thieves, gangsters and drug addicts while most of the women are coined as international prostitute. This stigmatization and unhealthy treatment give some returnees increases low self-esteem frustration. Stigmatization of returnees affects their social life, coping skills and decision-making. Majority of returnees face series of stigma and discrimination both within their immediate families and communities because of their failed migration experience.

Suicidal thoughts

A vital aspect among so many other challenges, is suicidal thought conceived by some returnees as a result of poor reintegration process. In some homes in Benin City, there exist parents and guardians who mount undue pressure on some of these returnees, which may cause an abrupt end of the lives of some returnees resorting to suicide. Suicidal thoughts emanate from frustration, depression, maladjustment and incessant mockery of one’s status whether before or present. Returnees who suffer from the aforementioned may engaging in Suicidal thoughts as an option to resolve their challenge.

Pastoral Missionary Response an Antidote to the Challenges of Returnees

Missionaries are being challenged to ask themselves what this trend means for the spread of the gospel as they cannot afford to ignore this worldwide phenomenon. The issue of return migration has become one of the most important aspects of world-unprecedented speed and with such far-reaching consequences that a constant reappraisal of missionary strategy is required. In addition, if the gears of missions are not shifted to keep up with this social change, Jesus’ mandate to go into the world and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19) will be lost. The conception of mission today has greatly changed. In spite of the fierce and unforeseen torture posed by extreme weather and heartless individuals, which returnees encounter during their voyage, they are still anxious to sail through. However, those whose immigration ventures stumbled for one reason or the other are often grouped under the category of returned migrants or returnees and thus should be helped to pick up the pieces of their lives again. The question now is: what kind of pastoral response can the church give based on the trend?

Church and State Working Together for a Better Reintegration of Returnees

Overtime, resources and institutions designated to manage the affairs of returnees are sometimes solely manned by state based on constituents (government personnel) not minding the essence of the role of the church in reforming or revamping human behaviors geared towards relatively permanent change in behavior. Individuals in the church with the requisite knowledge, skills and orientation needed to actualize the objectives and goals of reintegrating returnees should be sought for and given active role or even allowed to function as a supportive linchpin. Below therefore are some of the strategies the Church and State can embrace for a proper reintegration of returnees from their expedition:

Establishment of Functioning Reception Centers

The State in collaboration with the Church should establish organized reception centres that will receive and revamp returnees that are being maltreated and discriminated against by family and friends who most often see them as failures. They are to be kept for a period of time to receive good health care, spiritual and psychological counselling. These reception centers are to ensure functional engagement programs such as reorientation programs, skills acquisition programs, affordable education, ministry of reconciliation and healing, pursuit for justice through her role as the voice for the voiceless against inhuman treatments of returnees. The duration of their stay will further be determined accordingly.

Formation of Pastoral workers and government officials

A nexus between the Church and the State is sacrosanct prior to and during the planning and implementation of programs and policies tailored to address the challenges of returnees. The essence of this is to share ideas and offer solutions to the challenges of returnees. While planning and implementing programs to savage the challenges of returnees, members of the state and the Church should be actively involved. This group of persons should be well formed in areas of both psychology and counseling, as well as possessing good interactive skills and good morals and values.

Justice Development and Peace Commission

This commission (JDPC) is a non-governmental organization (NGO). They are the structures through which the Church responds to the social issues of men and women created in the image and likeness of God, and so emerged as part of the mission of the Church towards holistic salvation for mankind. These social issues include: Human rights, Prison ministry, Agricultural development, Political awareness, Women empowerment, youth empowerment, granting of low interest loan, and Human trafficking/migration issues. Based on its mission statement, the Church in Benin City through this commission (JDPC) should help organize returnees locally. This could involve having a data of them and setting up Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SME) for them or organizing the furthering and funding of their education as the case maybe. The synergy between the government and the Church should be established to allow a functional and productive educational system that truly emphasizes the essence of engaging in activities that enhances self-sufficiency.

Job Availability

The Church today appears to be a huge employer of labor more than government, though not in terms of the number she can employ but for the less bureaucratic and transparent process of employment. The State can help the Church by providing institutions the Church can run for them where these returnees can work; for example, the government can give some schools back to the Church. Migrants who came back armed with knowledge of foreign languages can be useful to these schools and a lot of non- academic staff can be got there off.

Grassroot Evangelization in discontinuing Stigmatization

The Church being very effective in its grassroot evangelization can help the government to track returnees’ families, some of whose parents might even be parishioners of the various churches in the rural areas. This is to ensure discontinued stigmatization and mockery of returnees through sensitization, bearing the dangers of stigmatization and mockery of returnees. Religious organizations and government agencies should educate parents and guardians on the need to truly absorb returnees into their families; having in mind that the returnees are still useful if engaged meaningfully in a productive system.

Ministry of Reconciliation and Healing

This is another important and very sensitive aspect that requires maximum application of wisdom both by the State and Church. Migration most often is the consequence of forceful uprooted from one’s own home of origin, violently or involuntarily. Hence, the ministry of reconciliation and healing becomes a key element. Memories needs to be healed as a result horrific experiences of migrants especially the returnees, such as scars of violence, abuse, feeling of anguish, loss of years of one’s life, of value, honour and human dignity associated with forced deportation from host countries which has even led to many of the immigrants choosing  to die in their host country than to return to home country as in the case of Nigeria where the environment has remained largely indifferent and even hostile to them.

Active Involvement of More Pastoral Workers

…the local Churches must rethink pastoral care, programming it to help the faithful live their faith authentically in today’s new multicultural and pluri-religious context. With the help of social and pastoral workers, the local population should be made aware of the complex problems of migration and the need to oppose baseless suspicions and offensive prejudices against foreigners.[1]

There should be active involvement of more pastoral workers; bishops, priests, consecrated men and women as well as the laity with the willingness or zeal collaborate with the State at different levels in assisting the returnees.


In his article on Pope Francis’s Missiology of Attraction, Stephen Bevans re-echoed Francis’s repeated phrase regarding a church that must be poor for the poor, which he emphasised as the attractiveness of the Church. It should be a church not just of equality where everyone is respected or heard, rather more of equity whereby resources are distributed to citizens of a society based on their needs. The ultimate foundation of a pastoral missionary perspective of the Church is the recognition of the dignity of the human person called to an intimate communion with God. In this context, for a better reintegration of returnees, the Church is called through dialogue, to collaborate with the State, other agencies and people of good will in promoting and defending the dignity of returnees. It is a privileged way to realize and proclaim the salvation offered to all mankind by God in Jesus Christ. The Church thus becomes an organic extension of this mission of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit, which manifest the salvific plan that springs from the love of God the Father. In this sense, the missionary activity of the Church finds its foundation in the missionary mandate communicated by Jesus Christ, to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. This attention to the poor is an occasion for the church to show the world her priority on her interest and concern for the least in the society; the poor, immigrants, abandoned etc. who are not just objects of the church’ mission but active participants in her missionary work of salvation.

The Church in Benin City, be it the mainstream traditional or Orthodox and even the new generation churches must work in synergy to reduce the trend of illegal migration beyond the shores of Nigeria with greater effort made to properly reintegrate these unfortunate returnees. The big question still begging for answer is why the upsurge in modern slavery known migration? Could it be there is a global collaboration between these traffickers who promote illegal migration and the western world? For effective collaboration in reintegration process the State has not put in enough political will to stop it while the Church as the body of Christ need to go beyond the pulpit and now domesticate the gospel in the streets by being more proactive on practical ways to partner with the State in tackling the challenges in order to reduce the willingness or zeal to re-emigrate.

[1] PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR THE PASTORAL CARE OF MIGRANTS AND ITINERANT PEOPLE, Instruction Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi (1.5. 2004)  n. 41.

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