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Urgent psychological assistance for migrants expelled from Algeria

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Sonya Mounir - Psychologist at MSF
Sonya Mounir is a psychologist at MSF. She has just returned from Gao, in northern Mali, where MSF has been providing psychosocial support to migrants returning home having been expelled from Algeria.

    You were in Gao, a Malian town through which hundreds of migrants expelled from Algeria have passed. What was the situation there?

    MSF started working in Gao at the end of April 2018, after learning that more than 700 sub-Saharan migrants expelled from Algeria were passing through the town before being returned to their countries of origin.

    When I arrived, I found people from various sub-Saharan African countries; all were exhausted by the return journey and the ill-treatment they had experienced. Gao had makeshift structures set up to accommodate migrants, but nothing was offered to meet their major health and psychosocial support needs. That's why we distributed hygiene kits to more than 500 people and provided urgent psychological assistance to 260.

    What had the migrants experienced on their journeys to Gao?

    Migrants who arrived in Gao were very vulnerable and fragile. Some took a week to arrive, for others the stressful journey had lasted up to three months. Many had been travelled in crowded, open-air trucks, in temperatures exceeding 50ºC, without enough water or food. They had been insulted, extorted and even beaten. We found people dehydrated and burned by the sun.

    We found people dehydrated and burned by the sun.

    The story of a Malian, Mamadou, touched me a lot. He moved to Algeria in 2014 and settled there after finding work, which allowed him to send some money to his family. Some friends convinced him to attempt the crossing into Europe in 2016. To do this, he first went to work in Libya, where he was exploited, mistreated by traffickers who threaten to kill him. He went back to his former employer in Algeria at the end of 2017 and started a treatment for the skin problems he had developed in Libya, due to poor hygiene conditions. He was expelled from Algeria overnight, with no possibility of following his treatment or taking any possessions with him.

    In Gao, we met hundreds of migrants expelled like Mamadou, from Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, exhausted by their return journey through Mali, having lost all their belongings and the savings they had made over several years in Algeria.

    How does MSF provide psychosocial support?

    The migrants we met only stayed a few days in Gao, but we gave them essential support by allowing them to speak with someone would could listen to and reassure them. Psychological injuries do not always appear during the journey, where different reactions, such as a feigned indifference, can be adopted. During those long days, it is mainly about survival, hardship or violence. Once in a town like Gao where they can start to feel safer, migrants start to realise what has happened to them and repressed feelings begin to emerge.

    Our psychosocial support is primarily about providing information. We explain to migrants that they may develop psychological reactions as a result of the violence they have endured, including nightmares, lethargy, and a loss of appetite. We reassure them that they are not crazy, that their reactions are normal after what they have suffered. And we advise them to talk with trusted people in their community or seek support from specialists to overcome this passing period. It is important that they seek out the right people to relieve their suffering, whether physical or psychological.

    MSF’s teams are working in several areas in northern, central and southern Mali, strengthening maternal and paediatric care. We are closely monitoring the situation of migrants expelled from Algeria and are ready to respond to urgent needs.