At the edge of the Chadian Sahara lies Faya, the largest city in the north of the country, a vibrant commercial centre that has been attracting migrants from other parts of Chad as well as from neighbouring countries for centuries.
Because of its strategic location, the city is a historic roundabout for Sahelian migrations, characterised by seasonal mobility linked to trade in manufactured goods, agricultural produce such as dates, or gold trading.
These movements in northern Chad are facilitated by community-based networks drawn along clan, ethnic or geographical lines that play a key role in providing social and psychological protection.
“When someone first arrives, they are directed to us, chefs de race. We always welcome them because that is how we do in our culture,” says Ousman, a leader of the Hausa community in northern Chad.
Ousman is usually a newcomer’s first point of contact in the city. At 33, the “chef de race”, as community leaders are commonly referred to in Faya, he was designated a few months ago to look after the growing Hausa community in Faya. “As my community’s representative, my role is to protect my people but also guide them and raise awareness for safe migration” he adds.
Across West and Central Africa, migrants, particularly young people and women, are often coerced or lured from their communities under false pretences into dangerous journeys by smugglers and traffickers who prey on their vulnerability.
For some of them, the journey goes through Northern Chad which borders Libya, one of migrants’ preferred destination in search for better economic opportunities.
“Many migrants end up stranded in Faya or further in the desert with little to no help”, says Elie Sztorch, head of the International Organization for Migration’s sub-office in Faya. “Mobility in the north of Chad is very dynamic,” he elaborates, “people have always come to settle permanently or semi-permanently for different reasons, including trade and barter. Many people also transit through the city on journeys further north to find work opportunities but sometimes, these journeys do not end well”.
“Youth are sometimes trafficked or smuggled for exploitation and end up stranded in the desert with little help. Community leaders can refer these vulnerable migrants to IOM where they can receive medical and psychosocial assistance”, says Haoua Khamis Dago, Assisted Voluntary Return programme coordinator in Northern Chad.
The work of community leaders like Ousman is officially recognized by local authorities, and they can act as intermediaries between authorities as well as IOM and the new arrivals who lack the right information and documentation.
“Sometimes people come to Faya with nothing in their pockets, without any identification or money. They left their homes in search of better economic conditions but most of them are not fully aware of what awaits them”, says Ousman. “I understand their situation and desperation so I see what skills they have and help them find jobs so they can at least have the dignity of working to feed themselves. We all deserve dignity”.
Since 2011, IOM has worked with migrant community leaders like Ousman to increase access to IOM’s protection and assistance services to vulnerable migrants travelling through the northern city. These services include shelter, food, health, psychosocial assistance, and family reunification. IOM also operates a reception centre where migrants seeking temporary shelter can be accommodated.
The community leaders support these efforts by raising awareness for safe migration among their peers. “We use our network of communities located across the country to encourage potential migrants to seek more information before they travel”, Ousman says. “We tell them about IOM and the protection services they can access.”
This story was written by François-Xavier Ada.