Agency in “forced” returns? A self-reflection exercise

by Maria Shaidrova

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.”  – Henry Ford

There is no better way to understand the turbulences of migration trajectories than to experience them yourself. I was studying the repetitive risk-taking among returnees in Nigeria when I was “returned” myself to a Covid-19 affected Holland. I am still wondering whether I indeed “had” a choice or if returning was “the only option”, considering the conditions I found myself in. These questions sound familiar for us researchers, don’t they? In distressful situations, people tend to search for safety, therefore, “returning ” can be an immediate reaction to confusion.[1] However, this immediate need does not imply “safety” and does not turn “home” into a long-term aspiration.

On Wednesday, March 18th, I was sitting in the waiting room of the Nigerian Migration Service, at the Irregular Migration and Anti-Trafficking General Office of the Edo State, to be precisely ironical. I was quite enthusiastic about going on with my fieldwork for the next two months. At the very moment I handed in my passport, I received an email from the French colleagues, making it clear that all international staff was advised to leave Nigeria. “They are telling you to come back, abi?”[2] – asked the head of the Office and warm-heartedly proposed to prolong my visa even more considering the situation in Europe. It felt bizarre. I was in the office dealing with irregular migration, legalizing my stay in the country my respondents take risks to leave. What would happen if I stayed? The security situation might have escalated, compromising the safety of my hosts who have the “oyibo[3] at home. I could not receive any evacuation guarantees[4], and, the following day I was on my way to Amsterdam. Once there, sick and tired, I started having regrets. Was my return voluntary? – Yes,  however, I did not see any other possibility. My aspiration to conduct fieldwork in Nigeria did not change; my return is an interruption, not a goal in itself.

©️ Maria Shaidrova

I am aware that it is hardly imaginable to compare my experiences with the Voluntary Humanitarian Returns operated by the IOM in Libya[5]. Yet, the more I analyzed my own decision-making strategies, the more I recognized the reasoning behind the choices of my Nigerian respondents. Therefore, I propose we approach it as an exercise of self-reflection. Oliver, who was beaten up continuously in Libya, described that: “It was the best day of my life when they put us on the plane to Nigeria”, but he concluded: “If I had work in Libya, I would not return”.  “What if someone would pay your “balamish[6], would you stay?” – Oliver remained silent. He still aspires to cross. Christian was enthusiastic about returning while in detention not seeing any other solutions and having severe health problems. Despite being “reintegrated”[7], he did not fulfill his initial aspirations and therefore is about to cross again.

Was it their vulnerability that pushed migrants to return? Or was returning an aspiration? Van Hear (2005) argued that migrants always have a choice. I had a choice to stay in Nigeria, but the University eventually pressed me to return, being concerned about my safety. The returns of migrants in Libya are also based on a protective logic. Migrants not in the possession of necessary connections have no other choice than to accept the offer to return. The absence of options and physical suffering turned returning into an “aspiration” and made the policy “humanitarian”. Furthermore, the return does not make migrants “safe” and “fulfilled” back in Nigeria (Alpes, 2020).

By focusing on the agency in “forced” returns, we are definitely broadening the debates on migrants’ decision-making. It pushes us to reflect on the feeling of belonging in situations of distress, the role of policy and the turbulence not only of migration trajectories but also of aspirations.


Alpes, M.J., (forthcoming 2020), Emergency returns from Libya and Niger: A protection response or a source of protection concerns?, Brot für die Welt/ Medico.

Van Hear, N. (2005). New diasporas. Routledge.

[1]Government of Australians overseas to return home as borders close around the world (last accessed 11 April 2020):

[2] “right” in Pidgin

[3] “white” person in Pidgin

[4] I do not hold the Dutch passport and Ukraine closed the borders at that point

[5] The operation was proposed as the response to the termination of the rescue operations (SAR) in the Mediterranean Sea, more information (last accessed 10.04.2010):;

[6] Ransom to be released from the detention

[7] Received the support from the IOM to finance his business which is the part of reintegration activities

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Maria Shaidrova is a PhD researcher (NWO funded Research Talent Grant) based in the Tilburg Law School. She holds MSc in Sociology of Migration and Ethnic Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Before starting her PhD project, she worked as a full-time researcher at the Tilburg International Victimology Institute studying how sex work regulation policies might create conditions for exploitation and trafficking in human beings. Her current research is focused on the persistence in risk-taking among West Africans migrating to the EU. Maria is using the method of trajectories, multi-cited and visual ethnography in her projects.


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