Each year, thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants cross international borders to try to reach Europe. Many are carrying dreams and ambitions that they could not achieve back home.

Ladji is one of them.

The 27-year-old Malian man wants to become a famous football player and was told that his dream can only be achieved in Spain. In 2018, he travelled to Morocco.

On his way to Spain he tried to join football clubs but he ended up working in construction sites. “Upon my arrival, I contacted some football clubs hoping to join one of them, but it was not possible due to my irregular situation,” he explained.

“In Mali, I used to play in a team in the second league, but I was earning a little amount of money. Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo inspired me, and I thought that if I reach Europe, I will have the chance to join a big football team and become popular like them.”

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the Moroccan Government imposed a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. Consequently, work has been halted in many construction sites across the country and Ladji has become unemployed and went in lockdown with little food and savings.

A few weeks later, he contacted the office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Rabat and asked for support to voluntarily return to Mali. Therefore, he was offered the possibility to sign up for the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme and received food vouchers to cover his immediate needs.

“I lost my job because of the lockdown. I am running out of money; I cannot pay my rent and buy food and other essentials anymore. I want to return to my country and start a new life there,” he said.

As of 15 August, 43,588 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported in Morocco while 29,941 have so far recovered from the disease. This makes it the second worst-hit country by coronavirus in North Africa after Egypt, according to data from the World Health Organization.

Awaiting the reopening of borders and the resumption of international flights from Morocco, Ladji is trying to design a business plan for a small project he wants to launch when he returns to his country of origin.

“When I return home, I will try to open a clothing store in my hometown,” he concludes.

Once he arrives safely in his country of origin, Ladji will be eligible for reintegration assistance provided by IOM. Reintegration assistance can include counselling or medical assistance for returnees, a reintegration grant to set up a small business, vocational training or job placement, and education for minors as well as follow-up monitoring.

This assistance is made possible thanks to the European Union funding through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. To date, over 2900 stranded and vulnerable migrants in Morocco have received different types of assistance through the programme since June 2019. This includes vouchers, medical support, accommodation, among others.

The EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration is the first comprehensive programme of its kind to save lives, protect and assist migrants along key migration routes in Africa. The programme was launched in December 2016 with funding from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF).