Perilous, endless search for greener pastures

Illegal immigrants, who were rescued by the Libyan coastguard in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast, arrive at a naval base in the capital Tripoli on May 26, 2017. At least 20 boats carrying thousands of migrants on their way to Italy were spotted off the coast of the western city of Sabratha, the Libyan navy said. MAHMUD TURKIA / AFP

The craze for better life in Europe by Nigerian and African youths is beginning to look like a suicide mission, where one is almost certain of a fatal end, yet incapable of beating a retreat. Pictures emanating from ill-fated journeys, and even sordid tales from lucky survivors have failed to deter those that are hell-bent on trying their luck. Call it hope or hopelessness, it appears its time to apply homegrown solutions to stop irregular migration and trafficking in person as conventional remedies appear incapable of stemming the tide. ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, GBENGA SALAU, ALEMMA-OZIORUVA ALIU, OWEN AKENZUA CHARLES OGUGBUAJA write.

Indian first Prime Minister and a central figure in the country’s politics before and after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru it was who said, “Evil unchecked grows, evil tolerated poisons the whole system.”

This appears to be the situation that Nigeria has found herself with the uncontrolled illegal migration and trafficking of able-bodied youths to other parts of the world, especially Europe, ostensibly in search of greener pastures.

Week-in, week-out, local and international media are awash with stories and pictures of bodies of Nigerians and Africans washed ashore by the tide in the Mediterranean Sea. But so impervious are those that are bent on trying their luck to the voice of reason that even the eerie prospect of them ending up in the bowels of the ocean means nothing to them. All they are interested in is embarking on the long, perilous and arduous journey through the desert to Libya, and ultimately Europe.

While the trip lasts, most migrants, especially females are either sexually violated, duped or trafficked even as their safe arrival in Europe is without permission to reside or work.

Making it to Libya is just one part of the complex two-part trip. That notwithstanding, some unlucky ones among them often get deported from Libya, where they usually stopover before embarking on the final leg of the trip to Europe.

Early this year, 25-year-old printing machine repairer Abraham Osahon, confided in a friend that he was relocating to Norway, through Libya, having been tired of the way he was living in Edo State.

Before making up his mind to relocate, Osahon, who had a car and was living in a one-bedroom apartment, his cousin said, was convinced that life out there was better than what he was leading. He was also full of regrets that those he sponsored abroad, and some of his friends, who left earlier had forgotten about him.

Gory reports making the rounds daily notwithstanding, Osahon made up his mind to go by road through Libya, and even paid more than the minimum fee for an improved level of comfort while crossing the desert. He was lucky to make it to Italy in less than two months, where he is now receiving training as a truck driver.

Another lucky migrant, Joy, a teenage orphan, like Osahon has been fascinated with the idea of travelling abroad for sometime. Along the line, an “aunty” came along and volunteered to bankroll her trip to Italy. Also within one month, she was in Italy, from where she told The Guardian that on arrival in that country, she and others were first put in a camp before things were sorted out.

On her mission in Italy, she unabashedly said, “normal level” which refers to prostitution.

“It took me one month to get to Italy, but we were lucky we passed through a terrain not regularly patrolled by security agencies, and we were about 200 in the boat.  I have started “work,” but I do so in the day because of the cold at night. Here, I pay for my accommodation and also pay my aunty for the money she spent to bring me here.”

She, however, refused to disclose how much she would repay in total before she regains her freedom as she confirmed that she was under oath not to disclose that to anybody.

These two consider themselves lucky for making it to Europe, but that is not the case with Ewere Joseph, Bright Eguaoven, who is a welder, and Eric Idemudia, a bricklayer, who were all ferried back to the country from Libya, barely one month ago.

The trio was swooped on by Libyan security operatives in the house they were huddled in and moved to a prison called Geon, in Zuara.

At the prison, Joseph was shot in the shoulder after he attempted to challenge the unfair treatment meted to them by the security operative, and they “used the butt of the gun to hit my left knee continuously until I became unable to walk with it. I did not commit any crime, I did not steal. I wanted to go to Italy, I spent two days in the high sea before a fisherman rescued us.”

Eguavoen who is back to square one wants government to empower him and others to start their lives all over. “Government should also help us to trace and locate our sponsors as some of them are here in Benin, we want them arrested and prosecuted. One Hilux vehicle can take 39 passengers, and seven of such will commence the desert journey, and only three will get to their destination. So, you can calculate how many people die on the way. As I am now, I no longer see death as a big deal.

Idemudia, who said he abandoned his job because of low patronage, is also looking up to the state government to help him restart his life.

In between the country taking delivery of two batches of predominantly young persons, mostly females, who were deported from Libya, 26 girls aged between 14 and I8 years were found dead in the Mediterranean Sea.

The bodies were brought to the southern Italian port of Salerno by Spanish war ship, Cantabria on November 3. They were buried on November 17.

The Federal Government, which was initially taciturn following the discovery eventually set up a cabinet committee to examine the circumstances of their death, after it was roundly condemned for not promptly reacting to the girls’ demise.

The committee, which is chaired by the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Abubakar Malami, has the ministers of Women Affairs, Youths and Sports, Foreign Affairs and the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and the Diaspora, Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa as members.

While the news of the girls’ untimely death made the rounds, the African Union equally launched an investigation into the sale of African migrants as slaves by armed groups in Libya.

The body said it would try to get access to illegal detention centres, which migrants were held without charges

“We have asked the Libyan authorities to facilitate the ongoing inquiries. The perpetrators will be dealt with through the justice system,’’ AU Commission Chair, Moussa Mahamat said in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

He added that the body had already dispatched its Commissioner for Social Affairs, Amir El-Fadil, as a special envoy to Libya to launch the inquiry, and appealed to its 55-member states to provide logistics support to enable the evacuation of the migrants held in Libya to their countries of origin.

From the latest batch of returnees from Libya, Edo State took delivery of 196 women and children. Barely a week earlier, it had taken delivery of 84 returnees, through a task force set up by Governor Godwin Obaseki.

However, the arrival of the Libya deportees meant nothing to those who are readying themselves, or their wards for the perilous journey to Europe.

This is because family members, peer groups, clerics and trafficking syndicates have continued to sustain the momentum of this infamous trans-Saharan trade, which they are benefitting from immensely.

For instance, a middle aged man, who is a para-military personnel recently boasted in Benin that the best way out of poverty is to send wards abroad, adding that he has been instrumental to three of his siblings making it to Europe.

Investigations reveal that most syndicate operators paint a picture of greener pastures to family members, while trying to harvest their victims. They are always quick to point at those who are believed to be successful in terms of cash repatriation and structures erected with such funds.

Once they have successfully psyched relatives of victims to submission, further arrangements regarding the trips are shrouded in secrecy, with the victim, their sponsors and, at times, some family member being the only persons privy to such plans.

This ugly situation has made many young men and women in the state to abandon their careers, live on funds repatriated by their relatives abroad, while they wait for their turn to also travel abroad.

For the females especially, before travel plans are perfected, sacrifices are made and oaths of secrecy and loyalty (to meet financial obligations) are taken at water fronts in notable rivers like Ikpoba River, along Ikpoba Slope, Upper Mission, Okhoror, Ogba River, as well as in shrines, among others.

Disturbed by this ugly development, which has defied all forms of solutions by past administrations, Obaseki asked the State Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, to proffer a new set of homegrown solutions to the age-long social problem. The task force headed by the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Prof. Yinka Omorogbe, is also responsible for the rehabilitation and management of the Libya returnees.

Obaseki, while receiving the batch of 84 deportees from Libya said that available data showed that of the 37, 000 illegal immigrants arrested in Europe in recent times, 15, 000 of them were from Edo and Delta states. Those he said are the people who survived the journey “because people go through the sea, some go through the Sahara Desert and so many must have died in the process. So I think it is an issue we can no longer trivialise. This is an issue that has to do with the survival of our people; it is an issue we must deal with urgently.

“We in Edo State we are prepared to give our best to fight this wicked act. We are going to domesticate the law so that we will make it effective, and to show that human trafficking is as bad as kidnapping if not worst. And for those who survive it, we will give them opportunity to be rehabilitated. We are going to strengthen our institutions to work with the Federal Government on this issue.

“You should see your current situation as a passing phase in the journey of life,” the governor told the returnees, adding that his administration would ensure that they receive vocational training, while those interested in pursuing higher education would be trained.

“You are back to where you came from and you will be taken care of. For the next three months, we will put you on a special stipend …you will not wish what you went through for even your enemies. So, we will make you ambassadors, to share your harrowing experience with others. We are not out to judge you; we will not judge you. We are all humans and make mistakes. Anybody can be deceived. I want to welcome you back home.”

Oba Ewuare II

Benin Monarch, Oba Ewuare II, who equally advocated and campaigned against recruiting girls for prostitution since his days as Nigeria’s Ambassador to Italy, as well as upon his ascension to the throne, promised to set up a skills acquisition centre to discourage girls and young people from seeking the elusive greener pastures abroad while a second plan is still evolving.

Only a few months ago, President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, led a delegation from Italy to Edo State to participate in a seminar organised by the state government on illegal migration and human trafficking.

Later at his palace, the monarch recalled efforts he made to check the excesses of trafficking syndicates/sponsors when he was the country’s ambassador to Italy, and reiterated his commitment to support the fight at the local level saying, “anything you want me to do, I will do because this is inhuman.”

The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), says it is equally unrelenting in sensitising Nigerians against trafficking, and also networking to arrest sponsors of these acts.

Benin Zonal Commander of NAPTIP, Nduka Nwawenne, told The Guardian that penultimate week, a 63-year-old woman, Imahria Esther, was nabbed for human trafficking, and five victims rescued with the support of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC). They were rescued from a brothel around Ahor area of Benin City.

He said operatives of the Command were on the trail of other suspects, who are presently on the run, adding that the rescued girls were undergoing counselling carried out by psycho-social experts from the Command to facilitate their proper re-integration.

As the clouds continue to look gloom for irregular migrants, a word of caution also came from Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State, who cautioned intending African migrants in search of greener pastures abroad to think twice before making such moves because of the risk involved.

Ayade, spoke during the inauguration of the second 2017 Carnival Calabar Dry Run with the theme, “Migration,” which he said was chosen because of the plight of Africans, who migrate in search of greener pastures, food and help.

Ayade said, “Not too long, we lost 26 Nigerians girls in the Mediterranean Sea, while crossing to Europe in search of greener pasture. The excessive migration of young people out of African in search of greener pastures in Europe and America has caused us the death of many young people.

Participants at a three-day workshop funded by the European Union, and organised by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), equally stressed the need for governments at all levels and relevant agencies to urgently take steps to tackle smuggling of migrants, because the far-reaching advantages of migration done within the context of available conventions were being lost to irregular migration perpetrated by Smugglers of Migrants (SOM).

While they observed that SOM is not abating in the country, a development that constitutes a threat to national security, economy, socio-political sanity and wellbeing of the country, they also noted the lack of synergy between agencies coordinating migration management in the country, like the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), NAPTIP and the media, has made women and children the most vulnerable victims of SOM.

“There is need for media organisations to establish migration desks for effective reportage of migration and related issues, while the NIS and the Foreign Affairs Ministry should develop effective and dynamic ways of engaging the Diaspora communities to mitigate SOM,” participants urged.

Assistant Comptroller of Immigration, Sirajo Jaafar, who spoke on the Effects of Irregular Migration at the workshop, said that irregular migration has resulted to loss of human lives as a result of risk of travelling through the desert, and through the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

“Going by the latest documentary “Missing Steps” scripted by the Comptroller General of Immigration, Muhammed Babandede, a lot of qualified Nigerians travel out of the country to Europe, and to Latin America where the economy may not be better than home, only to end up without dignity and honour as the jobs promised them there are non-existent.”

He said from available records, majority of the victims were women and children, who are exposed to all sort of inhuman treatments in search of illusive jobs in already saturated labour markets in Europe, America and sometimes Asia.

Jaafar, who added that irregular migration, remains a threat to national security and terrorism globally, described smuggled migrants as willing tools in the hands of terror gangs and insurgents, particularly along the West African sub-region.

“The number of irregular migrants increase on a weekly or monthly basis, thereby making their return home a very huge task to both host countries, and support agencies like International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and the government at home.”

Jaafar, who also linked the proliferation of hard drugs and weapons globally to irregular migration, noted that due to smuggling of migrants, a lot of families have been disintegrated as their breadwinners and potential heads are deceived to travel to unknown destinations, without coming back home due to inhuman condition they are exposed to there.

He maintained that smuggling of migrants and irregular migration would remain a global issue unless the major stakeholders synergise and collaborate to tackle it head on by mobilising and sensitising the youths on the risk and dangers attached to it.

On her part, Migration Adviser, Embassy of Switzerland to Nigeria, Jolanda Pfister Herren, said, “The need to escape difficult socio-economic situations presents the illusion that the perspectives in the destination country is better. This is not always true. Not when irregular migration routes have to be followed.”

She noted that significant number of Nigerians following irregular migration routes get stranded in transit countries, die in the desert or the Mediterranean Sea, or become victims of criminal and trafficking networks.

“Trafficking issues are often linked to irregular migration, as irregular migrants can be easy victims to these networks. Human trafficking is a complex phenomenon that needs a collaborative effort on both national and international levels, and appropriate instruments to counter it effectively and in a sustainable manner,” Herren stated.

Mohammed Babandede

Head of Delegation, European Union in Nigeria, and the Economic Community of West African States, Ambassador Ketil Karlsen, while also commenting on irregular migration, which have led to deaths in a recent interview said, “There are a number of potentially common ground between EU and Nigeria. Every year, we have Nigerian students coming to Europe to study; some of them stay and some of them return. Many Nigerians contribute significantly in all their host countries, but unfortunately, we also see more problematic situations, including human trafficking. Personally, it is very distressing to see Nigerian daughters trafficked for sex industry. For instance, the news of female Nigerians found dead in the sea is something that really worries us.

“We should never forget the human side of our relationship. There is need for continuous collaboration and active engagement with Nigeria through our migration agenda. How do we come up with the best possible solutions to these issues so that we make use of people’s mobility in more constructive ways to ensure that our people learn from each other; and at the same time, restricting illegal practices, especially trafficking of human beings?

“I think a lot needs to be done on campaigning against this. There is a lot of misunderstanding of what is actually waiting on the other side. The grass is not always green on the other side. I am not sure there is a better perspective. Making your own country work should be a very good option, but we need to provide a conducive environment. We need to provide jobs. We need to have education, put policies in place to have conducive environment. Everything is intertwined. Migration is a very important discussion.

On how successful the EU has been in trying to arrest human trafficking, Karlsen said, “We have done a lot, and this is one of the examples why it is important to have regional integration. If we must confront this kind of challenges, then we need to work together. It is like water, if you put pressure on one place, it flows to the other side. If we don’t put pressure on the issue collectively, if we don’t do the awareness campaign and investigations to overcome this, if we don’t strengthen institutions collectively, then it will be very difficult to counter this issue. If the agenda has been successful, I would say partially.

“There is a lot more to do. The statistics are showing that there are a lot of human stories and as these are still there, then the task is not complete. It is merely the beginning and we have to continue.

Monarch of Umuoma, Nekede ancient kingdom, in Owerri West Local Council, Eze Maurison Eke, is of the view that good parenting is germane in ridding the society of issues like illegal migration and trafficking.

His words: ‘’I think the issue of good parenting is very important and key to the upbringing of any child. That I have always emphasised anywhere I find myself. Not only in my domain, Umuoma. The reason that we are doing this is to ensure that our youths are not allowed to become willing tools in the hands of child traffickers.

‘’I am totally against any parent or person who facilitates or takes part in trafficking in persons. The devastating effect of what happened to the 26 Nigerian teenagers in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Spain.

Eke, who appealed to state governments to beam their searchlights on suspected traffickers, stressed that, “Time has come when our borders should be tightened. It is inhuman for some unscrupulous persons to continue in human trafficking. This must stop.’’ he cautioned.

The Obi of Owa and Chairman, Delta State Traditional Rulers’ Council, Obi Emmanuel Efezormo, who described “trafficking in persons as unlawful, and traditionally a taboo,” added that, “it is the type of business that brings shame to anyone, who indulges in the act.

“We have written several letters to security agencies in the state to always treat human trafficking offenders with seriousness, we have offered as royal fathers to ensure the business of human trafficking is stopped, and we have warned respective subjects in our domains that whoever is caught in the act, will not only go to jail, but would be banished from the area, as trafficking is another form of enslavement. It portends bad omen, and not good, so we are collaborating with security agencies to end trafficking in persons.”



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