Alex Collins’ several attempts to make the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe always ended in disappointment. The first one was a pure disaster – he only escaped death by a whisker. His 125 co-travellers crammed into three boats were not as lucky. Although a fisherman saved his life when the boats capsized, he still ended up in a Libyan detention camp.
Alex managed to make four more bids to reach Italy during his five-year sojourn in Libya. Each failed attempt came with a fresh detention experience. He described the conditions of the detention facilities as dehumanising, claiming that officials paid special attention to black inmates, all derisively referred to as ‘Africans’. According to Alex, his wife – whom he married while in Libya – was repeatedly violated in his presence. By the time he was doing his fifth stint in detention, he concluded that his planned journey to Europe had been one big misadventure. Each attempt to cross the Mediterranean cost him about 3, 000 dinars (about N685,000), and he had to work very hard to raise money for the next attempt.
Gradually, Alex began to question the wisdom of his plans to go to Europe that always seemed to end with a continued stay in Libya. “It wasn’t about the money; it was about my life,” he said.
He left Nigeria in February, 2013. His big ambition was to be a professional football player in Europe. Italy was never his planned destination. Once he got into Italy, he thought, he would find his way to either France or The Netherlands. But five years down the road, he had seen the perils of the journey across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean. His three brothers, with whom he had nursed the dream of a better life in Europe, had perished in the process. And at 29, his best footballing years were well behind him.
So sometime last year, Alex walked up to the head of the prison and told him he wanted to return to Nigeria. The prison officials informed the Nigerian Mission in Libya, and on February 2, 2018, Alex came back to Nigeria, to begin life afresh. Today, he sees the adventure as one mistake too many: “I can’t advise even my enemy to make the same mistake.”
Since last year, the European Union and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have stepped up efforts to bring succour to thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa stranded in Libya while waiting to reach Europe. The European Union-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration is a joint response to the urgent need to protect and save the lives of the migrants along the Central Mediterranean migration route. The initiative covers 14 countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.
Like Alex, Joy Friday Okon hopes she would wake up to discover that her Libyan experience was merely a bad dream. It is now over one year since she came back to Nigeria, but the scar on her psyche remains indelible. She was a small-time caterer from Akwa Ibom State, needing a business break-through. Joy joined the migration train to Libya when she was told about the availability of easy lucrative jobs she could do in Europe to raise money.
She arrived in Libya early in 2015, en route to Italy. Shortly after her arrival, the Islamic State (ISIS) militants overran parts of the country, and their transit camp fell into the hands of the Islamists. Joy said she and her fellow migrants, who survived the wave of killings that followed, were rounded up and herded into the jihadists’ den, where they were turned into sex slaves for the terrorists. “They called us their slaves; and said they could use us anyhow and whenever they wanted,” she said.
Joy recalled watching her friend from Enugu State and her Ghanaian husband die as full scale war broke out between troops and the jihadists. She returned to Nigeria last April, thanks to a collaborative effort of the European Union and the IOM, which has organized the voluntary return and re-uniting of thousands of stranded migrants from several sub-Saharan African countries with families and loved ones.
More than 8,800 stranded Nigerians have been assisted to return to their country of origin since 2017. Under the EU-IOM Joint Safe and Voluntary Return Initiative, reception support and immediate assistance have been extended to these returning Nigerians since April last year. Reintegration counselling and screening for vulnerabilities – unaccompanied children, victims of trafficking and persons with health-related needs – are included in the package. The idea is to provide these Nigerians with the necessary psycho-social support and a minimal stipend to enable them pick up the pieces of their lives again and start over. The EU is already collaborating with the Nigerian authorities to work out how these people can be properly rehabilitated and fully re-integrated into the economy.
Trafficking and smuggling of Nigerian citizens remain a critical challenge with regular reports of women and children being exploited for sexual purposes and forced labour. Within the European Union, Nigerian nationals are the most numerous among non-European victims of trafficking in human beings, and are also the most numerous among traffickers. In recent years, the European Union has stepped up its engagement with the Nigerian authorities, international partners and other key stakeholders on how to stem the wave of irregular migration and human trafficking. It is working closely with key Nigerian agencies, including the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) and the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS).
The Senate Roundtable on Migration and Human Trafficking held in Benin City in February 2018, with the support of the EU, was another outcome of the engagement between the EU and the Nigerian authorities. Significantly, the Edo State administration under Governor Godwin Obaseki, is taking the lead in on-going collaborations to end the menace. The EU has remained a committed partner in this cause. Given that Edo contributes most to the number of Nigerians affected by this twin scourge, the leadership role of the Governor and the influential Oba Ewuare II of Benin in this humanitarian cause is considered a major breakthrough. At a round table on migration, which he hosted in Abuja recently, Governor Obaseki spoke of plans to halve the incidence of human trafficking in the state by the end of 2018 and completely eradicate it by the end of his current tenure.
Nevertheless, Nigeria still faces serious systemic constraints that hamper effective management of migration. The European Union is providing significant financial and technical support to assist Nigeria in addressing some of these challenges. A wide range of programmes and projects that aim to contribute to institutional and legislative reforms and capacity building in Nigeria are being implemented. Nigeria is also slated to benefit from other EU initiatives with the European Investment Bank (EIB) aimed at addressing the root causes of irregular migration.
In Edo State, an NGO, the Girls’ Power Initiative, which is ready to increase its involvement, is implementing another EU-funded programme, aimed at educating potential migrants, especially girls, on the risks linked to migration and the difference between migration and trafficking. Knowing little about trafficking, children and young people in the state assume it to be the same as migration, which to them is a movement to earn better income. The EU-supported programme aims to train over 7,000 school children as peer educators. The trained will in turn educate their peers on the true nature of trafficking. The earlier our young ones learn about this twin evil, the less likely they are to fall to those who prey on their ignorance.
*Chukwulaka is the Press Officer at the EU Delegation to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Abuja.