Nigerian Migrants Get a Welcome Home. Jobs Are Another Story.


BENIN CITY, Nigeria — It had been 10 hours since he left Libyan shores, and Desmond Isaac was so close to Italy he felt like he could almost see it. Then, a Libyan Coast Guard vessel appeared and Mr. Isaac, a 32-year-old Nigerian who had sold all of his possessions to make it to Europe, was plucked from his rubber dinghy and taken back to the continent he thought he had escaped.

Mr. Isaac, whom Libyan officials detained, is one of around 7,000 Nigerian migrants the International Organization for Migration has returned home on chartered flights from Libya since January 2017.

Efforts have intensified to bring more migrants home from Libya, an increasingly dangerous transit point many Africans pass through on their way to Europe. A recent CNN video showed what was described as sub-Saharan Africans being sold as slaves in auctions there.

The migration organization is planning to fly home a further 20,000 migrants over the next few weeks, many of them Nigerian. And Nigeria has announced that it will begin arranging its own returns.

Nigeria has long struggled to stem its outward flow of migrants as the job market struggles to keep pace with its booming population. Now, as masses of migrants return, the government faces a new challenge: what to do with them.

“As I’m sitting here, I’m still angry,” Mr. Isaac, who left Nigeria in July and was returned in November, said in the parking lot of a run-down motel in Benin City, where the government has temporarily housed returned migrants who are from the area. “I’m angry because I’m back in this jobless country.”

Migrants and refugees who travel through Libya face abuse and exploitation at every turn. They are kidnapped, sold between captors, extorted and sometimes forced into prostitution and unpaid hard labor.

Some Nigerian returnees said in interviews that their captors had made them dismember Libyan corpses and remove the bones. Others said they had been forced to unpack containers full of ammunition. Some were locked indoors for months.

Those later held in official Libyan detention centers report having been beaten, sexually abused and denied food and medicine by guards.

Amnesty International has accused the European Union of complicity in Libyan detention center abuses by supporting the Libyan Coast Guard’s increasing efforts to intercept migrant boats.

Despite the hardships of the journey, Mr. Isaac is among the recent returnees to Nigeria who do not feel as if they have been plucked from peril. Instead, they feel robbed of the possibility for a better life abroad.

The migration organization’s flights home back home are taken voluntarily, but economic migrants stuck in detention in Libya often don’t feel like they have much of a choice.

Nigeria is among Africa’s largest economies, but its people still face many daily challenges, including a vast wealth gap, persistent corruption and a poor educational system.

For decades, Benin City has served as a hub of human trafficking and a starting point for migration.

Though much of the city is run-down, with poor roads and half-finished construction projects, there are expensive houses hidden behind gates, many built by those who had succeeded abroad. Still, poverty is widely on display, and young people in particular hustle in small businesses all day just to survive.

Although the migrants are relieved to be out of Libyan detention, many worry that the push to bring them back home will not be followed by a sufficient effort to reintegrate them.

Mr. Isaac worked as a truck driver in Benin City before he and two friends traveled to Libya last July, he said. Their ultimate destination: anywhere in Europe where they could find jobs.

Those working to return migrants home say their motives are humane, even though many who borrowed money for the journey often find themselves back where they started — and with no way to pay it back.

“It’s understandable they might feel annoyed or angry because that’s when their debts become due, and suddenly they’re wondering, did they do the right thing?,” said Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. “But getting people home from rubber dinghies in the sea in winter is far better.”

With the support of the European Union, the migration organization is expanding reintegration and returnee support programs, including helping create more small businesses in Nigeria. But the more people they send home, the more overburdened those programs will become.

Yinka Omorogbe, attorney general of Nigeria’s Edo State, where Benin City is, estimates that up to 80 percent of returnees come from her area.

Ms. Omorogbe said that the reintegration programs were a key part of the government’s strategy to combat rampant human trafficking and that it planned to fund more of them, even if it continues to rely heavily on aid groups. Part of the strategy is to provide returnees with three-month stipends.

“We are very frugal,” she said. “We are doing the best we can.”

One 29-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used because her family and friends did not know what had happened to her abroad, said she had traveled first to Italy, in 2009, thinking she was going to work in a shop. Instead, she was trafficked into prostitution and forced to surrender her earnings to the woman who had brought her there, she said.

When the Italian police caught her without papers and deported her, she said, she felt as if all of her hardship had been for nothing, and she immediately headed back. She was caught with false papers in Turkey and returned home.

Eventually, the woman said, she signed up to learn catering through a local aid program. Now she makes cakes and doughnuts for events around Benin City and earns enough to rent a small room and save some money each month.

Other migrants have had less success.

Osas Onaiwu, who was traveling with Mr. Isaac when the Libyan Coast Guard caught them, has a wife and three children to support. He and his friends have already worked in the kinds of occupations that many of the aid groups offer training in — tailoring, catering and hairdressing. He and Mr. Isaac left on the migrant route, he said, because those jobs do not provide enough income for a family to survive in Nigeria.

Now, with thousands of men and women like him returning home from Libya, still traumatized by the ordeal and frustrated that they had never made it to Europe, he is anticipating that desperation will drive some to the brink.

“Big crimes will happen,” he said. “Boys are now hungry, they’re not happy. Men are not smiling. When you have kids, how will you feed them?”

All the while, other people are leaving Benin City to take the same dangerous route through Libya. Some have a hard time imagining they will face the same horrors migrants spoke about when they came home.

But it is the success stories told around the city — accurate or otherwise — that keep their hopes alive.

One man in Benin City, who asked for anonymity to protect his family from stigma, told the story of a sister who left for Italy in 2002 knowing full well she would work as a prostitute.

It took her five years to pay off just half of the debt she owed for a plane ticket to travel there. But after a few years, the man recounted, she met an Italian man who paid off her remaining debts and married her. Soon, he said, she was sending money home.

When her first daughter was born an Italian citizen a few years ago, the man said, she named her Osarhieme, which means “God has given this to me.”



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