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‘No Olvidado’: These Americans find and bury missing migrants

A three-part documentary about death and dignity on the US-Mexico border

By Alexandra King, CNN

Film by Craig Waxman, Alexandra King and Alfredo Alcántara

PART I
(Missing in the desert)

Five hours into the hike and 100 degrees in the shade, the exhausted men thought about water and their aching feet and how many bodies they would find that day.

Fanned out in a line across a remote patch of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, the 15 men in fluorescent vests reading “Aguilas Del Desierto” (Eagles of the Desert) freckled the Mars-like landscape. All morning, they had hiked over uneven black volcanic rocks, lava-hot and ready to split an ankle in two, into the heart of a valley, where thousands of giant saguaro cactuses waved their stubby arms.

For the last hour, Pedro Fajardo, a 56-year-old factory worker, had smelled death. As the men poked sticks under bushes and sweated through ditches dotted with the familiar detritus of migrants — water bottles painted black, discarded clothing and rosary beads — an occasional putrid breeze was their compass.

Members of the Aguilas del Desierto search for migrant remains in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a remote area in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

Stopping at the bottom of a small ridge, Fajardo caught it again — stronger this time. He pushed the men forward.

That’s when a whistle blew, and 12 radios crackled in familiar chorus.

“Encontramos un cadaver, encontramos un cadaver.”

We’ve found a corpse.

At least once a month, the Aguilas del Desierto, a group of 30 predominantly Mexican-American volunteers, travel to the Sonoran desert to search for migrants reported lost or missing. The names and suspected locations of missing border crossers are reported by desperate families on the other side of the border, usually via Facebook, though the group also receives as many as 20 phone calls per day.

Most of the Aguilas work 40-hour weeks, many as landscapers, cooks and factory workers. Money for their expeditions, including gas for the 14-hour round trip, comes from online donations and weekly collections at local markets in California, where most of the group lives.

Pedro Fajardo, a volunteer with the Aguilas del Desierto, prays over the remains of a dead migrant.

The body they had just found was fresh. The man had lain there maybe four or five days, they guessed. He was sprawled in the shadow of a small tree, flies fogged above his swollen chest. Pus and blood leaked from his eyes and mouth.

The man was the second dead migrant they had found that morning; a skull was found earlier. Once they’d found 11 sets of remains in an afternoon. Another time, two days before Christmas, they’d found nine bodies, huddled in a line — victims of dehydration.

Still, it was rare to find a fully fleshed body in the scorching heat of the desert, which can render a human skeletal in a matter of weeks. Even more unusual, the man would be quickly identified.

His name the Aguilas would learn after they had performed the grim ritual they knew so well — taping off the area, radioing coordinates to Border Patrol, saying a prayer for the dead man’s soul. José Inés Ortiz Aguillon. He was from El Salvador and 51 years old.

A member of the Aguilas del Desierto lays a cross next to the body of José Inés Ortiz Aguillon.

Found on April 22, 2019, Aguillon would become the 47th dead migrant to be retrieved from the Arizona borderlands since the first of the year. By August, as temperatures rose as high as 107 degrees, that number would more than double.

“It’s like a gigantic cemetery right now, crossing the desert. Only a few make it. Once they get into the desert, there is no return,” Fajardo says.

“We could be looking every day up there, and we can find (dead) people every day. Unfortunately, we can’t do that because we have to work.”

The Aguilas group was founded in 2009 by Mexican-American migrant Eli Ortiz after his brother and cousin died while attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert. Their story, he says, is common to many.

“They were crossing the border and their smuggler left them behind. I asked immigration for help, and they refused to help. I asked the consulate for help and they refused. I asked the police for help and they refused too,” Ortiz says.

“We found my family four-and-a-half months after they were left behind. All that was left were their skeletons.”

That’s when Ortiz knew he had to help. For him, the mission is simple.

“If it wasn’t for us, who would find them?” he says.

The group formed in response to a mass wave of migrant deaths on the border that have been hidden in plain sight for more than two decades, even as overall rates of illegal migration have decreased.

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Arizona’s numbers speak for themselves. Between 1990 and 1999, the average number of migrant deaths recorded each fiscal year in southern Arizona was 12. From 2000 to 2017, that number jumped more than tenfold, to 157 deaths per year,) according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

This increase can be directly attributed, human rights groups argue, to the U.S. Border Patrol’s 1994 adoption of “Prevention Through Deterrence” as its chief operational strategy. The new initiative was formed amid an intense outcry over historic numbers of illegal immigration from Mexico in the ’80s and ’90s. Named “Operation Gatekeeper,” it outlined a radical new tactic for deterring illegal border crossers — using the unforgiving landscape as a natural barrier.

The strategy said that as “mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and valleys form natural barriers to passage,” known migrant routes at urban entry points should be fenced off and militarized. This left migrants with no choice but to cross over harsh, remote desert. Authorities assumed they would fear making such a hazardous journey — and if anyone tried, their deaths would act as a future deterrent.

In one aspect, this hypothesis proved correct. Illegal migration did go down after the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper. In 2000, more than 1.6 million illegal aliens were apprehended by Border Patrol. By 2010, that number had dropped by more than 80 percent, to just over 300,000.

Migrants who attempt a desert crossing frequently encounter wild animals, like rattlesnakes.

However, what soon became clear is that the challenges of crossing through inhospitable landscapes like the Sonoran Desert wouldn’t stop migrants from attempting to make the journey.

From October 1997 to September 2018, US Border Patrol recorded 7,505 migrant deaths in its nine sectors along the entire southwestern border. And this astonishing figure — more than the total number of US military killed in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan combined since 2001 — is likely a significant undercount.

A 2018 CNN investigation found that the Border Patrol had failed to count hundreds of migrant deaths on US soil. Border Patrol figure data includes only cases reported to them, and it’s estimated that agents only find about 50% of the remains that are recovered, leading to significant undercounting.

Border Patrol’s numbers also don’t account for the migrants who simply go missing in the desert, never to be seen again, their bodies eaten and scattered by coyotes and vultures. Some human rights organizations estimate the number of missing to be in the tens of thousands.

“The migrant people coming across the border, what they don’t realize is how hard it is to get across the desert,” says Gerardo Campo, a 58-year-old floral designer who moonlights on weekends as the Aguilas’ operations chief.

According to Border Patrol, most deaths occur as a result of dehydration. Many other migrants die after being left behind because of a simple, treatable injury. Migrants walk at night to evade detection, and rocky terrain makes broken bones a common occurrence. Even a bad case of blisters can cause migrants to be abandoned by the smugglers they pay to guide them, leading to almost certain death, Campo says.

“They may have an idea that they’re going to be walking for just a couple of days, as they’ve been told by the coyotes to hook them and make their money. But they don’t realize until they’re into the desert that it’s not two days. It’s going to be about five, six, seven, ten days walking,” he says.

“The traffickers, and even people and family members that are going with them along the journey, they don’t care because their life is in danger too. So if someone gets hurt, that’s it.”

Though all the Aguilas live in the US legally, most of them arrived undocumented, crossing before hardline policies militarized the border. They see themselves as the lucky ones.

“When I find remains of people in the desert, I honestly see myself in that process of dying,” Campo says. “That is me.”

PART II
(Identifying the dead)

Dr. Greg Hess, chief medical examiner of Pima County in Tucson, Arizona, points to the outdoor cooler –- capacity: 115 human bodies — the extra one they had to build in 2005 after the flood of migrant remains began to overwhelm his office.

“We ran out of room,” he says.

Pima County, one of 22 counties adjacent to the Mexican border, has long been ground zero for migrants who die trying to cross into the United States. The centralized position of its office, responsible for three of Arizona’s four border areas, means that more migrant remains have come through the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner than anywhere else in the state.

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José Inés Ortiz Aguillon, the man found by the Aguilas, was processed here. He was just

Dr. Greg Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner, pulls a body out of his office’s indoor cooler.

one of more than 3,000 suspected US border crossers documented by this office alone since the year 2000.

“In the 1990s, we’d have less than 20 a year. In 2000, that jumped up to about 75,” Hess says.

“Our busiest single year was 2010. We had 222 remains recovered that year.”

This enormous influx not only stretched the morgue capacity to its limits, but also left the office with a quandary: Federal law said nothing about what they should do with these bodies, and official record keeping was non-existent.

“There is no federal law that dictates what states should do with the bodies of migrants who die on the border. Arizona statute requires that the Office of the Medical Examiner be notified when remains of an unidentified person is found. But that’s it,” Hess says.

“There’s really no way to track these types of deaths unless you are keeping your own internal numbers.”

That’s why, as the bodies poured in, unidentified, and taking up space, the office of the medical examiner tasked itself with rigorously documenting the identities of those found and assembled a DNA database.

In doing so, they were able to chronicle, for the first time, a historic wave of death at the border.

Identification, from the start, was the main challenge.

“If people are not found right away, they can become very decomposed and, or skeletal remains very quickly …. you lose a lot of information,” Hess says. “So, when we do examinations on people, we essentially make a profile. Is that a man or a woman? How tall are they and what do they look like? And do they have any identifying marks or scars or tattoos?”

Medical examiners also look to see if the migrants carried any personal effects that might provide a clue to their identity.

That’s where the property room comes in.

At first glance, the metal lockers look just like the ones you’d find in an American high school.

Except each one holds a year’s worth of plastic pouches, streaked with desert dirt, filled with the unmistakable scent of decay and stuffed with belongings chosen to provide a semblance of comfort on a long trip to a new life. Prayer cards. Photographs of children. Hair clips. Reading glasses with a missing lens.

These belongings hold valuable clues that could reunite remains with loved ones, says Robin Reineke, the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Colibri Center for Human Rights.

Colibri works with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, collecting detailed missing persons reports for people who disappeared while crossing the US-Mexico border and DNA profiles from family members desperate to locate their loved ones.

They currently have reports for more than 3,000 people.

“When we take missing persons reports, we don’t treat that as a legal law enforcement document. We treat that as a scientific document and a humanitarian document,” Reineke says. “We’re recording every detail that the family can remember about the person, about what happened, what size pants they wore, what size shoes … anything that the family can remember.”

Belongings found in the desert are not only useful in identifying the missing but also have tremendous meaning to devastated families.

“We work with families in crisis — families grieving unthinkable losses. The items also help us, help the family to heal,” Reineke adds.

The remains of an unidentified border crosser.

“To see his prayer card, to see his wallet, to see his glasses, to see her ring, her earrings, her scrunchy, her Bible. And then to hold those items and do their best to try to be with that person in that moment when they couldn’t be with them when they left the world.”

When skeletal remains are found with no belongings, DNA becomes the only chance of identification. Since 2016, Colibri has taken DNA samples from more than 583 individual family members in the hope of finding answers in the Pima office’s database of more than 1,000 samples.

So far they have helped families identify 45 loved ones.

But the relentless human toll is hard for Reineke.

“I’m an optimistic person, but at this point I’m pessimistic that we’re going to be able to identify everyone who has died here,” she says. “I keep waiting for the moment when the American public realizes we’ve allowed something really ugly to unfold.”

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PART III
(From paupers’ graveyard to proper burials)

The paupers’ graveyard at Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California — some 15 miles from the Mexican border — is at the back, behind the manicured lawns with the marble headstones and fresh carnation stems wilting in the hair-dryer heat. It’s home to several large rattlesnakes and more than 500 unmarked graves. A large “WARNING” notice signposts the snakes. The rows of paupers’ graves, marked by numbered bricks, read “Jane Doe” and “John Doe.”

The three-acre dirt lot was opened in 1994, the same year that Operation Gatekeeper policies were introduced. Half of the men, women and children buried here are unidentified. Of those, most are migrants who died attempting to cross into the United States.

Usually this site is closed off to the public, chained shut. Burials stopped here in 2009, after officials realized cremation, at $850 a body, was more cost effective for taxpayers than the roughly $2,300 it costs to bury someone. After cremation, ashes were scattered at sea.

For years, the graveyard’s only visitors were the cemetery’s superintendent and a volunteer group named the Border Angels, who gained permission to pray over the graves every six weeks or so and leave flowers and crosses.

But now, a decade since the last pauper’s grave was dug here, the remains of unidentified border crossers are coming back to Terrace Park. Except this time, their cremated bodies aren’t buried at the back. Instead, a new policy is ensuring remains are placed in an endowed area of the cemetery that is marked and accessible to the public.

This new policy is the work of Imperial County Public Administrator Rosie Blankenship.

For years, it has been her job to break the news to any migrant families who came calling about the fate of their loved ones.

If the coroner can’t identify a migrant’s body within 30 days, the remains are sent to her department, Blankenship says. Her office then typically waits about 30 days before moving forward with cremation. However, by the time a family might call, it was often too late.

“When they would come to me and say, ‘I’d like to claim my loved one,’ I would have to tell them, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we scattered their ashes at sea,” she says.

“There was no closure for the family. And I thought, ‘Okay, we’ve got to change that.’”

Blankenship’s first visit to the dirt lot at Terrace Park Cemetery left an indelible impression.

“As soon as I crossed those gates and looked at the area in which our decedents were buried, my heart just broke,” she says.

Changing the cemetery policy was one of the first things on her to-do list, Blankenship says. “To be able to bury them in the endowed area, a much more beautiful place, I mean that was the right way to go,” she says. “Why it hadn’t been thought of before, I don’t know.”

Which is why, on a blazing hot April morning, as three volunteers strum guitars and softly sing the Catholic hymn “Entre Tus Manos,” Blankenship reads out a list of 17 names — most of them simply “John Doe” — with an estimated date of death.

Volunteers take turns laying single red roses into an open grave. Her voice quivers as she reads the names aloud.

“No more unidentified migrant or identified person has to be buried in the back,” she says. “They too have the honors of being buried in the front with all the rest of us.”

Imperial County Public Administrator Rosie Blankenship reads during a funeral service for the unidentified at Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California.

Seventeen people are interred during the ceremony. Not all of them were migrants — some were homeless and others simply locals who went unclaimed after their death.

“We bid them farewell in a very respectful and dignified way and at the end of the day, I can look back and say, we did well. We did well for them,” Blankenship says. “And that gives me great pleasure to know that their farewell was a grand adios.”

After the ceremony, a crowd files solemnly through the gate into the paupers’ graveyard, winding their way around the shallow graves to lay homemade crosses. A Catholic priest recites a prayer in Spanish as the freeway across the dirt fields rumbles with the sounds of Border Patrol cars and trucks of goods on their way to Mexico.

The crosses read “No Olvidado.”

Not forgotten.

(edition.cnn.com)

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Investigation

Inside Italian farms where Nigerian migrants, others are dehumanised

  • Victims lament living conditions in European country
  • Migrants suffer mental health, skin, respiratory problems -Italian NGO
  • Govt, labour unions working to address challenges- NIDO’s spokesperson

Many citizens of Nigerian and other African countries have walked their ways back into slavery decades after the trans-Atlantic slave trade through which their forebears were dehumanised ended. In Italy, many of them are living like slaves in agricultural farms where they are exploited at will and left to live like destitute, INNOCENT DURU reports.

A good number of undocumented migrants from Nigeria and other parts of Africa who survive the herculean task of passing through the Sahara Desert and crossing the Mediterranean Sea end up in Italy from where some of them migrate to other European countries.

To survive in the European country, many of them take up menial jobs they would ordinarily not accept in their own countries. They work in agricultural farms where they pick tomatoes, oranges, grapes and other fruits for daily pay.

And as strenuous and demeaning as the job is, the migrants don’t get it on a platter of gold. “Many of them are illegally employed by mafias. It is called caporalato here. It is a form of illegal hiring and exploitation of manpower through an intermediary. It spreads across Italy and it is particularly frequent in the agricultural and farm sector,” said Jerome, a Nigerian migrant

“When it is not harvest time, the migrant workers get between two to four Euros per hour, compared to Italy’s standard of more than seven Euros per hour stipulated in agricultural minimum wage. And they pay the mafia middleman five to 10 Euros before they can secure working fields,” he added

Ibe, another Nigerian based in Italy, said some cruel mafia sometimes drug the migrants while Aboubarcar Soumahoro, an Ivorian who formerly worked in the farms but  is now an activist, decried the migrants’ inability to achieve their dreams.

Soumahoro said on his Facebook page: “We want a decent job and a roof over our heads where we can raise our children.  These pictures (displayed on his page) tell us this desire is not allowed to labourers engaged in harvesting agricultural products that end on our tables. As long as our communities accept this kind of injustice, our humanity will be defeated.”

He also alleged in a documentary that the migrant workers are paid low wage because of the colour of their skin. “If you refuse what they offer, you won’t get a contract. So the workers are squeezed to accept the conditions. There are no rights and there is no dignity. They are just workers exploited and enslaved,” he said.

 

Recently, a 27-year-old from Mali reportedly collapsed and died in the southeastern Apulia region after working a day in the fields in temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius.

“You may work 28 days, but they’ll mark only four on your pay slip, so at the end of the month you may get 200, 300 euros,” Marco Omizzolo, a rights activist told AFP.

READ  Nigerian migrants’ sojourn in Middle East ends in woes

“Formally, it is all by the book,” he added.

An Italy based freelance journalist, Gioacomo Zandonini, told our correspondent that the farms  are places of marginalisation and abuses.

He said: “Fruits and vegetables picked up here are reaching countries all over Europe, where their prices are competitive because of this very complex system of exploitation, that goes from the bit distribution companies, setting prices, to local land owners and workers that are paying such a high toll for trying to survive in Italy.”

Francessco, a freelance photographer also based in Italy, told The Nation that in Italy, the exploitation of migrants is useful and functional to the economy. “So there is no interest in stopping the phenomenon. Moreover, the rampant corruption in southern Italy means that there are no controls in the companies where workers, both Italian and foreign, are exploited.

“Migrants, as always, are useful to politics both for propaganda and for the Italian and European economies which function thanks to the work and sweat of people exploited at work.

“In addition, many Italians no longer want to do the most menial jobs. Thus, agricultural entrepreneurs often use migrants living in reception centres, because they are blackmailable and because they are satisfied with little money.”

He added. “There is also a ‘work tour’, where migrants move around various regions in southern Italy according to the seasonality of the fruit harvest.

“Agriculture and the mafia are often linked either through land ownership or through distribution abroad or in supermarkets. The mafia also has ‘caporali’, who are intermediaries between the workers and the boss. Often, the mafia finds migrants in reception centres and uses them to make them work where the mafia wants.”

Urmila Bhoola, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, reported that the “caporalato” system consists both of labour brokers who supply irregular and regular migrants to farms and a network of criminal syndicates and mafia groups who benefit from the exploitation of the slavery-like conditions of migrant workers.

According to the report, most of the workers are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In the province of Latina, though, about 30,000 Sikh workers from India are subjected to extreme forms of coercion, including being forced to take performance-enhancing drugs, which are prohibited by their religion.

Workers are often victims of physical assault and sexual violence, withholding of wages and documents, and threats to their families if they refuse to work.

A recent police investigation offered fresh evidence of widespread abuse among the Indian community. That operation led to the arrest of a doctor in the beach town of Sabaudia. He was accused of illegally prescribing more than 1,500 boxes of Depalgos, a powerful painkiller containing Oxycodone and given to cancer patients, to 222 Indian farm workers.

“The drug presumably allowed them to work longer in the fields by relieving pain and fatigue,” Latina chief prosecutor Giuseppe De Falco told AFP. Migrants lament living conditions

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A documentary of the living conditions of the migrants obtained by our correspondent spoke volumes of how meaningless the lives of migrants are to their hosts.  After working for 13 years in Italy’s fields, all that a Nigerian female farm worker could show for it was a room apartment tucked in a shanty. The building has no electricity supply, running water or other basic amenities.

Before she could drink the water, she would have to boil it with herbs. “If we don’t boil the water with herbs before drinking it, we would fall sick every day. In my country, I have never lived in this kind of environment,” she said.

Ismail, a Ghanaian who went to Italy hoping for a better life, was seen in the documentary lamenting the condition he was living in.

“I always feel ashamed when anybody back home calls to do video chat with me. I feel uncomfortable to do that because the place I am living in is very shameful,” he said.

Sadio, a Senegalese based in Italy, said: “Life here is inhuman. Look around, many people living here are living in terrible conditions.”

The ghettos where the migrants live in, according to Francessco, are usually full of rubbish.

He said: “They are pieces of uncultivated land which arise in the suburbs or under motorways where there are many tents and huts where migrants live. In these ghettos there are no services such as water or toilets. So there are no human hygienic conditions and no services of any kind. In this way, migrants are increasingly isolated and live in very poor conditions.”

 

Why migrants suffer mental health, respiratory problems among others – Italian NGO

An Italian non-governmental organisation, Medici per i Diritti Umani – MEDU (Doctors for Human Rights – Italy) shared with The Nation their experience helping the migrants over the years as follows: “The migrants from Nigeria that the mobile clinic team meets within the informal settlements in Rome (railway stations, squats) are people who live in Italy permanently and have been here for some years. It’s not uncommon that they live under uncertain legal conditions because their request of asylum have been declined or/and they are in the process of appealing.

“Their life situation is extremely precarious from various points of view. Very often, they do not have a job or they can only get seasonal work. For this reason, in certain periods of the year, they move to the regions of Southern Italy to work in the citrus harvest.

“When they don’t have work to do, they return to big cities like Rome and live on the street or in precarious settlements, shacks, etc.”

On the types of health challenges the migrants face, MEDU said: “In most situations, the health problems they have are linked to the precarious conditions in which they are forced to live, which very often also have consequences on their mental health.

“In winter time, the diseases they suffer from are linked to the respiratory system, due to the environmental conditions or diseases of the osteo-muscular system, due to the condition of sleeping on the street; skin diseases due to poor hygienic conditions and diseases of the digestive system linked to incorrect nutrition but also to the somatization of stress.”

READ  Despite positive efforts, too many migrants face challenges accessing COVID-19 vaccines

The organisation lamented that the Italian system does not treat the migrants well. “As for the people we meet as MEDU, unfortunately we have to say that the system does not treat them with dignity. Very often, these are people forced to live on the margins of society and are not given any opportunity to integrate.”

A number of the migrants, according to the organization, are serving various jail terms. “For the few known cases, we can say that the crime for which some of them are incarcerated is above all for the trafficking and sale of drugs.”

A former Edo State Commissioner for Arts, Culture, Tourism and Diaspora Affairs, Osaze Osemwingie-Ero, in a recent  interview with The Nation, said over 300 Nigerian youths are ‘illegally’ detained in Italian prisons for contrived charges on mafia-related offences.

Osaze who spent 18 months in an Italian prison for an offence he claimed not to have committed, says his case was as a result of racial discrimination and manipulation of the Italian justice system, and not the offence that was alleged against him.

“I was alleged to be a Mafia kingpin and on that course was detained. Upon demand for evidence, a manual called the ‘Green Bible’ was presented, which was obviously forged,” he said, adding that some Nigerians have been sentenced to 140 years imprisonment for the same Nigerian mafia accusation citing article 416b of Italian Mafia law.

Govt, labour unions working to address challenges – NIDO’s spokesperson

A former Vice Chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation, NIDO Europe, (Italy chapter) and current Public Relations Officer/Assistaant  General Secretary, NIDO, Europe Continental,  Fidel Wilson, told The Nation that the plight of migrant workers were being addressed by the government and the labour unions.

“The main reason most of them are exploited is desperation. No papers and quest for survival. But the government and labour unions are working on how their conditions can be improved,” he said.

Support Voice for African Migrants


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Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.

For continued free access to the best and latest migration, trafficking, displacement and humanitarian reports including thorough investigative reports in these areas, we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.

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Investigation

Why Nigerian ladies may continue to be lured to Middle-East

Migrants at the Tripoli Airport preparing to board the flight home. Photo: IOM

 

By Gbenga Aderanti

 

For the Nigerian ladies who work in both the Middle East and Arab countries, it has always been one story of woe or the other.

But, despite the stories being told and the human degradation being faced by these Nigerian ladies, some of them still find it difficult to ignore the allure of Arab countries; even when they are not sure of what awaits them in these foreign lands.

Though the reports from the returnees from these countries are chilling and scary, many of the ladies are not dissuaded on their resolve to still go to places like Lebanon, Libya and Oman, Libya.

In some instances, many parents aid the movement of their wards on this perilous journey.

Recently, the Niger State Police Command rescued five victims from being taken to Libya by human traffickers. Two suspects were arrested during the rescue operation while the police said they were on the trail of other members of the syndicate.

The two suspects arrested Osaruwumen Ewodaru (49) and Olaoluwa Adebanjo (43), were caught with female victims, aged between 18 and 23 years, en route Libya.

Further investigation revealed that parents of the victims were in cahoots with the suspected traffickers.

One of the suspects, Osaruwumen claimed it was not his first time he was taking ladies to Libya.

Narrating how she got caught up in the journey, one of the victims, who was with Osaruwumen, said she was told to follow him to Libya where she would find her way to Italy to meet her uncle who works and lives there.

She said: “Osaruwumen lives in my area. He is a bricklayer. When he told my mother he was travelling, my mother asked me to follow him to Libya, and that when I got to Libya, I would cross to Italy to meet my Uncle in Italy.”

She claimed that it was not her decision to go, but her mother assured her that she would make a lot of money if she did.

Another victim, a 300 level student, said that a woman in her neighbourhood told her mother that her daughter in Libya said that workers were needed and they should go for the jobs.

“That was why my mother allowed me to go on the trip. They told us we would work as housemaids or cleaners, taking care of animals on the farm or cleaning old people’s homes.”

Another Nigerian lady, Adetutu, a Mass Communication graduate, who has had the misfortune of travelling to Oman, while narrating her experience to The Nation revealed that if not for her boyfriend, she would have died in Oman. “It was my boyfriend that facilitated my traveling to Oman and when I couldn’t cope with the work there, he was asked to pay N400, 000 before I could be allowed to come back to the country. She revealed that while she was lucky to come back, there are other Nigeria ladies that have been perpetually signed into slavery.

Though Adedutu has found her groove back as she is now married with two kids, she is still haunted by the unpalatable experience in the Middle east.

According to her, the first thing her sponsors in Oman did was to seize her phone and was told point blank that she would not be able to talk to her family members in Nigeria for the two years she would be staying with her ‘Master’.

“I would wake up daily at 5am and would not sleep until 11pm or midnight as I would be busy performing all manner of house chores. I was never offered breakfast until about 4 pm. Many times I would steal bread from the fridge and take it to the bathroom to eat.”

She was lucky as her rebellious attitude and her nagging made her employer reject her and sent her back to her agent’s office.

She returned to Nigeria without a dime. She was happy that she got her sanity back.

Adetutu blamed both the Nigerian ‘agents’ and radio presenters who, probably out of ignorance “allow criminals to use their air time to advertise this modern slavery.”

Another Nigerian lady, 22-year-old Damilola Falodun, in a report, said her stay in the oil rich Oman will continue to cause her nightmare.

According to her, most Oman men regard black women as sex objects just to satisfy their pleasure.

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She lost her parents and her life and education were in shambles. She needed to travel out of the country in order to escape from poverty. Unfortunately,

her initial plan was to go to Canada but this was not to be.

She was convinced by a pastor to take the option of Oman, ‘which was in need of workers,’ she took the option.

She was neither privy to the nature of the job nor her wages. All lines of communication had been severed.

“Under the contract agreement signed here in Nigeria by the agents, unknown to us, communication or the use of the phone was not allowed; hence it would be taken away from us. It was a two year arrangement contracted by Nigerians in collaboration with their Omanis counterparts there.

“The contracts were signed by the two parties secretly. The Omani agents would pay about N700, 000 to agents in Nigeria which would be used to facilitate our tickets, visas and traveling documents.

“But the dubious Nigerian agents would also demand about N600, 000 from us for the same purpose already paid for by the Omani agents. They told us that our own money was what they needed to facilitate the traveling documentation which was a lie. The moment you are gone, they signed you off,” she said in a report.

In Oman, she became a slave.

“In Oman, we were told by the Omani lords in a simple language, “You are our property. We have bought you for two years and you don’t own yourself until you finish the contract.”

“Now, the irony is that, the so-called masters would apply some tricks that would make you not to last for three months in a place.

The moment you became frustrated and wanted to change from your home to another home, the entire contract would be canceled, and you would start all over again. Under these conditions, many girls were inhumanly treated. Some died in the process while some became perpetual slaves to the masters. The job description was horrible. As a maid, you have no rest for a whole year.

We must serve an extended home of about six to seven families. In Oman, they keep nuclear homes and each housemaid serves the entire home without rest or any holiday. Other inhuman treatments include sexual harassment, violent physical attack by wicked masters, while some would push you out to make sure you did not complete your contract.

Moreover, every salary you work for before the completion of the contract would be paid in advance to the agents in Oman. You can only have access to your salary when you complete a contract with a house. Information about work conditions was kept secret and you dare not use their phone in their absence. The experience was horrible.”

According to her, all Arab countries treat young black girls the same way. They will not let them have any decent job even when you are qualified for it. They see us as objects for sex and maltreatment.

 

Nigerian ladies‘ll continue to emigrate to Arab countries

But despite the slavish treatment being meted to Nigerian ladies, it will be difficult for them to ignore the allure of the Middle- East and the Arab countries.

Speaking to The Nation, an agent who has been in Egypt for more than 15 years disclosed that many Nigerian ladies would continue to travel to Arab countries, irrespective of the chilling stories from these, they would continue to be taking their chances.

According to him, it is better out there for ladies who desire better lives for themselves.

He acknowledged that some of the ladies face lots of challenges, but insisted that some of them are still doing well for themselves and their families in Nigeria.

The agent, Ibrahim, pleaded that he would not like his full name in print and said, he had not done any other job outside getting jobs for the Nigerian ladies.

He confessed that the agency he operates is not registered but “there is nothing illegal about our activities.”

The agent blamed poverty in the land as the main reason Nigerian girls would continue to try their luck in the Arab countries.

“And until the situation of the country improves, Nigerian ladies will continue to explore other countries for better prospects.

“There is always a steady order for housekeeping jobs because there are so many families.”

Many of the ladies working in the middle east have complained that the work there is strenuous, Ibrahim told The Nation that while this may be true to a certain extent, he said some of the ladies are lazy to the extent that they cannot do simple house chores.

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Many of the ladies who had been lucky to return to Nigeria warned other ladies who wanted to embark on dangerous ventures of going to places like Oman and Lebanon, Ibrahim said he is always cautious about the country to take the ladies to.

Many of the returnee ladies have accused agents of taking ladies to do prostitution; he explained that for the ladies that are hard-working, the jobs of maids and housekeeping are available in Egypt.

“The Majority of those ladies who come to Oman do menial jobs, such as house- keeping jobs, only few do professional jobs and it depends on the agent that took you to the place.”

He warned ladies who are coming with the mindset of coming to Egypt to prostitute should perish the thought as they would be disappointed.

“You must not be caught prostituting in Egypt because the consequence of being caught is grave. Many of these ladies had been deported because they were caught engaging in prostitution.

While it may be true that some of the girls who are taken to other countries do prostitution, in Egypt, it may be a bit difficult as prostitution is not profitable here. This is because Nigerian men who are supposed to be their clients do not earn much to allow for such excesses.

He described Egypt as a home away from home because foreigners enjoy certain liberties there that are scarce in other countries.

Ibrahim revealed probably because of the way these Middle East are configured, they will continue to be attractive to ladies.

 

Why ladies get into trouble

While not discountenancing the activities of some Shylock employment agents, he explained that most of these ladies get into trouble because of their fraudulent behaviors.

According to him, most of the ladies even before they arrived in these countries had a game plan. “Instead of these ladies focusing on their jobs, they often try to play fast one on their employers, that is when they usually get into trouble.”

“I would advise the ladies coming to Egypt, to respect their culture. You have to be decent with the way you dress.

Don’t think you will make money from prostitution, stay away from it.

“As long as you are not tempted to steal from your employer, you are not likely to get into trouble. The money you are going to earn is enough to take care of you and your family.

“I always tell the ladies I give jobs not to follow men because it is the unemployed Nigerian men that would finish their earnings.

Egypt is far better than places like Oman. One of the ladies who left Cairo for Oman told me that her three years in Oman was a disaster.

“In Cairo, you don’t feel you are not in Nigeria, you are free, you visit people unlike Oman, it is work, work and work from morning to night it is work 24/7 there she told me that was her experience. Those in Oman do not have freedom like those in Egypt.

“In Egypt, Nigerians brings artises, we go for shows, we do naming ceremony and wedding just the way we do it in Nigeria, people do take aso ebi anytime there is naming ceremony or wedding, but you can’t do that in Oman. Egypt is liberal.

What the Nigerian ladies go through in the Middle East, according to Ibrahim, are exaggerated.

Commenting on a video released by some Nigerian ladies about their plight in Oman, he insisted that it could not have been the true reflection about what is happening in the country. “The question is why is it that most of them still prefer to stay there?

“The truth is that most ladies do not have the power to do these odd jobs that is why they complain a lot. I think the freedom they don’t have is what is making them complain. Imagine a person who was not doing house chores before leaving Nigeria and found herself being ordered around by some people?”

 

 

Win- win situation for all

For the good employment agents, it is a win-win situation for the ladies, sponsors and their agents.

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“In all honesty, it is the ladies who benefit more from the deal, not the agents and the sponsors.

“There is always an agreement between the sponsors and the ladies, they agree on the number of years the ladies would work to pay back on the money spent in facilitating the travelling abroad and the cost of getting jobs for these ladies.

The job of the agents abroad ends after collecting his commission after securing a house maid job for the Nigerian lady.

“But the sponsors benefit more. In most cases, they pay their sponsors for a year or more before they start earning money for themselves. But then the ladies collect stipends and upkeeps, part of which the lady sends back home to their families.

“The sponsor is expected to be responsible for her medical bills during the time she is paying back what was spent to bring her into the Middle- East or some of these area countries.

“Some of these girls have medical issues before leaving Nigeria; the sponsors are responsible for their medical well-being.

But after the 18 months when the lady must have finished paying back, some of them stay five to seven years, working and earning money on their own. I know of 10 girls that have stayed five- 10 years after 18 months. If truly the ladies are being exploited, they won’t get a dime.”

Ibrahim argued that if it were so bad as being painted in certain quarters, how come some of them come to Nigeria for holidays and still return to their place of work. Some of them do come home for holidays or leave.

“The employment agents like me are just brokers between the maids, agents and the employers. The maids may not be able to contact me directly, but they contact me via their sponsors.

“Anytime there is a vacancy, I would contact the sponsors, can you do it? This is the amount they are willing to pay, these are the terms and conditions, then I get my commission.”

 

Before you travel to Middle-East

There had been several instances where parents had been approached by agents that they would help in securing employment for ladies; Ibrahim warned parents should be wary of such offers as it could end in a disaster.

According to him, it is very difficult to get to a place like Egypt by road. “If anybody says they are is going to Egypt by road that means that person has fake visa and there is no way he would be able to enter Egypt

“Egyptian visas are difficult to get. That is why agents charge so much to facilitate travelling to Egypt.”

He disclosed that this is why those who are sponsoring these girls ask for big money and that is why they put a clause that the ladies would pay for 18 months.

The Nation gathered that some sponsors ask for between N400, 000-N450, 000 for visa fees from these ladies, excluding ticketing and other fees.

While there are many nationalities in places like Egypt, the only Africans, according to investigations, that can enter Egypt by road are the Sudanese, because the Egyptians see them as refugees and when these Sudanese enter Egypt, they don’t go to the cities, they head straight for the camps.

According to a source, “there are always housekeeping jobs/maids jobs readily available for ladies. Nigerians are not the only people doing their jobs, there are many Asians competing for the same job—including Indians, Pakistanis, and Filipinos.

He said he has not had an issue with his client, I always tell them that if they have a problem with a worker I tell them to call me first and I would settle it before it degenerates. I always make sure that those ladies have guarantors too before I can connect them with Egypt and that they need
them.

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Investigation

I’m not old enough to be a woman: a Burundi child’s protest ignored

“After raping me, he told me that I was still a child, and he threw me outside to sleep. This is the first time I have told anyone because I was scared to say something before.” And so, 12-year-old Elisabeth’s childhood was forever changed.

It had never been a happy, care-free upbringing after her stepfather forced her to live with her grandparents.

“Life was difficult with my grandparents, there was no food to eat. I left to stay with a friend whose neighbours said there was a woman in the village offering to take her to Tanzania,” says Elisabeth.

She knew she wouldn’t get a salary there, but it meant food on the table and a bed – for a while.

“The woman started to ask me to steal bananas from neighbours’ crops and threatened to kick me out if I refused. Another family in the village offered for me to go their friend’s house to work instead. They introduced me to a man that was to be my new husband. I refused and told them, ‘I did not come here to marry’. They laughed and took me to a bar nearby.”

She went along but did not drink. “We came back at night, and they told me I could sleep in the man’s house next door. When I refused, they suggested one of their girls could accompany me, but it was a trap. The man asked the girl to get him a beer and instead she locked the door from the outside, leaving me alone with him.

”’Even if you refuse to marry me, I already paid your dowry in beers tonight’, he told me.

‘I’m not old enough to be a woman’, I told him.”

She struggled and screamed but no one came. “They all could hear and knew what was happening. Eventually, he overpowered me. I was 11 or 12 years old at the time.”

Elisabeth went from house to house, staying with anyone who would take her in. “Some refused my offer of domestic work because I was a minor. Others offered me 30,000 Tanzanian shillings (EUR 11) a month, but I never received it. Each time I asked for it they would reply ‘later’, ‘another time’ or ‘how do you think we pay for your food and bed? That’s already money’.

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Eventually neighbours called a Tanzanian organisation called Kiwohede, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Burundi, which collaborates with the NGO to assist and reunite child victims of trafficking (VoT), stepped in. ” Kiwohede took me into their shelter until IOM came and helped me to find my family and bring me home.”

Now 16 and too old for primary school, Elisabeth is being taught couture. ”I hope that I can be really good at it and become independent with this profession.”

Elisabeth’s disturbing story is all too familiar. Human trafficking is an issue that hangs in the air like smoke in Burundi. It permeates society as it does across the world in at least 148 countries.

Burundi is a source country for children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. According to the United States (US) Bureau of international labour affairs, children are trafficked to Tanzania for work in agriculture and gold mines or domestic work. Burundian girls are trafficked internationally for commercial sexual exploitation in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and countries in the Middle East. In Burundi, trafficking in persons mostly involves forced labour, commonly for domestic work and childcare, along with agriculture, hospitality, construction, begging, and peddling.

 

From victim to survivor

The centre which helped Elisabeth works to identify and shelter girls who have been trafficked in one of the 23 districts and seven regions which they cover. They work with local authorities to conduct door-to-door visits to scout for children who are being exploited and to raise awareness through local radio stations.

“People often call to alert us of children in exploitative situations,” say Tuyizere*, the centre’s manager. The centre identifies child victims of trafficking (VoT), provides them temporary shelter, and it offers psychosocial counselling and life skills training. There are games, toys and an area to play group sports. Often these children are illiterate and are too old for primary school. Professionals teach life skills such as how to sew, to weave baskets, to cook or make soap, among other things. “The children also share their knowledge and talents with other children if they can,” adds Tuyizere.

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According to IOM Burundi’s Survivor Database, 49 per cent of survivors are identified and referred by local NGOs, followed by community leaders (17 per cent), other trafficking survivors (9 per cent), family and friends (7 per cent), IOM missions elsewhere (5 per cent), government officials (5 per cent), and social workers (5 per cent).

IOM conducts its own screening to identify the VoT and provides psychosocial counselling services, in addition to support provided by UNICEF – the leading United Nations actor on child protection. Finding the children’s families, assessing whether it is safe for them to return and helping them to reintegrate within their communities is integral.

 

Burundi ramps up efforts to combat Trafficking in Persons

IOM data show that over 1,000 VoT have been identified and assisted in Burundi since 2017 but this direct assistance is only a fraction of the effort to combat human trafficking in the country. IOM Burundi is engaged in several initiatives to strengthen government capacity to combat TiP, thanks to generous support from the Kingdom of the Netherlands and USAID. These include hosting mass awareness activities throughout the country and training police, magistrates, and immigration officers on TiP, Gender-based Violence and wider protection issues. According to the Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies in Burundi, labour laws are not sufficiently enforced which then encourages the normalization of certain forms of exploitation, such as non-remuneration for economic activities which affects more than a third of women and men between 15 and 49 years.

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Sixteen-year-old Elisabeth* during one of the sewing lessons she has taken up to provide for herself. Photo: IOM/Lauriane Wolfe

The Government of Burundi also plays a leading role in the fight against TiP. Recently, in its 2021 TiP report released on 1 July, the United States Department of State announced that Burundi had moved from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List classification. It is now among the countries whose governments have made considerable efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of TiP.

It has appointed an Inter-ministerial Anti-trafficking Ad hoc Committee made up of key ministries and adopted a 2014 Law on the Prevention and Punishment of Trafficking in Persons and Protection of VoT, in accordance with the 2000 Palermo Protocol.

Despite gains, more needs to be done to enhance prevention, protection, and prosecution in the country. To that end, IOM is collaborating with the Government of Burundi and its Committee to finalize standard operating procedures and develop a national referral mechanism to identify and refer victims to appropriate services – among other actions.

*Names have been changed to protect their identities

Support Voice for African Migrants


Support VOICE FOR AFRICAN MIGRANTS journalism of integrity and credibility.

Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.

For continued free access to the best and latest migration, trafficking, displacement and humanitarian reports including thorough investigative reports in these areas, we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.

By contributing to VOICE FOR AFRICAN MIGRANTS, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
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