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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

(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.”

(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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(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.


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Families of missing migrants in Ethiopia: Stories of absence in many forms

Too often, when we speak of migrants, we find ourselves having to speak about moments of extreme hardship, caught up in a narrative of crisis. Those who find themselves in detention in Libya, trafficked in the back of trucks, having sought new lives away from failing states, conflict and disaster. Today is International Migrants Day, a day to remember these individuals and reiterate the need to respect the rights and dignity of all. It is a day set aside by the United Nations to recognize the estimated 272 million migrants that are integral members of all our societies today

It has been more than a year since Asfaw last heard from his son Mesfin, who had decided to leave for South Africa. In part, Mesfin left because he was hoping to find his older brother, who had gone missing on his own migration journey years ago. He also wanted to improve his family’s living conditions. The last time his parents heard from him, he was in Malawi, when he called them to tell them he had made it that far. He never called again. Asfaw spoke gently:

“My sons were my hope. […] I am dying twice: because I lost them and because I lost hope. They used to help me till and farm the land. They were my pride. They were my hope. I am getting older and weaker.”

Many Ethiopian families have lost loved ones on migration journeys. While precise numbers do not exist, estimates from Ethiopia’s Bureau of Labour and Social Affairs suggest that nearly 6,000 Ethiopians died or went missing along the migration route towards South Africa between 2012 and 2019 alone. The International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Missing Migrants Project has recorded the deaths of 1,073 Ethiopians on other migration routes, but the real number of deaths is likely much higher. Others may have lost touch with their families because they are held in detention, don’t have access to communication channels or for other reasons.

Last year, a research team coordinated by IOM spoke with the families of missing migrants in the neighbourhood of Kirkos, in Addis Ababa, and in Hadiya, in southern Ethiopia, to understand how the absence of their loved ones has had an impact on their lives and what obstacles they face as they search for them. Beyond this relatively small research project, there have been no other efforts to conduct research with families and communities that have lost people in the context of migration in Ethiopia.

The absence and unexplained fate of a loved one has multidimensional effects in the lives of the people they leave behind. The lack of information and certainty about the whereabouts of a missing loved one prevents families from grieving and moving on with their lives, and they have no choice but to construct their own explanations about the absence of their relative. In some areas of Ethiopia, traditional gender norms result in communities attributing the death or disappearance of a husband to the “bad luck” of the wife who stayed behind, which can have deep social implications, as Melat, the wife of a missing man, explained to our researcher:

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“Truly, this is the worst moment of my life. I don’t know why God tested me. His relatives frequently blame me because they assume that my husband is dead as a result of my “bad luck”. In our community, it is very common to blame wives whenever something wrong happens to their husbands. That is heartbreaking.”

The absence of a loved one and not knowing if they will ever return leaves families experiencing an ambiguous loss that defies resolution and disrupts or freezes the process of grieving. In the absence of proof about the fate of the missing person, families cannot practice rites of bereavement, as shared by Zinash, the mother of a young man who went missing:

“I always wish I could get back his remains. […] I know death is natural, but when someone dies somewhere unknown, it is too painful. In our culture, if someone is buried without the proper cultural and religious funeral rituals, it is considered a kind of “double death”. We experienced it first when we lost him, and yet again when we were unable to perform the mourning and burial.”

In Ethiopia, tradition and religious guidelines establish that families need to bury the remains of their relatives in the graveyard of their ancestors. Families help the deceased make the transition from the living world to the world of the dead through a series of religious and cultural rites which cannot take place without the remains. Socially, it is believed that the inability to recover the remains of a missing relative means that their family is cursed. Tesema, who is searching for his missing brother, explained:

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“Our grief would have not been as deep had we found our brother’s corpse and buried him in the graveyard of our grandfathers. [Worst] of all, in our community, it is believed as a huge curse for a family not to be able to get the remains of their dead family member. The whole family and their next generation will be considered cursed.”

Beyond carrying deep social meaning, absence has implications in the material conditions of families of missing migrants. Without official verification of a person’s death, relatives cannot claim inheritance or apply for state support. Women with ambiguous marital status are unable to claim ownership of the properties belonging to their missing husbands and are likely to face severe economic challenges that impact their ability to care for themselves and their children. This is reflected in the testimony of Liya, whose husband went missing on the route to South Africa:

“I can’t talk about property or inherit the land before I get proof of the death of my husband. According to the tradition, his brothers control the land. I can’t go to the courts and get into a fight with his relatives. […] I live with his relatives. I depend on them. Everything is difficult for me.”

There is an additional type of absence that is common to cases of missing migrants, and that is the absence of institutional support. The families in Ethiopia who shared their stories with IOM had not received support to search for their relatives or to deal with the impacts of the loss. If they had approached the authorities, they were dismissed or blamed for not having prevented their relatives from leaving on irregular migration journeys. Families had no choice but to push their cases forward on their own, with the support of local, community-based groups.

And yet, families and communities cannot continue to carry on these efforts on their own. State authorities bear the primary responsibility for responding to the needs of the families of missing migrants. With the support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, IOM’s report, based on the findings of the qualitative research conducted in Ethiopia, includes policy implications and recommendations to drive action to support families of missing migrants in searching for their relatives and dealing with the impacts of their loss, including addressing the needs of families of missing migrants through a mental health and psycho-socially informed approach.

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Authorities must provide families with the means to access information about their missing loved ones through an efficient, accessible, confidential and accountable process. There is urgent need for state-funded programmes to support families, which should be informed by an intersectional approach taking into account gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and others. They should be developed with the participation of families themselves and/or of community-based groups representing them.

This story was written by Marta Sánchez Dionis and Kate Dearden from IOM’s Missing Migrants Project. Pseudonyms were used to protect the privacy of the families.

Find the new report “Families of missing migrants: Their search for answers, the impacts of loss and recommendations for improved support – Ethiopia” here.

“Living without them – Stories of families left behind” is a four-part podcast series produced by IOM about the research project with families of missing migrants.

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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How Nigeria ‘imports, spreads’ COVID-19

REVEALED: Deportees from Austria, others rejoin Nigerian families without COVID-19 tests

The prospect of an explosion in COVID-19 cases is staring the nation in the face following the failure of the minders of the airports to subject immigrants from high risk countries to the protocols spelt out by the Presidential Task Force (PTF), merely accepting the results of tests deportees claim to have done in the countries they are coming from, INNOCENT DURU reports.

  • Returnees admit not observing protocols before reuniting with kinsmen
  • NCDC, Immigration mum after requesting questions
  • Port Health spokesman, others decline comments

A Nigerian deported from Austria has said that he and his other compatriots deported from the European country were admitted into the country without undergoing any test upon his arrival at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos on November 12.

Identifying himself simply as Breeze, the Austria returnee said: “We did not do any COVID-19 test when we arrived in Nigeria. The test I did was in Austria. When I was coming, the police over there gave me the result and asked me to give it to the Nigerian Immigration Service officials when I get here.”

Expressing surprise at the way he and other returnees from different countries were dismissed at the airport without any tests in spite of the havoc the virus was still wreaking across the world, he said he could not stop wondering how the country had managed to survive the ravaging pandemic with the care free attitude of the minders of our entry ports.

“If any of us (deportees) had been infected, he would have gone ahead to infect the relations he was going to meet at home,” Breeze noted.

“I did COVID-19 test three times in Austria. The first was before I had issues with the authorities. The second was in my place of work and the third was when I was in prison. All the results came out negative.

“We weren’t going out during the COVID-19 period. We always wore masks and used hand sanitizers from time to time.”

He noted that rather than make the deportees undergo the COVID-19 protocols at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, “the Nigerian Immigration officials started threatening to seize the passports of some of my deported colleagues because they had fingerprints in Italy and Spain.  They said they wanted to send the passports to Abuja and that they would suffer before they would be able to get it back.

“The affected deportees had to start begging the officials, telling them that they had no money to give them because they had been in prison for two to three years.

“Some of us came back only with the clothes we wore. The place oozed with odour because we were not having our bath every day while we were in prison. In the prison where I served, we bathed two times a week.

“But the immigration officials were telling the guys to give them the money, wristwatches or gold they came back with. Fearing that they could lose their passports, some of the returnees gave them gold worth N200,000 before their passports were given back to them.

“After everything, they brought a bus, asked us to go into it and dropped us outside the airport,” he said.

According to a release by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 on September 4, 2020, titled ‘provisional quarantine protocol for travellers arriving Nigeria from any country’, “all travellers arriving in Nigeria must have tested NEGATIVE for COVID-19 by PCR in country of departure pre-boarding. The PCR test MUST be within 96 hours before departure and preferably within 72 hours pre-boarding.

“All intending passengers are required to register via an online national payment portal (Nigeria International Travel Portal – and pay for a repeat (second) PCR test to be done upon arrival in Nigeria.”

Another deportee who arrived with the group that was brought back on December 10, 2020 confirmed that 43 of them who arrived on that day did not do any COVID-19 test.

He said the authorities only checked their temperature after which they were bundled out of the airport.

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“We didn’t do any COVID-19 test here in Nigeria because we already did in Germany before coming to Nigeria. They only checked our temperature and that was all. The man holding the machine only placed it on our foreheads and that was all. I don’t know if that is how they carry out the COVID-19 test here because it has been long I left the country.

“I did COVID-19 test before I was deported. I did the test on December 7, 2020. On December 9, the police came and bundled me out of my house saying that I must go back to my country. I, together with 42 others landed on December 10.”

The embattled deportee expressed surprise about his deportation, saying that he had earlier applied to voluntarily return home and was made to undergo all the necessary training.

He said: “I registered to come back voluntarily but I was deported. I applied to return home in September. I went for the training, coaching and seminars that were organised for people who volunteered to return.

“After completing the training, I was waiting for them to contact me to ask me when I was going to do my booking. Actually, I was supposed to return in January or February, 2021, but before I knew it, they deported me.

“They didn’t give me a dime. Had it been they gave me the money and everything they promised to give me, I will not be calling it a deportation. I didn’t get a dime out of what they promised.

“I should be getting some things from IOM and some others. I even have a paper the woman from ZRB put down for me; how much to get and how to get it. She showed me all the benefits that are for people on voluntary returns but they ended up deporting me without giving me any compensation.”

Prior to recent deportation of Nigerians in Germany, Rex Osa, the Co-ordination Activist for Network Refugees 4Refugees, a political platform for refugees/migrant self-organisation based in Stuttgart, Germany, had raised the alarm that Germany was about exporting Coronavirus to Nigeria.

Osa said: “Germany has scheduled a charter deportation operation to Nigeria for December 10th, the same day Nigerians in Germany will be protesting against police brutality in Nigeria and Germany’s complicity in the destabilization of Africa.

“The fact that Germany will continue with deportation enforcement amidst the Coronavirus pandemic and its position as corona (Coronavirus) hotspot expresses Germany´s determination to export corona to Nigeria and aid further destabilization of the African continent at large.

“Reflecting on the situation of the scandalous corona outbreak in German refugee camps like Ellwangen in Baden Württemberg, asylum seekers were locked up and not allowed to leave the camp for many weeks.

“Even those who had tested negative to Covid-19 were neither separated nor allowed to leave the camp. It was all about protecting Germans.”

Osa added: “During the peak of the corona pandemic in March, Germany and its allies were quick to place a travelling ban on flights from Africa as they envisaged a serious corona impact in the African continent. Unfortunately, the reverse has been the case.

“With Germany being corona hotspot at the moment, the Nigerian people cannot be protected like Germans hence a negative corona test is sufficient to enforce deportation to Nigeria. Asylum seekers were being ordered by district Alein authorities to undertake corona test in preparation for deportation.

“Going by this development, the German government is actively engaging in exporting corona to further aid destabilisation in Nigeria and the African continent at large. Such act of the Angela Merkel-led government is an obvious show of contempt, lack of solidarity and no regrets for its colonial atrocities against the African people, because as far as the German government is concerned, the lives of Africans do not deserve to be protected.

“We are by the report calling on asylum seekers, migrant community, migrant solidarity activist and networks to mobilise their friends around Berlin to join our protest at the Nigerian Embassy and the German Chancellors Office today. Our Protest against police brutality in Nigeria symbolises denouncement of all forms of police violence in Germany and everywhere.

READ  Nigerian migrants’ sojourn in Middle East ends in woes

How we were deported from Austria, others

Recalling his experience coming back to the country, Breeze said: “We arrived in Nigeria on Thursday, November 12, 2020. We left Austria in the morning for Germany. We were 22 Nigerians that left Austria that day. We picked another two Nigerians from Germany before coming to Nigeria. We were escorted by 120 policemen. Each one of us had two policemen attached to him.

“We had the same number of policemen attached to us when we came out of prison. When we left the prison, we didn’t know where we were going because the vehicle was dark and sealed. It was when we got to the airport that we knew their mission. Then they started taking us one after the other into the waiting plane there in Austria.

“The pilot announced that we were about to move. We arrived in Deutschland, Germany at 6: 10. The plane refueled and had the two people I spoke earlier join us from there. Then the pilot announced once again that we were about to leave.

“When we were about getting to Lagos, they started calling each of us to give us our phones and wristwatches. Many of the people in the flight that day were sick but nobody cared about their state of health.

“Before some of us were deported, they took them to the hospital for treatment, but they still deported them even in their poor health conditions.”

Blaming the Nigerian authorities in Austria for the deportation of the citizens, he said: “The Nigerian envoys in Austria don’t speak well of us before the Austrian authorities. They speak contemptuously of our people such that the people would never consider a rethink about whatever they had planned to do. They are the ones causing all this for our people.

“The Austrian authorities are not friendly with Nigerians. The level of racism is very high.  They don’t relate with other Africans like Ghana in that manner. They treat Somalians, Malians very well but I don’t know why they treat Nigerians unfairly.”

Prison experience

Reliving his prison experience, Osa said: “The experience in the prison was so horrible. We bathed two times a week. The soap was not good and there was no good food and no television.

“There was a place they made for us to walk around for 30 minutes but the officials reduced it to 15 minutes. Some inmates had rashes on their hands because of the prison conditions. I had it too and showed it to them. People were falling sick but I am not aware of anyone dying.

“I am happy to return to my homeland. It has been long I left the country.  I am not really happy that after all those years, I came back in this manner. I was expecting that everybody including the country (Nigeria) would be happy with me on return but here I am in this manner.”

Immigration service mum after asking for questions

Nigeria Immigration Service officials in Lagos and Abuja were not forthcoming on providing information about the deportations. The service had in the past denied deportations witnessed and reported by our correspondent.

National Public Relations Officer of the service, Sunday James, was short of making denials this time around. Instead, he frowned at how he could be asked to provide information about deportation from abroad on the phone.

“How will you just call me now and expect me to tell you how many Nigerians were deported? You have to give me time. Send the questions to me on my phone please, so that I can know what you are asking.”

The questions were immediately sent to him but he was yet to respond at the time of filing this report.

Assistant Comptroller of Immigration, Lagos, Etim Edet, who was previously at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, was evasive on the matter.

“I am not in the office to find out please. I will get back to you. I am not in the office today,” he said.

When our correspondent told him that somebody in the office could provide him with the answer, he said: “I can’t say. I don’t know how authentic the information may be. I have to verify the information.”

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Pressed further, Etim said: “I am not the PRO now. The PRO is there. I will have to find out in the office. The PRO is in a meeting right now. Thank you very much.”

Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ferdinand Nwoye, did not fare better than his immigration counterpart when asked about the deportations.

“How can you ask me that kind of question?” he queried.

“Because you work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” our correspondent replied.

“If I work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs… I take inventory of all Nigerians that are deported from where and to where?

“From Germany, Austria and others”, our correspondent interjected.

“I don’t have any information on it. Ask immigration.”

Asked if the ministry is not briefed each time Nigerians are deported, Nwoye said: “Ask them (Immigration) that question. You can equally call immigration to find out from them. They are equally a government agency.

“Nigerians that are deported, depending on the country they are deported from, as soon as they arrive here, it is immigration that take inventory of all those things. So ask immigration and not me.”

Further prodded on what the ministry’s records are saying about deportation in recent times, Nwoye said: “I don’t know,” as he ended the telephone conversation, saying, “Thank you very much. I am eating.”

Nigerian envoy, FAAN provide conflicting statistics

Nigerian envoy and Head of Section at the embassy in Germany, Mr Bello Anka and spokesperson of the Federal Airways Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) Henrietta Yakubu, in different chats with The Nation provided statistics on the citizens deported in recent times, albeit with some contradictions.

While the Nigerian envoy put the number of deportees from Germany and Austria at 28, the FAAN spokesperson put the figures at 43.

Anka said: “Twenty-eight Nigerians, from our records, have been deported in the last three months. Most of them were people who came seeking for asylum.

“After one to two years of consideration, the authorities decided they were not qualified. Some of them have served their prison sentence.

“After serving two and a half years prison sentence in Germany, such a person is banned from remaining in the country.

“There are few cases like that. The deportees are not necessarily all from Germany. It is the EU that organises the deportation. They pick the people from different locations and return them to Nigeria, using a chartered flight.”

Yakubu, in a text message replying to questions sent to her, said: “A deportee flight no AWC 371 Reg G-VYGM arrived on 10-12-20 at 13:55hrs from Germany. The total is 43, 39 males and four females, via Air Tanker.

“Another deportee flight arrived today 16-12-20 from United States flight no N207AY Reg. OAE Omni Air International @06:35hrs total 30, male 28 and female two.”

She concurred that COVID-19 test is a must requirement for people coming into the country but advised that our correspondent should check with the Port Health when asked if the deportees did COVID-19 test on arrival.

“Of course, it is a requirement. You will have to ask Port Health concerning isolation; that is not FAAN’s responsibility,” he said.

When The Nation reached out to the spokesperson of Port Health, Dr Alex Morenike Okoh, she said she was not authorised to speak on the issue.


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Nigerian migrants’ sojourn in Middle East ends in woes

Nigeria Immigrant

The quest for greener pastures in the Middle East countries has left many Nigerian migrants, mostly females, worse off than they were before they left the country. Many of them have been sexually assaulted, put in prison on trumped up charges and visited with cruel treatments their employers would not give to beasts. Kafala, a system that gives employers absolute powers over the migrants in parts of the region is compounded by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic which made it impossible for many of them to be paid for the period they slaved for their bosses, INNOCENT DURU reports.

  • Cruel Kafala system, Covid-19 pandemic expose migrants to inhuman treatment
  • Maimed, sexually assaulted victims frustrated, commit suicide

Jummy, a graduate of Computer Science, had heaved a sigh of relief after struggling to complete her university education. “It is time to reap the fruits of my labour”, she said to herself in the hope that she would soon secure a good job.

Her dream of bidding poverty and misery farewell saw a glimmer of hope shortly after she completed the compulsory one year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme.

“Immediately I completed my NYSC, I met a man who asked if I was interested in travelling to Saudi Arabia. He promised that I was not going there to work as a housemaid,” she said.

Jummy said to convince her that a white collar job awaited her in Dubai, “he told me to go with my credentials; that the moment I got there, I would see a woman that would help me secure a job.

“I invested all the money I saved during my NYSC into the travelling project. I also paid the man, but unfortunately, I no longer know his whereabouts. He has not even chatted with me once since I came here.”

Getting to Dubai full of hopes, she said: “When I met the woman here in Saudi Arabia, I gave her my credentials, telling her that I was told she would help me get a job. But to my chagrin, she said I was here to work as a housemaid.

•Some stranded ladies crowded in a room

“I started crying, telling her that I am a graduate and that I had been promised a better job.

“When I told her that I wanted to return to Nigeria, she said that would be on the condition that I paid her the money she paid to the agent, which, according to her, was more than a million naira.

“Before I travelled, they told me not to tell my family members about it because they could scuttle the plans spiritually.

“I ended up signing two-year contract as a housemaid. Throughout the two years, I didn’t go anywhere; not even outside. They made us to wear uniforms like prisoners instead of our normal clothes. I was made to work all day.

“If they see one sitting down, they will be angry. The salary they are paying is about N70,000.

“At a point, my boss started giving me problems I could not bear. She started dropping broken cups for me to wash. And when I complained about it, she said I was there as a housemaid and that I had been sold to her.

“When one of the broken cups cut my hand and blood started gushing out, she complained that my blood was smelling. I was subsequently locked up in one room where I ate and did everything.”

But she said she was not alone in her ordeal.”There are a lot of our people here that are mentally sick. If they return to Nigeria, they must first go for treatment or they will suffer mental problems,” she said.

It is also a tale of woes for Rayo, who was trafficked to Lebanon by a trusted family friend who had promised her a good job in Dubai.

She said: “I got to Lebanon on August 28, 2019. Two days after I arrived there, I was taken to the hospital to take an injection. Two days after taking the injection, my hand got swollen, causing my employer to reject me.

“I was subsequently taken back to the office of my agent who took me to another employer where I was asked to work from 6 am to 12 am. Following the heavy workload, I fainted on the third day. Thereafter, my agent took me to a place where I underwent training for a week.”

She recalled that after the training, she was taken to another house where she spent about five weeks.

She said: “In that house, there was no food for me. I was not allowed to use phone, and I was to clean the house, work as a gateman, wash the cars and baby sit, among other tasks.

“My agent got annoyed when I told her I couldn’t continue with the work, because I was looking like a skeleton and already having a lot of odour all over my body.

“She subsequently decided to take me to another house where I was to spend another one month for training, but I declined and told her I wanted  to go back home. She got angry, beat the hell out of me and refused to feed me for two days.”

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The agent, Rayo said, eventually took her to another house that was another hell for her.

“There, I cleaned three rooms, three toilets, two big sitting rooms, a big compound and many more every day. The work load affected me seriously, causing me to menstruate for more than six months without stopping.

“With the help of God, Ms Omotola Fawunmi and the Oyo State Government, I returned home on July 11.”

But Rayo’s return did not necessarily spell an end to her troubles.

She said: “Life has not been what we expected it to be when we were coming home. We didn’t come back with any money so survival has been pretty difficult.

“Before I travelled, I was working as a secretary in a hotel. After completing my education, I went into teaching before meeting the owner of the hotel where I was eventually employed.

“It was along the line that I met the agent that said I should travel to Dubai. He assured that I would be paid N120,000 monthly in Dubai. The agent is a brother to my classmate in the secondary school.

“She introduced me to him and because the offer was coming through her, I was convinced that it would not be a scam. It was when I got to the airport that I realised that it was Lebanon that I was going to, and because I had invested a lot of money in the journey, I could not turn back at the airport.”


After all she suffered in Lebanon, Rayo said she only received salaries for five months of the 11 months she worked.

“I was paid N68,000 monthly. The few months’ salaries I received were used to pay back the money I borrowed before I travelled. They could not pay the outstanding salaries because they could not afford to.”

Another migrant who shared her ordeal with The Nation was Sola, a practising nurse who quit her nursing job in mid 2019 to seek greener pastures in Lebanon.

“I am working as a maid here (Lebanon) and have suffered a lot. But I thank God I am still alive,” she said as she recounted her ordeal in the hands of her madam.

“I have been working without getting any salary and basic care from my madam, who also beats me up each time I ask her about my salary. She hits me with anything she finds around her. She pushed me one day and I hit my chest badly against the wall and fell down the staircase.

“I wash all the rooms every day and take care of the baby without a chance to rest at all.”

Asked how she got to Lebanon, she said: “It was someone I used to treat as a nurse that facilitated my coming here. I was always telling her that I wished to have a shop to start my own business, but she said I should try and go to Lebanon and that all I would do was to take care of the house.

“Unfortunately I found myself in slavery when I got here. She asked for N250,000 but I have only paid N150,000. The last time I paid her was December last year.

“She is still asking me to send money but my parents said I should not because of the suffering I am undergoing here.

“I have run out of the house when I saw that those people could kill me one day. I ran to the embassy.”

Abbey, who recently returned from Lebanon, said the person she worked for did not pay her any salary. She said: “I went there in March this year. It was Governor Makinde that paid for us to come home. I paid N100,000 to the agent here to travel. When our bosses couldn’t pay and we were complaining, they went and dropped us by a bush.

“We were nine in number. We stayed in the bush for a week before we found our ways to the embassy. It was some of us who had money that were buying food for us.

“The Nigerian Embassy rented an apartment for us but they were not giving us food. We were collecting money from our parents back home to survive.

“I was supposed to be paid $200 a month but I didn’t get a dime as salary all through my stay. When I wanted to do COVID-19 test in Lebanon, it was an NGO called ‘This is Lebanon’ that gave me money to pay before I was allowed to return home.

A check on the nation’s migrants in Oman shows they were not faring better.

One of the returnees, Suzan, described her experience as one she does not want to remember anymore.

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She said: “I was introduced to travelling to Oman by a man who happens to be my agent. He came with information that they needed a stylist, but at the end, he told me about a teaching job, which caught my interest.

“But the story changed afterwards. He did my passport for N25,000. The experience is a very long and sad story which I don’t wish to recollect.”

Zain Lawson, a co-founder of This is Lebanon, an international NGO assisting Africans undergoing hardship to return home, told The Nation of a Nigerian woman who was supposed to return home recently but could not because her former agent filed a complaint against her.

Lawson said: “The same agent who beat her up threatened to kill her and stole her salary. After she ran away, he reported her to the police so if she tries to fly out she’ll be arrested.

“She reported her agent to Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour but they blocked her after several messages.”

He further said: “One of the Nigerian women who was injured during the Beirut blast was thrown out on the street, went to get her wounds bandaged, went to the airport covered in bandages from her injuries, but was arrested because her employer made a complaint against her.”

Kafala system explained

Experts in the migration world have pointed out the ills of the Kafala system practised in many Middle East countries.

One of them, Omotola Fawunmi, founder of RebirthUB Africa said the system has been around for a long time and it is a predominant employment system in the Middle East.T

Fawunmi said: “A lot has been written about the system but many people sincerely do not know about the Kafala system and what it means for them. It is a system that impoverishes. It is a system that makes an economic migrant either a slave to the recruiter or the employer.

“Kafala should be abolished. It doesn’t give the migrant domestic worker options or choices. It empowers slavery, it empowers subjugation, it empowers oppression of the migrant domestic workers.”

Ground Coordinator of This is Lebanon, Nia Evans, said the Kafala employment system is state sponsored slavery and domestic workers lack the most basic of protections.

“Along with Oman, Lebanon remains the only country in the Middle East without any labour laws governing domestic workers.

“There are no laws of any kind that protect domestic workers. Lebanese employers have complete impunity to treat workers as their property: they can enslave, torture, rape, and kill, with no consequences. Justice is never served in Lebanon for domestic workers.”

Omotola said she has several cases and several stories of migrant domestic workers who have been killed, maimed or raped and forced to commit suicide.”

She went on to advocate the abolition of the oppressive system.

“There are other systems like the one in the UAE that honours the migrant worker and makes sure that the promises are kept by both parties. When our government sign bilateral labour agreement, we counsel that they please read the provisions of that agreement before signing them so they don’t sign away our women and sisters into slavery by executive orders.”

COVID-19 compounds migrants’ plight

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic is said to have aggravated the plight of the migrants. According to Nia Evans of This is Lebanon, “before the pandemic, Lebanon’s general security stated that two women die each week due to these conditions, often from suicide or failed escapes. Now, under restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, entrapment, increased workplace abuse and non-payment of salary increase the likelihood of self-harm, suicide and death.”

Nia added that COVID-19 is spreading like wild fire in Lebanon and “MDW are the most vulnerable in this society and are therefore more prone to being infected by the virus. MDW have no access to health care or social support. They are stigmatised, abused and subjected to racism on a daily basis.

“They are at risk of homelessness and being detained and placed in already overcrowded detention facilities. Those stranded are vulnerable to exploitation, including sex trafficking or being sold to other employers.”

On her part, Omotola said because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the downturn in the economy, a lot of migrant workers were pushed out on the street and left to fend for themselves because they could no longer be catered for.

“They were stranded in a country they couldn’t leave and they didn’t have enough money. Some of them have had to turn to prostitution just to survive.

“While I don’t support prostitution, I find it very sickening that women would have to turn to it to survive because there seems to be no other way to live.

READ  Real reasons Nigerians are barred from jobs in Dubai
lebanon arrival
•Some of the ladies on arrival from Lebanon

“Our sisters do not have to live like this.  Our sisters, our mothers, our wives and citizens of Nigeria should not be involved in this.  We need to put an end to this. The government needs to be a lot more responsible and responsive.

“The government needs to understand that when a citizen approaches her government in a foreign country, her government should not collude with her slave masters to keep her impoverished.

“I say this with all sense of responsibility. I say this with all sense of modesty. Our sisters are suffering; period. They are not just in a space of impoverishment and their back being doubly bent, they have also lost their self esteem; they have lost their sense of personhood.

“A lot of them are deeply trumatised, and even if they return home, they cannot raise their heads high because they have been battered.  As a collective, as a nation, and as a body of people, we can do better.”

How African leaders can checkmate Lebanon

Worried by the despicable experiences of Africans in the Middle East, Nia called on African leaders to stop the menace. “Many of these African governments do have the power to stand up and fight for their workers. Unfortunately, only few of them are taking the steps necessary.

“On the most basic level, they can be providing evacuation flights, quarantine measures and ensuring that they have a Consul in Lebanon who cares for each of their nationals, more than the shady business deals done through the consulate.

“These governments could take a coordinated action that would almost immediately get all migrant domestic workers in Lebanon home who would like to leave.

“The African governments could solve this problem overnight. Lebanon is in a currency crisis, and one of the largest sources of income in Lebanon is money sent from Lebanese nationals who own businesses in Lebanon.

“These countries could unite and say that they won’t allow money to be sent to Lebanon until Lebanon returns their women. The African sending countries have the upper-hand, but they have to choose to use it.”

Quoting the Lebanese Embassy in Nigeria, Nia said there are approximately 5,000 Nigerians living in Lebanon.

“Many of these Nigerians are MDW, identified as females and being made destitutes. They have been forced into domestic servitude. They have been mistreated physically, sexually and mentally by their employers and agents.

“As a collective, This is Lebanon and Syrian Eyes have been assisting the Nigerian community of MDWs since August 2020. So far, in the safe houses we have supported approximately 150 Nigerian women with zero assistance from Nigerian authorities.

“At present, we are supporting approximately 51 women who have escaped from abusive agents/employers, women who have been dumped in front of the embassy and women who have been forced into homelessness.

“With very limited resources we have been attempting to meet the women’s most basic needs by providing food, covering rents, purchasing flights and covering the cost of PCR tests.”

Lebanon stops issuance of visas to domestic workers from Nigeria

The Lebanese Government early in June this year announced that it had suspended issuance of working visas to Nigerians seeking to work in Lebanon, particularly for domestic work.

Lebanese Ambassador to Nigeria, Ambassador Houssam Diab, stated that the suspension started since May 1 as a result of complaints of abuse by some employers as well as the case of the video of Peace Busari, a Nigerian lady auctioned for sale for $1000 on social media in April this year, which went viral.

According to Diab, the suspension was to stem the tide for such categories of workers pending the time the procedure would be properly harmonised with the Ministry of Labour, in line with best practices of managed and orderly migration.


Culled from The Nation Newspaper



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