By Innocent Duru
On July 11, 2016, while Matthew faced the Mediterranean death squad, he remembered his life in Benin. As 85 of his mates fell to the executioners’ bullets, he remembered his ‘beer parlour’ before business went awry and he was forced to quit. He wept for the beautiful kids and ravishing wife he would leave behind and he regretted his decision to desert Nigeria for greener pastures in Italy.
“The boat I boarded was arrested on July 27 by Libyan security on the Mediterranean Sea, while trying to cross from Libya to Italy. When they arrested us, they told us that they were taking us back to our country. We were 138 in number. When we came out of the sea, they separated 53 of us and shot the others dead. It was horrific my brother. I still can’t explain why they did that,” disclosed Matthew.
“They were always happy when they are killing human beings. They hate people with black skin. Whenever they wanted to make themselves happy, they could decide to line up 100 black people and murder them. What I am telling you is not a scene from a movie. It is something that I witnessed live. After killing those ones, they ended up selling us to other security operatives who took us to prison on August 10. That is their business in Libya. We spent 10 months in the prison,” he said.
But how did the proprietor of a once fluorishing pub become a target of extrajudicial killing?
“I quit the beer parlor business because people were buying things on credit and at a point, I didn’t have enough resources to continue the business. I already had five children before I travelled. I made some provisions for them when I was travelling hoping that when I get to Europe, I would come and take all of them to stay with me,” he said.
Unlike several of his peers who perished in the harsh weather of the Sahara Desert, Mathew weathered the storm and found his way to Libya. Soon, he departed for Italy on the Mediterranean Sea. As his boat sailed out, Matthew dreamt of a lucrative job and comfortable life abroad. He hoped to ‘make it big’ and return home to fete his family with his fortune.
But several hours into his voyage, his hopes of berthing in Italy was truncated by Libya’s coastal guards. Following his arrest and the execution of 85 of his co-travelers, Matthew was imprisoned with fellow passengers.
Reliving his experience in prison, he said: “They always gave us a slice of bread in a day. The bread had no nutritional value. That was what we lived on for 10 months. People were defecating and urinating blood and dying because there was nothing in their bodies. Some people had their intestines coming out while defecating and died.
“If you enter the prison, you would see all manner of ailments; people with wounds all over their mouths and those that their bodies had swollen three times their normal sizes. On a regular basis, we were made to carry dead bodies on our back out of the prison,” he revealed.
Among other miseries, Matthew complained of starvation: “Here in Nigeria, people always say that it is a bad thing for one to eat in a dream but I was always praying to eat good food in my dream and each time I did, I always felt good during the day.”
He picked up a habit too. “It was in the prison that I learnt to smoke because the weather was too cold. Sometimes, instead of eating my bread ration, I would trade it off to collect two sticks of cigarette. Whenever there was no cigarette, I would beg for a carton or anything I could roll into the shape of a cigarette so that I would have something to smoke,” he said.
Corroborating him, Raphael, a fellow deportee revealed that he became a chain-smoker in prison because “the cold was too much.” He also smoked to endure “the stench of dead bodies and inmates with decaying body parts.”
Cigarettes weighed like gold in the Libyan prison; about 10 inmates often shared one cigarette because it was more valuable to them than food, revealed Raphael. “Oftentimes, I break a stick into pieces. I smoke one and save the rest for different hours of the day. Many females begged prison officials to sleep with them so that they could get bread to eat. In the prison people begged for urine to drink. It was that bad,” he said.
The deported immigrant accused Libyan prison authorities of “callousness.” He said: “At times, they would deliberately shoot into the caravan we were sleeping in and immediately, you would see some inmates in their pool of blood. They would be left to die.”
John, another returnee, had a rewarding livelihood before he was bitten by the migration bug. “I left Nigeria on April 20, 2016. I was working as a photographer and doing well. But my brother who lives in Europe, invited me over to further my education. He went through the dessert in 2007/08 but he never told me that the route was dangerous. People died as we travelled through the desert. And we had sailed for five hours on the Mediterranean Sea when they arrested us. We were 133 passengers inside the boat called Lampalampa.”
Before their arrest on the Mediterranean Sea, John said he and his co-travelers engaged in fervent prayers. “People were dying as we were moving on the sea. Some Lampalampa boats were capsizing. Even the guy that buggered (trafficked) us, Moses, lost his younger brother’s wife and daughter on the Mediterranean Sea before we were arrested.
“From the sea, they took us to Gharian Prison where we spent 11 months and some days. We had no access to good water and food all through the period we were in prison. It was God that saved those of us that came back alive. They weren’t killing people in the section of the prison I was but people were always dying in the prison because they punished us severely,” he said.
All hope lost
Seeing their fellow inmates die on daily basis instilled fear in the illegal migrants. Many of them feared that they would suffer similar fate. Many of them had lost hope of surviving the ordeal. For instance, Matthew revealed that he resigned to fate after being denied a phone call to his family seven months into his incarceration.
However, they enjoyed a reprieve at the intervention of the Nigerian government. “We were extremely happy the day we were released. I came back on May 15 and I have been undergoing medical treatment since then. If you saw me the time we returned, you would mistake me for someone suffering from chronic HIV/AIDS. I am getting better now and I am prepared to do any work that my ability can take.”
“For now, my colleagues and I don’t have anything doing. Nobody cares. When we arrived at the airport here, they gave us N19, 000 each to go back to our destinations. Government at all levels have abandoned us since then. I have been surviving through the help of my siblings and friends,” he said.
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The President of the Initiative for Youth Awareness on Migration, Development and Re-integration (IYAMIDR), Comrade Solomon Okoduwa, observed that the failure of the government to empower the returnees is fueling insecurity.
“We have six of them with the Directorate of State Services (DSS). They were arrested for various crimes. How about those that were not caught in the act? The truth is that, if the government will not use the enormous resources in the country to empower the people, it would spend more fighting insecurity,” he said.
Traffickers explore new routes
Findings revealed that many returnees have returned to the dangerous paths where they escaped death by the whiskers. A returnee, who identified himself as Abraham disclosed that traffickers are expanding the business by exploring new routes. One of them is the Moroccan diplomats’ route. “Unlike the general route that accommodates thousands of illegal migrants, who pay between N200,000 and N300, 000 passage fee, the route is available for very few migrants and costs €5, 000,” he said.
According to him, some highly connected traffickers have a working relationship with some Moroccan policemen who patrol the routes mapped out for diplomats.
“It is these policemen who help them transport their clients to Spain. They always remove the petrol tank of the trucks they use for patrol and expand it to contain about two people. They will create holes to allow air get to the clients to prevent them from suffocating and channel a pipe into a gallon in the booth to supply fuel to the engine.
“When the clients are hidden inside the tank, about three to four policemen; two at the front and two at the back, will sit inside the truck. If you look inside the truck, even with a camera, it is policemen that you will find. They will take them to the edge of Spain and secretly ask them to come down. They will point to a camp and ask them to go and declare themselves as refugees. I have two relations who successfully used this route recently after paying €5, 000 each,” he said.
Returnees also accused Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) and the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) of aiding and abetting the practice.
People trafficked through the Sokoto route that connects Niger are allegedly assisted by immigration and NAPTIP officers at the border who receive N2, 000 bribe for each trafficked person.
The Executive Director of the Justice and Peace, Uromi Diocese and Coordinator of Justice Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) Benin Province, Fidelis Arhedo, stated that there is an international network where Nigerian traffickers and their allies, who produce fake travel documents, connive with immigration officers in Turkey.
“The Turkish guys will tell their Nigerian collaborators to arrange the travel of the client on a day they will be on duty. When the person gets there, the conniving officer (s) will stamp the fake visa and clear the person based on the arrangement they have made. It is a network in which a client pays as much as N1million for a trip we pay N150, 000 for,” he said.
A Nigerian based in Russia also hinted that major international events have also become another way of moving people to Europe.
“The fight against illegal migration and human trafficking should be extended to Russia. For the past few weeks, many Nigerians have been trafficked to Russia on the pretense of coming to watch the just concluded Confederation Cup. Over 800 of them are stranded and trapped in Moscow. It cost between $2,000 and $4, 500 to get them here. The females pay between $45, 000 and $60, 000 to get their freedom. If you calculate it, the trafficker will make between $43, 000 and $56, 000 on each client over a period of three to five years.”
Government agencies’ response
In response to the returnees’ allegations, NAPTIP denied that its officers connive with traffickers.
The agency’s spokesman, Josiah Emereole, said that: “The allegation that NAPTIP officials collect bribe at the border to aid traffickers is not true. NAPTIP is not at any border. The people at the border are the immigration service. They are the ones empowered by the law to man all the entry and exit points in Nigeria. What they do is to rescue such people at the border areas and transfer to us through what is called the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). It is purely an immigration service issue. It may be of interest to you to contact the immigration service on this matter.”
When The Nation got in touch with the spokesperson of the National Refugee Commission (NRC), Ahmed Dambazau, on June 28, he promised to respond after meeting with his boss. After repetitive calls and text messages, Dambazau eventually answered the correspondent’s call on Tuesday, July 18.
“I will get back to you. Don’t worry, I will get back to you today, I promise. The federal commissioner just came back from Maiduguri and we are expecting her in the office. You will get what you want,” he said.
The NIS spokesman, Assistant Comptroller Sunday James, declined to comment on the allegations against the service. James said he was preparing for an examination and had no time to react.
To curb human trafficking…
Explaining Federal Government’s efforts at helping the returnees, the Special adviser to President Muhamadu Buhari on Diaspora Matters, Honourable Abike Dabiri Erewa said: “When they arrive, NAPTIP and NEMA will profile them. Through them, information is passed to the various states to support the re-integration and rehabilitation of their indigenes. A few of them have also enrolled for the N-Power program and I hope they succeed.
“I have as an individual done a bit personally to help out some of the girls. I gave some financial support to two of them wishing to establish a little business. One of them reunited with her family in Benin. I paid for her enrollment at a catering and finishing school in Benin and through an NGO , Pathfinders, I pay her a monthly stipend. When she is through with her training, we will work on setting her up to run her own business,” she said.
As part of its measures to curb human trafficking, the Edo State government is planning to establish an anti-human trafficking task force. The state governor, Godwin Obaseki, stated that the special task force, led by the newly-sworn in Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General of the state, Professor Yinka Omoregbe, would be set up to address the malaise. He added that the DSS, Police and other security agencies would work with the task force to tackle the scourge.
Governor Obaseki described trafficking as “A threat to our survival as a race and as a people.” He stated that his administration would do everything possible to combat the problem, while also charging citizens of the state to assist the government in the fight.
Risking it all crossing the Darien Gap, a treacherous trek no one should tackle
In the notorious Darien Gap spanning the Colombia-Panama border, a young pregnant woman and her husband from Haiti were left alone to face the unforgiving jungle along one of the world’s most dangerous irregular migration routes.
No roads, poisonous snakes, steep mountain ranges, raging rivers and groups of armed robbers had deterred Jean Horima, 25, and his wife Rose from risking their lives as thousands of desperate people from countries such as Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh or Somalia do every year trying to reach the United States, Canada or Mexico.
More than 42,000 Haitians, including thousands of children, have tackled the perilous journey so far this year, hoping to gain refugee status and better futures. Many have not made it and Jean and Rose know they are lucky to have survived, especially as the baby came early.
“The jungle is brutal; it’s really, really tough. The hardest thing for me was to climb the mountains and cross the water,” says Jean. ”There are also people in the forest who will rob or kill you. I know some who got killed. Yes, people who left before me and when I arrived, I found them dead in the woods.”
The couple had started the week-long slog from the Colombia side with 50 others, but when the first hill loomed, the group abandoned them. After several days tackling the dense rainforest, Rose went into labour in the middle of nowhere.
“I was with my wife, and she told me what to do to help and save her,” says Jean. She gave birth and told her husband to cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors. “I also had a black string, so I told him to use it to tie the baby’s umbilical cord. Then, we used a t-shirt to make a bag to put the baby in,” says Rose.
The birth of a healthy baby boy gave them the courage and strength to continue and three days later, the exhausted but relieved family emerged at the Migrant Reception Station (ERM* by its Spanish acronym) in San Vicente, Panama, which is managed by the Panamanian Government with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
Vertulo Renonce and Guerline Mettelus from Haiti have also survived the Darien trek. They had travelled from Chile with their three-year-old son Louvertir, and crossed Colombia’s border with Panama in February. The couple has five other children and hope to join their two eldest in Guatemala. The other three are still in Haiti.
The parents have had difficulty communicating with their children since they arrived at the migrant reception centre in Lajas Blancas, but life there is not just an emotional drain.
“The can of milk Louvertir drinks costs USD 4.50 and about every two days I have to buy a new one,” says Guerline. The room in the Guatemala hostel where her children are staying is USD 20 a night, and her children in Haiti have missed school for more than a month because their fees have not been paid.
They arrived in Panama with USD 400 they had hidden from three armed attackers who had robbed their group of 14 people along the way and have only USD 3 left.
Lajas Blancas looks like a small neighbourhood where up to 500 people can be sheltered. Near the only entrance is a small kiosk where people gather to buy refreshments and biscuits and to charge their mobile phones. Off to the right are tents, showers and toilets. Down by the river is the quarantine and care area for people with COVID-19, where access is restricted.
Outside his tent, Jean François, who left Haiti in 2015, is grateful for the respite in his journey from Brazil with his four children. He greets a childhood friend who dumps firewood collected from the riverbank to prepare rice and beans.
“The food they give us here is not bad, but it is not made with love. That’s what we need,” says Jean François. They had survived a week in the jungle with very little food and travelled from Necoclí, Colombia. “Among the 230 people who crossed the jungle, there were around 100 children. It hurts to see them; the children don’t deserve this,” he says.
In the San Vicente ERM, Jean Paul, his wife and their four children are taking a breather on their way to the United States. After the perils of the Darien Gap, they must still travel through Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.
They travelled by boat to the border of Colombia and Panama, where they paid a “coyote”, or migrant smuggler, to walk them through the jungle in groups of hundreds of migrants, most of them Haitian nationals.
On the swings and slide in San Vicente, three of Jean’s young children play.
It’s noon. The officers of the National Border Service are handing out the food and people are crowding at the entrance waiting for their turn. Jean Michelet is sitting with a plate of food in one hand and, lying in his arms, is one-year-old Alejandro, who has not wanted to eat since they arrived at the station three days earlier.
Jean Michelet made sure the three eldest children had eaten and took them to play, giving his wife who sleeps in one of the houses a break. Unsuccessfully, he keeps trying to get his baby to eat. In his face you can see anguish – concern for the future and the pain of remembering the nightmare of the merciless Darien Gap.
*The ERM was built by the Government of Panama with support from international cooperation, intergovernmental organizations, civil society and private enterprise to reduce overcrowding in La Peñita, another ERM. San Vicente provides dignified conditions in which physical separation and other biosecurity measures can be maintained to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Story written by José Espinosa Bilgray, IOM Panama.
Stitching hope: Empowering women in South Sudan towards self-reliance
It is only the first day of training in hand-sewing and the women already have big plans about how they are going to use their newly acquired skills to support their families to gain independence.
“Once I get the hang of hand-sewing, I will learn how to sew with a machine. From there, I will make bedsheets, curtains and tablecloths to sell and use the money to provide for my children,” says 50-year-old Adut Akwar.
Adut and 14 other women from the Hai Masna Collective Centre, an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal state, are part of the selected group to be trained by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in an array of techniques including sewing, business and entrepreneurship as well as leadership skills. The group comprises women living with disabilities, young mothers and female-headed households.
Adut lives in Masna with her six children. They fled their home in 2017 when renewed fighting rocked their village in Jur River, forcing thousands of people, including women, children and the elderly to flee to save their lives. Many found refuge in Hai Masna (hosting 3,850 IDPs) and other collective centres around Wau, while the majority of the displaced sheltered at Naivasha IDP camp, formerly known as the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Wau.
She is among the 40 women from Hai Masna and Naivasha who have benefited from the training workshops through the Women Participation Project (WPP). Through this project, IOM’s Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) team facilitates women’s access to income-generating activities through vocational and leadership skills training to support them to become self-reliant, encourage them to raise their concerns when they have them and take up leadership roles within the IDP camp and within their communities.
“I am very impressed by the enthusiasm that the women have shown in learning these skills which will help them in rebuilding their lives,” says Titus Muniri, IOM CCCM’s Community Participation Assistant.
“Some women who participated in previous trainings have even gone up and taken leading roles in the camp’s governance structures. We have four women who completed our training who were elected as members of the Community Leadership Committee (CLC) in Naivasha camp,” says Titus.
Adut Akwar says that she “has a plan.”
“When I return home, I will go back to ploughing my fields to grow food for my children,” she says.
“That’s not it though,” she adds with a renewed sense of excitement. “I will also use my time to sew bedsheets that I can sell to make an income.”
Adut says that she hopes that as peace holds in Western Bahr el Ghazal, more women will choose to leave the camps and return to their villages.
“When we leave, we can come together and form women-led cooperatives putting to use the business management and craft-making skills we learnt. We can make some real changes in our lives,” says Adut.
Adut, who was born with congenital upper limb reduction, says that she has never been one to depend on others to do things for her because of her disability.
“I guess, being born with a disability, you are also born with an inherent sense that you have to push harder to show the world that you can,” says Adut. “That is why when I was selected for the workshop, I did not think twice about joining.”
“Sure, I may need help putting the thread through the needle, but the rest I can learn and do by myself,” says Adut.
The Women Participation Project (WPP) is supported by the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) under the global “Safe from the Start Initiative” through which IOM’s CCCM team facilitates women’s access to income-generating activities.
To find out more about the Women’s Participation Project, visit https://womenindisplacement.org/
Written by Liatile Putsoa, Media and Communications Officer.
Observatory on smuggling of migrants
The Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants is a research initiative funded by the Governments of Denmark, Canada, Japan and Italy, and is being implemented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime since 2019. The website of the Observatory was launched in May 2021.
Smuggling of migrants is a complex crime involving the facilitation of the irregularly entry of people into a country for profit. Migrants are smuggled across borders with the financial or material gain. In establishing an Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants, UNODC seeks to gather information, collect, analyze and disseminate data to enhance the knowledge on this crime and inform evidence-based policy and law enforcement responses.
The UNODC Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants gathers data on key areas including migrants’ plans and preparations for the journey – particularly in relation to contact with smugglers, key smuggling routes and experiences on the journey, profiles of migrant smugglers and networks of organized crime, prices for smuggling services and mode of payment, and the types of abuses suffered in the context of smuggling.
Building on data collected in Nigeria and other countries in West and North Africa as well as in Europe, the Observatory has already published findings on smuggling of migrants along the Central Mediterranean Route. Upcoming findings will cover the use of migrant smugglers by Nigerians on the move.
Moreover, UNODC is partnering with the Mixed Migration Centre to collect data in transit and destination countries in West and North Africa to gain specific data on Nigerian use of smugglers in the region. MMC has produced a snapshot of emerging findings based on this research partnership.
Risking it all crossing the Darien Gap, a treacherous trek no one should tackle
Stitching hope: Empowering women in South Sudan towards self-reliance
Observatory on smuggling of migrants
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