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.
Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.
The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.
“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.
“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.
Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.
“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision.
IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all.
A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.
According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.
This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.
Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.
UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.
Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking
One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.
More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.
“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.
At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.
“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.
COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.
While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.
“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”
Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.
Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.
In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.
Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.
Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.
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