Almost 40,000 Nigerians entered the EU illegally last year. Others only got as far as Libya - some of whom are now back in Nigeria, where they are trying to recover from their harrowing experiences.
The refugees looked exhausted but relieved. On a hot afternoon at Lagos airport, 162 Nigerians disembarked from a chartered Libyan plane. They were back in Nigeria, the country they had wanted to leave at all cost to start a new life in Europe. One young man smiled and crossed himself as he left the plane.
Seven children and two babies were also aboard. Holding an infant and fighting back her tears, Sonia told DW: "I’m just glad that I’m home with my baby." Sonia left for Italy more than a year ago. She had heard that young Nigerian women could easily find jobs there as babysitters or salespersons. Sonia’s father died when she was six months old. She wanted to help her mother by sending her money. The family scraped together almost 2,000 Euro ($ 2,100) to send her to Europe.
But her dream soon turned sour. The 25-year-old cannot forget March 19. On that day, she boarded a rickety boat to Europe. She was pregnant at the time.
She counted a total of five boats with more than 100 passengers each. There was a storm and two of the boats capsized. Half of the passengers in her vessel were lost including a good friend of Sonia's.
"They treated us like animals"
Her nightmare wasn’t over yet. The Libyan coastguard towed back her boat and locked her up for eleven months. Her daughter was born in prison. "They treated us like animals," Sonia remembered. "They took me to where they used to burn waste. I lay there for two hours in labor pains."
Another prisoner, who was disposing of waste, found her, Sonia said. She saved her life. "But only two weeks after giving birth, they started to beat me again, only because I was a Nigerian and not a Libyan. They do what they want to us Nigerians," Sonia said. Her remarks concur with DW’s own research which has found that inhuman conditions prevail in Libyan refugee camps.
When Sonia heard about the chance to go home with the help of the International Migrations Organization (IOM), she didn’t hesitate. The IOM was receiving financial help for the chartering of return flights for migrants from the British government. Last year five planes brought back 800 Nigerians. The EU is also helping to finance return trips.
"Most go back for two reasons," Nahashon Thuo, the head of the IOM’s Lagos' office told DW:"Some feel it is too dangerous to cross the Mediterranean. Others are stuck in prison camps with no possibility of travelling any further."All passengers are considered to be volunteer returnees, since they were not deported by the Libyan authorities.
Financial aid for returnees
20 percent of returnees – mainly mothers with small children, unaccompanied minors and people who are ill – receive a grant of around $1,000 (950 Euro). The money is meant to help them reintegrate.It is intended to help them pay medical costs or start a business. All returnees get $50 (47 Euro) to complete the trip back home from the economic capital Lagos. For most of them this means a trip to the south. Not a single passenger on the plane originated from the north or had been fleeing the militant islamist group Boko Haram. Many were from the Edo state, including Sonia.
"We are glad that you are home again," Shegun Alabi told the returnees as they arrived in Lagos. Alabi, a representative of the government of Edo, was trying to give them some hope. He said the government was implementing several projects that were going to create jobs.
Dozens of returnees listened attentively – but waited in vain for concrete information. Everybody knows that Nigeria is in a deep economic crisis. Edo is hardly likely to be on the path to recovery. "I am sure that many of you also brought back some money to start something,” Shegun Alabi said. This was met by much negative head shaking. "Not at all”, the returnees said in unison.
"We are tired of seeing them die like dogs"
Why do so many people migrate from Edo? Most Nigerian prostitutes on the streets of Italy come from that small southern federal state. "I really can’t say," Alabi replied. "People from Edo are dynamic and love to travel and see the world." But he added that the government realized that these trips in search of the greener pastures were not joyful or profitable anymore. "We are tired of seeing them die like dogs," he added.
Nigerians are still migrating in droves. In 2016, the European border protection agency Frontex registered the illegal entry of around 40,000 Nigerians, almost double the number of the previous year. Most of them crossed the Mediterranean. Nigerians are the third largest group to enter Europe without valid documents, after the Syrians and Afghans. 6446 Nigerians were refused permits to stay in the EU in 2016, 1515 were forcibly repatriated.
Sonia doesn’t know what will happen next. She is heavily indebted because of her attempt to migrate and will have to earn money somehow for herself and her daughter. She would like to open a small business, having studied economics in the past. But she was adamant that she was not going to emigrate ever again. "We were more than 20 pregnant women. Many lost their babies in childbirth," Sonia said, before boarding a bus to travel on to Benin City.