In a bid to save Nigerians from untold hardships awaiting irregular migrants to Europe, some concerned Nigerians have called on citizens to take the legal routes if they must travel.
From all indications, the issue of immigration has become a global issue. Whereas it is not out of place for people to migrate from one part of the world to the other, perhaps in search of greener pastures, the mass exodus of migrants from some parts of the world to Europe, which has tripled since 2015, has constituted a global concern.
At the height of the migration crisis in 2015, when thousands of refugees were arriving Europe from Turkey via the Balkans route, the European Union, EU set up a quota system to manage the influx by distributing migrants to other member states other than Italy. But that scheme barely got off the ground. Though the number of migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey has reportedly reduced as a result of the EU deal with Turkey in 2016 to halt the traffic, the numbers are said to have begun to surge again on the Mediterranean route from Libya, with nearly all of them heading for Italy.
Some reasons have been adduced for the increasing rate of migration to Europe. Many of the migrants are believed to be fleeing political crises in their home countries, as is the case in Syria, a West Asian country, where thousands of citizens have fled following a war that has been going on between government and rebels since 2011. But in addition to this are also those fleeing hunger and harsh economic conditions in the hope of finding greener pastures in Europe.
However, not all migrants heading to Europe get there safely. Because they are illegal migrants, who also take illegal routes, including the deadly Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea, many of them have died trying to cross the desert while many more have drowned in the sea. As at last July, reports had it that over 2,160 African migrants have died this year trying to reach Europe, and Italy is said to have taken in 82,000 migrants in the first six months of 2017.
According to reports, a great number of Africans taking the illegal routes to Europe are Nigerians. And the ordeal they face, not just in the process of but also in Europe when they eventually cross over, is also a source of concern to Nigerians who have monitored the ugly trend for years. It was to address this issue, to make Nigerians understand the dangers of entering Europe illegally, but particularly, to enlighten them on the legal requirements for regular migration to the continent, to ensure that they do not continue to perish in the desert and the Mediterranean Sea, that the “Migration Enlightenment Project Nigeria was conceived by the African-German Information Centre, AGIC, Hamburg, The African Courier Verlag, Berlin, and is being implemented in co-operation with the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation Germany with the support of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
At the launch of the campaign in Lagos recently, Femi Awoniyi, publisher, The African Courier, who spoke on the theme: “Look Before you Leave,” painted a gory picture of the experiences of irregular migrants at Sea and the Sahara desert. Awoniyi, who regretted that some parents sell their belongings to sponsor their children on their irregular journey to Europe, also stressed that Nigeria is negatively affected by this development. In addition to losing her able-bodied citizens, “who should be agents of national development to irregular migration,” he also pointed out that irregular migration damages the nation’s reputation and causes a backlash against legal migration from the country. While citing unemployment as one of the reasons for irregular migration in Nigeria, the publisher said Nigerians could do something legally back in the country that would generate money for them rather than risk their lives in foreign lands. But if they must travel, he also said that there are opportunities to travel legally as there are work visa schemes, such as the EU Blue Card, which provides a legal route for labour migration to Europe.
As Awoniyi stressed, the road to Europe is full of hardship. Even when they survive the journey and get to Europe, another phase of struggle awaits them, the struggle to obtain legal residency. While many Nigerians apply for asylum on arrival, he said such applications are rejected because Nigeria is not considered a troubled nation as to warrant her citizens to seek asylum. His claim draws support from the 2016 report of the United Nations Refugee Agency, which revealed that Nigerians have the highest rejection rate of asylum applications made by Africans in Europe. According to the report, the applications of about 21,427 Nigerians were rejected in 2016 alone.
Certainly, irregular Nigerian migrants hoping to apply for asylum in Europe may have to consider other options. The reason is that the EU is not favourably disposed to accept the applications and there is an explanation for this. Speaking on illegal migration last July, Bernhard Schlagheck, German ambassador to Nigeria had said, “Think of Nigeria the way you want but there is no political persecution here. The likelihood that most of these absurd applications will be rejected is almost 90 to 99 per cent.” The ambassador spoke the mind of his country. In the meantime, Awoniyi said about 12,000 Nigerians were awaiting deportation in Germany “as their asylum claims have been rejected…”
According to Sadat Hassan, deputy comptroller of Immigration, Nigerian Immigration Services, who has worked for over five years at the Nigerian embassy in Germany, many illegal Nigerian migrants in Europe suffer unduly. Because they entered Europe illegally, they are the targets of the police any time a black man is involved in any kind of trouble. “Any time there is a problem involving a black person, the police go after Nigerians who do not have valid documents, she said.” Consequently, she said many innocent Nigerians are languishing in German prisons because they could not get legal representation following their status as irregular migrants. Because of such injustices faced by irregular migrants, Rita Orji, chairperson of the House of Representatives Committee on the Diaspora, who though admitted that high rate of unemployment in the country contributes to the rush to Europe, advised Nigerians however, to be creative so as to be self-employed, stressing that the Europe many wish to flee to, also has its own challenges.
As reports have shown, the road to Europe is laced with hardships and uncertainties. These sufferings were also at the heart of the Migration Enlightenment Project campaign launch in Lagos. Kenneth Gbandi, director of AGIC and chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation Europe, gave an insight into the hazardous journey. For Nigerian migrants whom he said take off from the northern part of the country, the first phase of their trouble begins with their being crammed into a truck that conveys them to Libya, North Africa. In Libya, the migrants are handed over to agents who, according to him, put them in “anything that floats in the hope that they would be assisted by rescue ships should there be any trouble in the sea.” But not all migrants are lucky to leave Libya on arrival. Gbandi said some agents and smugglers keep the migrants in camps for months while extorting money from their relatives back home. And because of the hardship, they are subjected to, some of them become sick and die in Libya.
Gbandi is right. Speaking on the issue last May, Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, said the migrants are even sold as cheap labour in modern-day slave markets. And if they are too badly injured to walk to the beaches from where the rubber dinghies set out or if they are perceived as being too much trouble because of illness, Giacomo said they are killed by the smugglers.
For those who would be going to Europe, the smugglers pack them on rubber dinghies that can easily capsize. Last May, the UN refugee agency said up to 200 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean after two vessels carrying them towards Italy capsized. Few days after later, a smuggling boat also went down off the Libyan coast, with around 113 people missing and according to the UNHCR, only six men and one woman were rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard. So far this year, over 1,500 people are believed to have died while attempting the crossing from Libya towards Sicily, either in rickety fishing boats or overcrowded, cheap rubber dinghies.
This year alone, more than 43,000 migrants have been rescued at sea and taken to Italy. This is said to be an increase of 38 per cent compared with the same period last year. Interestingly, Nigerians are said to be the biggest group of these migrants by nationality, followed by Bangladeshis, Guineans and people from Ivory Coast.
In the meantime, Italy is reportedly shouldering the lion’s share of the migrant exodus, of all the migrants who have reached Europe through unauthorized channels this year. Reports said that while 84 per cent were ferried to Italy by the rescue ships, 11.5 per cent went to Greece and 4.5 per cent made it to Spain. This unequal distribution is already disturbing Italy. In July, Marco Minniti, Italy’s interior minister, who lamented that the rescue ships emptied their vessels at Italian gates, called on European countries to open their ports to migrant rescue ships as he met for crisis talks with his French and German counterparts. Should other countries in Europe pay deaf ears to the call, Italy has threatened to close its ports to charity ships that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean.
If Italy carries out the threat, the fate of migrants would be worse. It was to ensure that Nigerians, majority of who constitute the irregular migrants, do not move from frying pan to fire that stakeholders at the launch of the Migration Enlightenment Project campaign called on citizens to look inwards to save themselves from untold hardship in Europe. But if anybody should travel, Hassan, deputy comptroller of Immigration, has advised that they do so legally.