On October 3, a charter plane carrying 140 Nigerians took off from Tripoli, Libya. A few hours later, it touched down at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria.
For the would-be migrants on board, it was the end of a long and dangerous road. At least one needed immediate medical attention from a nearby ambulance. Another, afflicted with a mental disorder most likely developed during his experiences on the migration trail, would be taken straight to hospital.
After a medical check and routine immigration procedures, the rest of the passengers — kitted out in the tracksuits and trainers they had been issued for the journey — sat down for their first meal of jollof rice and chicken. One serving was not enough.
In Libya, in the detention centres where they had been kept for months, the food — usually couscous and flat bread — was unfamiliar and unpredictable. The returnees were hungry and grateful for the taste of home, even if their feelings about coming back were more complicated.
The treatment of African migrants in Libya has been thrust into the international spotlight by reports and videos of what appear to be “slave auctions”, in which black men and women were bought and sold by human traffickers.
But slavery is far from the only danger they face en route: African migrants in Libya have been subjected to illegal detention, torture, extortion, sexual assault and summary execution.
[The prospect of danger does not deter desperate West Africans from setting out in search of better lives in Europe. Their hoped-for Mediterranean crossings aborted, many languish in detention centres until being sent home (Issouf Sanogo, AFP)]
And getting out of Libya is no guarantee of safety. According to the Missing Migrants Project, to date 3 086 migrants have died this year while attempting the Mediterranean crossing to Europe. Thousands more languish in official detention centres in Libya, after being captured by local authorities, awaiting transfer back to their country of origin.
For those who have been sent home, like the 140 Nigerians on the plane from Tripoli — out of more than 3 000 Nigerians that have been returned from Libya by the International Organisation of Migration — it is a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, they have escaped the dangers of the migrant trail. On the other, their dreams of a new life in Europe have been shattered.
Twenty-eight-year-old Henry from Benin City in Edo state has been scarred — emotionally and physically — by his experience. “If I even find myself in a dream in Libya, I will kill myself. I cannot go back,” he told the Mail & Guardian.
Henry sold his borehole-sinking business in Nigeria to pay illegal traffickers to help him to get to Europe. His face betrays nothing of the life he has lived over the past few months but when he starts speaking, he does not stop.
Henry used the smugglers’ route through the Sahara Desert in Niger. He remembers the sand. “No matter how much you wash your hair, the sand never leaves your body,” he said.
When he got to Libya, another Nigerian warned him of the dangers of trying to cross the sea and offered him a job at a car wash he owns in Tripoli.
But staying on land wasn’t much safer. Henry says his skin colour made him a target for armed groups and “asma boys” (young criminal gangs). He was kidnapped and held hostage while his kidnappers demanded 1 500 Libyan dinar (R14 877) from his family, a sum they struggled to afford.
He was put in a dark room for four months and fed one meal a day.
“They threatened me and said I would not come out alive,” he said. “I was tied with iron wires and they beat me mercilessly. Until now, I do not have control of my right hand due to the tribulations there.”
He lifts his top to show a back lined with deep welts, like those left after a whipping. He says he can’t sleep at night.
When his family finally paid the ransom, Henry was released but was soon behind bars again. This time, he was arrested by police, and would stay in official detention until he volunteered to return home in October.
Twenty-two-year-old Kevin Odion returned to Nigeria on the same flight. He had opted to try his luck at sea, chancing passage on a small boat crammed with 139 others mostly from West Africa, like him. Nationalities represented included Nigeria, Ghana, the Gambia, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire.
They set sail at 2am on August 29. “The smugglers gave me the compass and showed me how to read it. A fellow migrant was given a Thuraya phone [satellite phone] to use in case of an emergency, like if the boat collapsed,” he said. “Then they prayed for us and wished us well.”
The next day, the boat developed problems because of the waves and they put out a distress call. They were rescued by a patrol boat and returned to Libya. He knew then that he was never going to reach Europe.
A month after Odion returned to Nigeria on the same flight as Henry, the M&G checked in with him. He said he has gone back to his village in Edo state and has no desire to leave, at least not for Libya. He wants to know whether there are other migrants who have returned from Libya — he is looking out for his friends.
“We were so many in detention. We don’t know if the numbers will ever end,” he said.
Unlike Henry and Odion, Faith Oladokun did not have a near-death experience in Libya — but she is still happy to be home. She left her job as a hairdresser in Lekki, an upscale Lagos neighbourhood, to find a better job in Europe. When she left, she did not realise she was pregnant.
Eventually, she found work in Libya as a housekeeper. She said that because she is of a similar faith to her employers they treated her well, but she always stayed indoors for fear of being kidnapped.
Her son is now 18 months old, and Oladokun chose to accept voluntary repatriation to escape the daily fear of working in a dangerous environment without the necessary visa or travel documents.
She regrets her decision to leave Nigeria. “Those two years were the hardest in my life. I wish I had known but at least my son made the days bearable,” she said.
Her story, and the others like it, is unlikely to stem the tide of migrants leaving Nigeria and elsewhere in search of a better life — even if, as their experiences illustrate, the reality of that life is far from the promise.