Nigeria migrants who escaped Libya restart their lives

Life has been challenging for Grace Joshua since she returned to Lagos from Libya, a dangerous transit point many Africans pass through to get to Europe.

Joshua, 32, is one of the 6,000 Nigerian migrants the International Organization for Migration (IOM) repatriated to Nigeria on a chartered flight from Libya after reports of endemic abuse and modern-day slavery.

She has been jobless since her arrival in Lagos. The joy of returning to Nigeria was short-lived by the reality she escaped when she left the country in 2014: No job.

Joshua left the city for her aunt’s house in Ilorin, a central state in Nigeria, to escape Lagos’ high cost of living and to search for employment opportunities. But her luck did not change.

“I am not doing anything yet … In the whole of Ilorin, it’s only a cereal company they have and there’s no work there,” she told Al Jazeera.

Soon, she ran out of money. Her efforts to get a job and start life anew after enduring months of torture and suffering in Libya didn’t yield any results.

Through connections with human traffickers, migrants from Nigeria travel through the northern state of Kano to Agadez in Niger. Thousands of Nigerians then set off through the Sahara desert for Libya from Agadez on open cargo vehicles.

Regardless of their status – either as economic migrants or victims of the dangerous trafficking business – these migrants are all escaping grinding poverty and a high rate of unemployment, which push irregular migration across the Sahara to Libya.

A recent report from Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said about 16 million people out of a total active labour force of 85 million were unemployed in the third quarter of 2017.

Last year, Ikechukwu Okonkwo left Lagos, the country’s commercial capital, for Libya because his fish farming business in the bustling suburb of Ikotun slowed down.

“Business was moving slowly and the person I learned the business from was frustrating me,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I sold off some of my property and started the journey. I sold the property for 720,000 naira [$2,300] and I paid about 550,000 thousand naira [$1,700] to the connection man I met through my brother, who is in Italy.”

Like many other migrants from Nigeria, Okonkwo traveled from Kano to the porous border with Niger on a motorcycle. With a small bag of clothes, shoes, and a water bottle, he made his journey from Niger to Libya through the desert.

He travelled for three weeks, seeing many dead bodies covered in the sand, trucks stuck in the desert, and stranded migrants who had been robbed.

Upon arrival in Sabha, an oasis city in southwestern Libya, Okonkwo had thought he’d travel immediately to the coast for the second trip across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. But a street gang known as the Asma Boys kidnapped and imprisoned him alongside other migrants – about 15 men.

“The Asma boys harassed us, demanding … 3,000 Libyan dinars [$2,200] before we would make headway to the Libyan coast,” said Okonkwo. “They call it ‘settlement money.'”

For five days, Okonkwo received continuous beatings by the gang members because he couldn’t pay the ransom fee. “We were told to call our family in Nigeria to demand the money.”

Okonkwo and his group devised a plan to escape by attacking a guard, since they didn’t have the ransom the gang demanded.

“The day we escaped, many Asma Boys went out, leaving just two behind. One of the guys came to beat us again but I pushed the guy down, snatched his gun. Since he was alone with us we forced him to open the gate for us. We collected the key and ran away. It’s only God that saved us because we didn’t know where we are running to,” Okonkwo said.

The following week, Okonkwo and other migrants left Sahba for the Libyan coast through a “connection man”. At 2am, they embarked on the journey across the sea on a flimsy rubber dinghy.

A few hours into the journey, Okonkwo said a helicopter flew in and began hovering over their heads. Libyan coastguard vessels soon arrived.

Okonkwo was taken to a Libyan deportation camp, where he lived on bread and water for four months, before being released and flown back to Nigeria by IOM’s humanitarian return programme.

“I told God that if I should leave this place I will never travel to Libya again. I can’t go back to Libya again. All of them are wicked,” Okonkwo said, his face mottled with contempt.

In December 2016, the European Union Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) launched the EU-IOM joint initiative in 14 African countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

In Nigeria, it was launched in May 2017 with the aim of helping stranded migrants in Libya. As part of the reintegration and support programme, IOM organised a workshop on business skills and cooperatives for returned migrants in Lagos state. Returnees were invited to Lagos and lodged in a hotel for the four-day training course.

“The main purpose of this reintegration, support and this business skills training is to give them an alternative – to stay back and resolve one of the push factors, which is the economic aspect,” Abraham Tamrat, IOM’s programme manager, told Al Jazeera.

“We also provide them with economic reintegration that will resolve the employment-related challenge that might have pushed them from the very beginning to follow irregular migration.”

Training on how to start and sustain a business in Nigeria was also rolled out, with the IOM collaborating with the government’s Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN).

“We need to help them identify their area of strength, their passion and be able to help them develop businesses in that line, so that as business go on the challenges of business will not overpower them,” SMEDAN representative Sola Dawodu said.

IOM budgeted for just 3,000 migrants, but the number of returnees since 2017 is 6,500. Tamrat said it won’t affect the programme.

“What IOM did in response to that in Nigeria is to massively upscale its staff capacity, so we have triple the staff capacity we used to have before, and the support for Nigeria is about 50 million euros but it will go beyond that now.”

As the mid-morning sun rises above the horizon in Lagos, scores of returned migrants – about 90 of them from Edo, Delta, Kwara, Osun, Ogun and Lagos states – thronged the workshop venue to get writing materials and training leaflets.

“There’s possibility of surviving in this country,” Osita Osemene, IOM’s lead trainer for returned migrants, said. “That negative energy you used to travel, convert it to positive energy and rebuild your life.”

Grace Joshua is willing to begin anew. She’s poised to start off from where she stopped in 2014 as a hairdresser.

“I want to establish my handwork and to proceed. I don’t have anything on me but I have God,” she said.