by Ngozi Louis Uzomah, PhD Student, Dept. of Geography, University of Nigeria. Contributing for West Africa Working Group of migration-control.info
The EU New Pact mirrors other EU migration policies that put emphasis on border protection and returns but neglect efforts to give legal pathways to migrants from countries like Nigeria to be admitted into EU countries. The EU has failed Nigeria once again and some experts and media outlets in Nigeria have raised concerns about an imminent increase in the deportation of Nigerian migrants from EU countries, with an attendant violation of their fundamental rights. The New Pact focuses on the deportation of Nigerian migrants and asylum seekers from Europe but does not provide opportunities for them to migrate lawfully from Nigeria. The reasons to migrate might be seen by Europe as “wrong” choices but they are nevertheless valid reasons to leave Nigeria. The omission of legal pathways to migrate may drive more and more of these migrants into sophisticated methods of evading border controls, thereby pushing them into the hands of human smugglers who sometimes end up exploiting them financially, and trafficking the most vulnerable ones among them, such as women and children.
A route to fast-track deportation
The New Pact sketches a fast-track asylum procedure for citizens from countries which the EU has a low rate of recognising refugees as originating from, such as Nigeria. This will likely subject Nigerian migrants to a hurried asylum procedure at the border, resulting in inappropriate deportations despite many security and political issues in Nigeria. Many of these issues are regionalised in nature, subjecting them to less media coverage. For example, the secessionist agitation by Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB – an organisation fighting for the independence of Biafra in the eastern part of Nigeria), and the persecution of Shiite Muslims in the northern part of the country. The EU fast-track procedure will not only lead to the hasty consideration of asylum cases of such groups of migrants but will render the appeal period insufficient to seek redress in the event of a negative outcome for the migrant.
The EU fast-track will also result in an increased number of individuals in detention centres. Migrant detention leads to wastage of resources which goes in hand with the costly running of detention centres. This money would be more wisely spent on programmes that help migrants to integrate into European societies. More importantly, detention conditions often constitute violations of fundamental rights such as physical abuse, emotional trauma and lengthy incarceration. Additionally, many Nigerian migrants do not have identification documents to facilitate their fast return which extends an already lengthy incarceration period and sometimes leads to the danger of returning them to countries other than Nigeria, thereby aggravating their situation. The New Pact thus runs the risk of demeaning or undermining the European asylum system, with those in need of protection suffering and those migrating for a better future facing an increased risk of the abuse of their fundamental rights.
With regards to returnees, the New Pact proposes to sketch a return and reintegration strategy. However, there is enormous stigmatisation of deportees or returned migrants in Nigerian society vis-à-vis family, friends and authorities. It becomes difficult for them to get employment from government establishments and more difficult for the unmarried ones among them to be accepted for marriage. They are sometimes perceived as criminals or stupid people who blew their chances of having a good life abroad and came back empty-handed – as if it was their fault they were deported! Consequently, many of them suffer depression and apathy towards Nigerian society. Coupled with that is the trauma of having been, for example, robbed during the course of their journey by bandits in Niger, detained and tortured in Libya, incarcerated in Europe, deported with nothing and sometimes shackled and handcuffed during deportation flights. These have knock-on effects, at times leading returnees to vices and crimes. Some of them engage in drug addiction and in the peddling and smuggling of illicit drugs and guns while others join transnational organised criminal networks which traffic and smuggle migrants in West African and Mahgreb regions, and of course into the EU. Many women among them become engaged in commercial sex for survival because they are ashamed of going back to the society which they left behind. Due to insufficient funds and bureaucratic delays, the few that receive assistance from the EU-IOM joint initiative for protection and reintegration established to support returnees are frustrated, making reintegration difficult. This shows that while European migration policy sets its focus on returns, for Nigeria returning migrants, it creates more problems than it solves.
Young Nigerians: should I stay or should I go?
Despite all these, European policies often frame migration from Nigeria as being economically motivated, however, the factors driving migration are more complex than that. Below are some voices of young Nigerians interviewed in Nigeria on their reasons to potentially take the risks of migration or avoid them. Their names have been changed to protect their confidentiality.
Remigius Udoh, a Bachelor degree holder who is employed by a privately owned ICT firm stated that he would not want to migrate despite his valid personal interest: “Going to the EU countries will not solve the socio-economic cum political problems in my country. I see myself as a solution giver and should be part of the solution to the deluge of problems facing my country. The risk involved in such a trip is quite enormous, most times at the risk of the lives of the migrants. Stories abound where people are made to become modern-day slaves in Libya. No condition back home is truly worth one embarking on such a dangerous trip. As much as I want to have a better life and to also taste and feel the greener pasture of the West, I also wouldn’t want to add to the refugee and humanitarian crises gradually facing those countries”.
As his account underlines, he contrasts a personal desire for migration with helping in the development of Nigeria and the unfolding ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe.
In contrast, Angela Atuk, a secondary school teacher claimed that the political issues of Nigeria are good reasons that might push her to leave the country: “Bad governance and lack of inclusiveness and participation in the politics of Nigeria is what might push me to migrate. In this country, mostly males in their 70s and 80s are in leadership positions. They do not give opportunities for females and younger ones to contribute to the politics of the country. In fact, I get frustrated about it”.
Even more clearly, Uche Ogbu, a motor parts dealer insisted that there is no future in Nigeria: “I will take the risk to travel outside this country, even if it will cause me my life. There is no future here. If one drives a good car, wears nice clothes or has tattoos, they will be molested, extorted or killed by the police. What is the essence of living here?”
As these young Nigerian voices express, migration decisions are more complexly motivated than featured in Europe’s simplified understanding of ‘voluntary’ migration to Europe. They are more multi-layered than perceived, ranging from, among others, administrative, environmental, political, and socio-economic to security factors. A large part of the population migrate due to bad governance which manifests in multiple taxation that drives entrepreneurs out of business. The rush for golden visas otherwise known as citizenship/residency by investment in European countries like Malta, Portugal, Cyprus, and the UK as well as other parts of the world has driven wealthy Nigerians to invest their capital in these countries rather than in Nigeria. As a result, government projects and local businesses which might otherwise stimulate employment in Nigeria suffer, causing people to leave the country in search of better job opportunities. Climate change has dwindled grazing land, resulting in clashes between farmers and herders which force people to flee their homes. There are also rural development issues that push people to migrate first from their depressed rural locations to the urban cities from which they later move clandestinely to Europe. The conflicts brought by the ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram insurgency in Northeast Nigeria and the banditry in the Northwest occasioned by the proliferation of arms and ammunition originating mainly from Europe and North America have pushed many people into desperate migration within Nigeria, and even northwards to Europe. Making such desperate journeys through the Sahara Desert and across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, these migrants oftimes do not take into consideration the rules governing international migration such as acquiring relevant documents.
Challenging Eurocentric Views on Migration
Generally, in African social interactions and particularly in Nigerian indigenous lexicons there are no distinctions between numerous forms of mobility. This forms the migratory attitudes and decisions of the people. In Igbo language, o na-aga obodo oyibo literally means s/he is moving abroad. In Nigeria’s lingua franca known as Pigeon-English, “En de travel outside [the] country or abroad” has the same meaning. These phrases are devoid of Eurocentric notions of mobility and migration such as refugee, economic migrant, regular and irregular movements. Ordinarily for a Nigerian therefore, it does not really matter whether a migrant has procured a visa to travel or relocate legally or is engaging in irregular migration. The difference in language shows that Eurocentric and Nigerian understandings of mobility and migration differ. ‘Irregular migration’ as proposed by Eurocentric views emanates from the fact that borders are drawn to separate space into countries and certain people are allowed to cross these borders. It could be argued that the concept of ‘irregular migration’ is a political construction to restrict people of certain geographical locations (countries) from moving to and/or living in another country. These restrictions are related to attempts by governments to control immigration by requiring those moving to possess international passports, visas, and health certificates, among others. This is rather antithetical to Nigerian and African ways of social interactions.
Before the arrival of the European colonialists in Africa, people moved freely within the continent without documents and there were no restrictions per se. Migrants only had to present gift items to local leaders of their host communities since their stay depended on the goodwill of the leaders and their communities. The entrance of the colonial era heralded the demarcation of Africa in 1884/85 into several sovereign states, attendant restrictions on mobility, and subsequent regulation of migration after the Second World War. In colonial Africa, Nigerians were meant to carry identity cards to enter Ghana in 1943, and Côte d’ Ivoire required some migrants from the West African region to carry documents in 1958. However, these restrictions were liberal due to the benefits for the colonialists from migrant workers. After the independence movement of the early 1960s, Africans started facing stronger border control checks due to political machinations. Nigerians were required to travel with the country’s newly inaugurated passport and hold a visa to visit the United Kingdom and other (European) countries. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, visa waiver agreements, rather than being migration control tools, were part of foreign policies which the so-called ‘developing’ countries including those in Africa were supposed to benefit from. However, the majority of such agreements were made during visits when European countries (e.g. Austria) merely wanted to express, not provide, generosity to African countries. Consequently, the relaxed visa obligations helped to reduce the mobility opportunities and rights of citizens of African countries but increased that of European countries. In 2001, the EU harmonised its visa policies showing countries whose citizens require a visa to enter the EU. The processes and procedures for such visa applications emanating from African countries are stringent in terms of financial and administrative requirements, thereby stifling legal movements from countries in Africa, including Nigeria, to Europe. Not many intending Nigerian migrants have the wherewithal to pursue such requirements.
Presently, Nigerians suffer and die in their droves along the Sahara Desert and in the Mediterranean Sea as ‘irregular migrants’. Though the framing of mobility and migration by Nigerian languages and social interactions might reflect the reason why people decide to leave notwithstanding the ‘illegality’ of the movement, however, it shows that the European conception of ‘migration management’, ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ movement is biased, hegemonic and could not be universally nor uniformly applied. Apart from economic migrants who make the journey from Nigeria to Europe, Internally displaced people (IDPs), refugees, asylum seekers, those with disabilities, LGBTIQ, and children, among others, are also involved in this movement; and their protection needs vary.
Nigeria’s population reached 200 million in 2020 and it is expected to double by 2050. A total of 70% of the population are in their youthful stage of life and this is the group that migrates the most. In view of the complex reasons outlined above that underlie Nigerian departures, and due to the proximity of the African continent to Europe, many Nigerians are set to migrate to Europe. Traumatizing them with incarceration in detention camps in Europe and then returning them to Nigeria is neither a sustainable strategy for European actors, nor for their Nigerian counterparts.
It is recommended that the EU should recognise that Nigeria has a large population of highly skilled and talented people. Some of them use legal pathways to migration provided by various OECD countries such as the USA, Canada, and Australia and are making a positive impact in these countries. Since the demographic change in Europe shows an ageing and shrinking population as well as skill shortages, the EU can create similar legal pathways to migration for youthful and highly skilled Nigerians in the health and ICT sectors as well as low and middle scale industries, and for those with talents in arts and sports, so that they can contribute positively to themselves, their families and the socio-economic status of their hosts. There should also be an enlargement of resettlement pledges by the EU to protect IDPs and refugees (in need) who are migrating from Nigeria. This could be done by EU countries allowing their citizens, communities and civil societies, and economically viable relatives of migrants to sponsor IDPs – displaced by insurgency and insecurity – and refugees, especially those from Cameroon currently living in Nigeria. Such a resettlement programme will give them the opportunity to get a durable solution to their plight by being resettled in Europe. For returned migrants, there should be an increase in grass-roots initiatives for reintegration so that sufficient funds will be available to support Nigerian migrants who decide to return home. This will assist them with capital, skill and other opportunities needed to restart life in Nigeria. The programme should be systematically monitored and evaluated by sponsoring EU countries to make sure that returnees receive timely and adequate support and assistance.
The author can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit of the cover picture: Kwaku Arhin-Sam, 2019