Europe is sending African migrants home. Will they stay?

Once considered the smartest hangout in town, the Benin Plaza motel in southern Nigeria’s Benin City has seen better days. Its chalet-style rooms are normally empty, and the Moat Bar, which promises “groovy nights and exotic cocktails”, has fallen into disrepair.

For the Plaza’s recent influx of guests, though, the motel is the first comfortable night they have had in rather a long time. Requisitioned by the government for migrants repatriated from Libya, it offers new arrivals free accommodation for a few days while they find their feet.The repatriation programme is part of a joint UN and EU effort to stem the flow of migrants to Europe. It encourages those who have made it to Libya to go home voluntarily, rather than risk a rickety boat across the Mediterranean. People who turn back get a free flight—cutting out the need for a perilous return journey across the Sahara.

The programme, launched in December 2016, repatriated some 15,000 migrants to various west African countries in its first year. Most of them were in squalid Libyan detention centres or destitute on the streets of Tripoli. This barely scratches the surface. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), part of the UN, has registered more than 400,000 migrants in Libya, but it reckons there are between 700,000 and 1m of them in the country.

Nigeria’s repatriation scheme did not start until late last year. But it proved timely. In November video emerged showing Nigerian and other African migrants being sold for the equivalent of $400 each in what appeared to be Libyan slave markets. The chilling footage, and interviews with rescued migrants, spelled out some of the risks of the crossing far better than any government-run campaign could. About 3,000 Nigerians have been brought home and another 15,000 are expected by June, says Solomon Okoduwa, an adviser to Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo state, of which Benin City is the capital.

Those who return are given 100,000 naira ($278) to tide them over for the first three months, and training on how to start their own businesses. Options include fashion design, hairdressing and farming on land set aside by the state.

The Nigerian leg of this programme is funded by Edo state, but Nigeria is one of 14 African countries sharing a €140m reintegration package from the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. This €3.2bn pot, set up in 2015, gives African states money and help in resettling migrants returning from Europe and Libya in exchange for trying to stop illegal migration at its source. A study released earlier in March by Pew, a think-tank, estimated that at least 1m sub-Saharan Africans moved to Europe between 2010 and 2017.

Many of them are Nigerian. Of those flown home from Libya by the IOM, the great majority are from Edo, says Mr Okoduwa. The state has a long tradition of migration, much of it by illegal means. In the late 1980s local women who went to Italy as tomato-pickers found they could earn more as prostitutes. When they came back rich, others followed. Trafficking networks evolved to help would-be migrants get into Europe. Kevin Kyland, a former Scotland Yard detective who is now Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner, guesses that 90% of Nigerians working in brothels in Europe are from Edo.

Mr Obaseki hopes to stop the traffickers, likening them to the slave traders who did business in his region in colonial times. He has enlisted the help of local pastors, who now warn of the dangers of traffickers from their pulpits.

But the downbeat mood of many of the Plaza motel’s new guests shows how difficult it is to stand between people and their dream of a better life. Most paid to be smuggled to Europe, in the hope of becoming richer than their parents. Take Abibu, a tough-looking 25-year-old whose mother sold her last plot of land to raise the 150,000 naira demanded by smugglers for the trip across the Mediterranean. His boat was stopped by Libyan coastguards and he was taken back.

“I don’t want to go back to my village, because if I hear people saying: ‘This is the guy who got nowhere,’ I’d probably kill them,” he says. “If the government doesn’t train me in something decent, I might be forced to go into crime to get the money to buy my mother’s land back.”

Abibu’s hopes of a better life abroad are widely shared. In a Pew poll, about 40% of respondents in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal said they planned to move to another country within five years. Asked whether they would move at once if they had the means and opportunity, 75% of Nigerians and Ghanaians said yes. Polling by Afrobarometer in Nigeria last year suggests why. Most of those thinking of leaving said it was to find work or escape economic hardship.

Mr Okoduwa admits that some who are returning can be hard to please, as can their parents. One mother, on receiving her daughter from Libya, said she would simply try to fly her to Europe instead.

He insists, though, that most are grateful for the help. Yes, the scheme could do with much more funding, he says, and no, he cannot guarantee that some will not try again to go to Europe. Those who do will be “a minority, just two or three per cent”. Yet even if he is right that those returning will stay at home, the queue of young Nigerians who want to seek their fortune abroad is long and wide.

The Economist, Mar. 31st, 2018

 
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