Features

The EU is sending migrants home – into the hands of people smugglers

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

What to do about illegal migration from Africa into Europe? The EU’s repatriation programme seems at first like a great idea. Rather than just watching as desperate people risk their lives in the Med, we persuade them to go back home and help them to remake their lives there. The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has coughed up £125 million for the scheme and about 25,000 migrants have already taken part, most heading home to west and central Africa.

The poster boy of the programme is Smart Akawa. Two years ago, Akawa was flown by the EU back to his native Sierra Leone from a detention centre in Libya. With a modest EU grant, he has set up his own street-cleaning business, employing 14 other returnees to give garbage-strewn Freetown a much-needed scrub. ‘I want to see my business grow,’ he beams in the promotional video. ‘But more than anything, I want to create job opportunities for the youth in Sierra Leone.’

The trouble with the scheme is that not every migrant is Smart Akawa, as I found out during a visit to Benin City in southern Nigeria this year. Benin was once a centre for the west African slave trade. Today it’s once again an exporter of human cargo, with 60 per cent of all illegal Nigerian migrants to Europe coming from the area.

The story goes that in the 1980s, a group of local women went as guest workers to Italy, and came back to their hometown rich after becoming prostitutes. Word spread of their success, and so people-smuggling networks were set up that thrive to this day. Just as illegal migration causes social strife in Europe, so too has it done at home. The city now has a huge red-light district with many families knowingly sending their daughters into prostitution abroad. Malign local juju cults have been revived by the smuggling gangs, who make their clients undergo secret rituals of obedience. The most feared deity, a vengeful slave goddess called Ayelala, is now nicknamed ‘the patron saint of sex traffickers’.


Benin City should be at the heart of any repatriation scheme, and the city’s governor, Godwin Obaseki, has done his best, taking back 3,000 of its former citizens in the past year alone. But the example of Benin City shows just how tricky this business is.

The returnees are put up in a government–owned motel, and can choose from a variety of three-month courses, from hairdressing and car mechanics to fashion and farming. But when I visited the motel, the mood was about as upbeat as a British job centre in 1981. For all the opportunities on offer, what the migrants mostly felt was a sense of failure. The people smugglers’ ticket had often cost their family its life savings. Returning meant all that effort and money had been wasted.

Abibu Shaibu, a 25-year-old clothes seller, told me his mother sold her last remaining plot of land to fund his trip across the Med, which ended with him being arrested by the Libyan coastguard. Abibu could not bring himself to tell his mother he was back. ‘She’d probably have a heart attack,’ he said. ‘Also, I don’t want to hear the neighbours all saying, “This is the guy whose mother sold her land for him to get to Europe, and then he didn’t make it.” Anybody who says that, I’ll kill them, I tell you.’ None of the jobs on offer will help Abibu recoup the money he’d borrowed for the crossing. Instead, he said, he was considering an altogether new career as a robber. He wasn’t joking.

Men like Abibu are a worry for Solomon Okoduwa, a former migrant himself who helps run the governor’s returnee programme. ‘If you don’t help unleash their potential, they’ll use their experience in Libya to become a recruiter for the people smugglers,’ he warns. It’s a depressing irony.

Like much of provincial Nigeria, Benin City is dirt-poor. Despite the governor’s best intentions, it remains to be seen whether the economy can absorb even 1,000 returnees, let alone the tens of thousands that are expected this year. Indeed, critics say that the upbeat PR campaign featuring Smart Akawa is guilty of the same misleading tactics that the traffickers themselves use. Yes, there may be the odd success story, but for most people the reality is much tougher.

In their desperation to stop the flow out from Benin City, officials have resorted to unusual measures. In February, the governor got the city’s traditional ruler, Oba Ewuare II, to issue a public curse on any juju priests involved with trafficking gangs, saying they’d face ‘the wrath of the ancestors’. As the supreme authority in the Nigerian spirit world, his words had the effect of a papal decree, putting hundreds of shady local witch doctors out of business overnight. The joke around town is that they are now selling good luck spells for job seekers instead.

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