In August 2016, Esther Anthony boarded a 16-seater bus from Benin City, the capital of Edo state, to begin a journey to Italy. She paid an initial deposit of $966 to her smuggler, who assured her of an easy passage into Europe, despite the rumors she had heard to the contrary.
The irregular migratory route took her through Nigeria’s northern Kano state to Niger, from which she crossed through the Sahara desert into Libya. She planned to continue on to Italy by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
But despite covering more than 2,000 miles by land, she never made it across the Mediterranean. Instead, her smuggler handed her over to sex traffickers. “I spent one year in Libya with tears,” she says.
In 2018, over 116,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Europe through the Mediterranean. More than 2,000 others died along the way, the latest casualties of a seven-year migrant crisis fueled by war and economic instability.
More than 1 million migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe since 2014. Faced with a continued influx, some European nations have tightened their border controls, even refusing to give port to some rescue boats carrying migrants. In consequence, smugglers have opted for riskier routes, and many migrants like Anthony have found themselves stranded in war-torn Libya, where abuse and human trafficking thrive.
In Nigeria, most migrants decide to leave their homeland for economic reasons. In the most affected regions of the country, some organizations are working to provide support for returnees and to dissuade others from attempting the perilous journey.
Edo state is Nigeria’s migration hub, where traffickers and word of mouth keep the smuggling business alive.
Anthony, 25 at the time, was working as a saleswoman when her aunt made the travel arrangements. (Anthony later paid her smuggler a remaining balance of $1,790 through family contributions and her earnings from Libya.)
Esther Anthony and other participants listen during a life skills session at the Idia Renaissance center.
She said she spent three days crossing the desert along with about 26 other people stacked in the back of a Toyota Hilux truck. To protect themselves from the dry desert weather, the migrants donned sock masks, gloves, jackets, and glasses. They traveled during the day and caught a fitful two-hour nap when darkness came. “If you sleep too much, the Arab man would drive and leave you,” Anthony says.
In Tripoli, Libya’s capital, her journey began to go downhill. Her Nigerian smuggler promised to get her group to the coastal city of Sabratha, from where they planned to board a boat to cross the sea.
Instead, he singled out the females and took them to a brothel inside a fenced and guarded compound.
“We started shouting,” Anthony recalls. The staff running the brothel gave the migrants the option either to pay $276 up front and leave, or to work as sex slaves until they generated $1,380. Anthony stayed behind to earn her release.
Libya descended into crisis in 2011 after NATO-backed rebels overthrew and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Several armed groups sprang up, seizing control of different parts of the country. Libya’s subsequent political vacuum and insecurity have allowed human traffickers to thrive.
During her year in the country, Anthony stayed in more than 40 camps, many of them in derelict, uncompleted buildings. At one camp in Sabhā, she slept on the floor in a cramped open space, with people sandwiched next to each other.
The food was bad, too. Anthony said she mostly survived on dry bread and salty water. Traffickers twice tried to sell her before another Nigerian migrant helped her escape.
She boarded a small rubber boat with more than 100 other passengers to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Italy. But soon after the journey started, the boat ran out of fuel.
They spent two days drifting at sea. Anthony said they started to call out to any passing boats. “We raised the children who were crying and were shouting for help.” One woman in the group died before a Tunisian rescue boat picked them up.
Anthony spent another month at a camp in Tunisia run by the United Nations migration agency. The agency worked with the Nigerian Embassy to organize a flight back to Nigeria for some of the willing migrants. Anthony returned to Nigeria in July 2017.
A participant sews clothes at the center.
ON A WEDNESDAY MORNING IN OCTOBER Anthony donned a red-and-white-checkered apron and worked at one of more than 20 sewing machines on the second floor of a youth resource center in Benin City. Since returning to Nigeria, she has struggled with memories of her experience in Libya. She had returned to work as a saleswoman when a friend told her about the center, run by Idia Renaissance, a local nonprofit.
The center began in 1999 in response to human trafficking and other social and health problems in Edo state. As Edo increasingly became the hub of Nigerian emigration to Europe, the center started to handle more migrant-related cases.
“[Migration] became a way of life for the people,” said Roland Nwoha, the center’s project coordinator. Migrants who succeeded in making the journey and finding jobs sent money back home to Nigeria, sponsoring their siblings in school and even purchasing houses, he said: “It became a way out of poverty.”
Idia Renaissance now tries to educate the public about migration, even paying for television jingles to inform people about the subject. When asked about the dangers of the journey, returnees like Anthony said, “True to God, if I knew, I wouldn’t go.”
The center offers counseling and life skills sessions. Returnees and people at risk of making the journey also have access to a six-month business training session that covers tailoring, hairdressing, catering, computer studies, and other topics.
More than 4,000 people, including a thousand returnees, have completed the vocational program since it began in 2004. Anthony finished her tailoring training with an exhibition in December. “I’m happy now,” she says.
The Idia Renaissance cooking program.
ONE AFTERNOON IN OCTOBER, more than 100 Libyan returnees wearing name tags filled a hall at the Rafik hotel in Benin City. The group had just started the first day of a reintegration and rehabilitation program run by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The intensive, four-day skill-training program combines psychosocial support with business lectures to prepare returnees to set up their own businesses. IOM partners with national organizations to charter flights for returnees, then organizes counseling and medical support before inviting returnees for the business training.
In a joint project with the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, IOM opened an office in March at the Edo state secretariat building. The office assists returnees and also provides migratory information for walk-in guests interested in traveling abroad.
Osita Osemene, who leads the IOM training session for the returnees, uses his personal experiences to reach out to them: He tried to cross into Europe in 2004 in search of a better job. Instead of reaching Spain through Morocco, conflict along the route led him to Libya: “Life is easier in Europe, but we try to make them know you can create that life for yourself.”
IOM approves and then funds the migrants’ business ideas, usually placing them into groups of threes. Osemene calls the assistance a “seed”: “It’s not for them to eat. It’s to plant.”
More than 4,000 returnees have passed through the program and set up shop in businesses ranging from timber production to tailoring.
They include Victory Imasuen, who now runs a barbershop with three other returnees. Before leaving for Libya, Imasuen worked as a barber at a salon, where one of his regular clients was a smuggler. He decided to hire the smuggler, who assured him he would arrive in Europe within a month.
Imasuen paid him $1,380 and set out on the same route as Esther Anthony. Once he arrived in Sabhā, Libya, the smuggler sold him to a Ghanaian man, who held him for eight months.
“That’s where the slavery started,” said Imasuen. During his captivity, he received regular beatings and had little food to eat.
His elder sister tried to send the $552 necessary to free him, but her contact made off with the money. His mother was later able to gather the required amount and secure his release.
Imasuen continued to scramble for jobs, working as a barber and at a car park to pay his way to Tripoli. But authorities arrested him during clashes in the city, sent him to one of Libya’s notorious detention centers, and then deported him.
IOM helped Imasuen and his three partners open their barbershop in July. The financial challenges remain: Sometimes, only one customer strolls into the shop for the day. Five of Imasuen’s siblings have graduated from college but still have no jobs.
This time, though, his mindset is different. “We’re already here, there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. For now, Imasuen is grateful he has even a modest job: “I believe with time, the bigger one [will] come.”
The ship of Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms docks in Algeciras, Spain, in December with over 300 rescued migrants after being denied entry at other ports.
European nations last year witnessed a drop in migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean Sea, but tens of thousands of people still attempted the deadly journey: One out of every 18 arrivals died along the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy within the first half of 2018, according to the UN.
One reason for reduced migration: Libyan coast guards have upped surveillance across their waters. This in turn has forced smugglers to change their routes. Last year migrant traffic shifted toward the Eastern Mediterranean route that leads from Turkey to Greece—at least 49,000 people entered Europe that way.
A second reason is the growing wave of populism across many European nations, particularly Italy.
On Dec. 28, a rescue ship with 311 mainly African migrants docked at a southern Spanish port after waiting a week at sea: Italy and Malta had denied it entry. In June, Spain accepted 630 migrants after Italy’s anti-immigration interior minister, Matteo Salvini, and Malta both refused to allow the boat to dock. The same month, a cargo ship owned by Maersk, the Danish shipping company, remained offshore for three days with 108 migrants it rescued before Rome accepted them.
Some of the European Union nations bearing the brunt of immigrant arrivals complain other members of the bloc have failed to share the burden.
Amid the ongoing tension, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recently urged European leaders to remember that migrants are humans: “Debate is welcome—scapegoating refugees and migrants for political gain is not.” —O.O.