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Addressing Nigeria’s migrant crisis with objectivity and empathy

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Oby Ezekwesili


When news broke of the murder of 26 Nigerian women and girls in Salerno, Italy, public outrage was palpable. Former Minister of Education and campaigner Oby Ezekwesili was vocal in her criticism of the president’s silence over the deaths.

Public anger began to rise, followed by the expression of shock, horror and urgent call for answers, that usually follows when a tragedy befalls the nation, but amongst this, was something more sinister too. Across social media, comments such as ‘they knew the risks’ and ‘is it by force to travel,’ from some Nigerians, displayed an unnerving lack of empathy for the dead.

Abike-Dabiri-Erewa, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs released a statement calling the deaths of the 26 Nigerians, “tragic and avoidable,” and calling on the need for more awareness about the dangers of trafficking and migration. “We should all strive to avoid these short cuts,” she wrote.

Short cuts is an interesting choice of word to use with respect to the issues of Nigeria’s migrant crisis, and yes, it is a crisis.In 2016, Frontex, the European border agency revealed that over 180,000 illegal migrants made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.  That same year, the Italian Interior Ministry released figures revealing a record 36,000 Nigerian arrivals.

Stories of Nigerians making the long and arduous journey through the desert to Libya, only to end up being duped and trafficked or drowning at sea, have become eerily commonplace. Even those that survive the journey are not guaranteed the right to stay, and scores have been deported from both Libya and Italy.

So ‘shortcut,’ which means by definition ‘a route more direct than the one ordinarily taken,’ seems a strange choice of word for the president’s spokesperson on Foreign Affairs.The idea that these people believe that this trip is a ‘shortcut’ to a good life, or to success, doesn’t add up. It’s easy to criticise the decisions of these people when there is no knowledge of their stories, and no understanding of their reasoning. It’s simple to write it off as a rash decision when you’re coming from a place of privilege.

As of 2016, 112 million Nigerians were living below the poverty line. Unemployment is rife and the economy is yet to fully recover from crash of oil prices. The choice to get into a boat with little hope of survival reeks of desperation and an absolute lack of belief that things can change where they are. Hope is a good thing, but it does not feed starving people, nor does it clothe them or give them shelter.

“What better future in dying before you even get to your destination?” Abike Dabiri replied a Twitter follower who said if illegal migrants saw a better future in Nigeria they wouldn’t attempt the journey. The reality is, for some migrants, it appears as though the choice is between waiting to die at home, or risking dying at sea in pursuit of something better. Misguided, yes; but hardly a shortcut.

Dabiri says that the key to curbing the problem is awareness and on the one hand she’s right. Many people have no concept of what the reality of the journey is and of its perils. Desperation is powerful, and coupled with persuasive techniques of the traffickers, makes for a potent blind to luring despondent victims into making the journey. Survivors sharing their stories is crucial, and can be as effective as organized strategy by governments on state and federal level.

But awareness alone will not curb this problem.The reasons – some of which whether we like it or not are grounded in reality – must be tackled, otherwise we will continue to hear more stories of Nigerians perishing. The first step in this direction is by displaying empathy – to put ourselves in the shoes of these people and try to understand them, rather than writing them off. The cycle of hopelessness must be broken in order to cut these numbers down to size.

Dabiri says the Buhari administration is committed to resolving the migrant crisis and that it is awaiting the report from the investigation by Italian authorities. “ Many wasted opportunities. But light at the end of the tunnel under the PMB admin,” she said in response to a follower who spoke of the need for a practical response. One can only think of how unfortunate and tragic it is that those 26 women and girls could not wait to see that light.



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