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Slavery, deaths & the Mediterranean journey


Abike Dabiri-Erewa

While stories of Africans dying while attempting to cross the Mediterranean have been pervasive, tales of modern day slavery have made headlines causing a global outcry. Sadly many young Nigerians have been involved in this gruesome misadventure. Abike Dabiri-Erewa; Senior Special Assistant on Foreign affairs and Diaspora to President Muhammadu Buhari joined CNBC Africa’s Esther Awoniyi to discuss this.

Very scary headlines we’ve seen, but I like the fact that a lot is being done. Help me understand where we are now. We know that quite a lot of young Nigerians have been brought back from Libya. How many have been brought back, and what else is being done to bring those who are willing, back home?
Well, since January, the International Organisation of Migration working with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and the Refugee Commission have been bringing back Nigerians from Libya. In January we raised a big alarm and told Nigerians, “no matter what you do, avoid going through Libya.” We didn’t say don’t migrate because you can’t stop migration whether regular or irregular but we said don’t go through Libya because we were getting calls from the prison. People were calling us from prison telling us the hell they go through and how they actually kill them. They would say this person has gone has gone and he didn’t come back, so they’ve been evacuating them back to Nigeria. But with the visuals and the report from CNN that led to a global outcry, I hope we’ll be getting to the end of this problem. It has been happening for ages. I hope that with this outcry we’ll get to the end of this problem. Nigeria has been able to get back thousands of its citizens from Libya but since this pronouncement and Mr. President’s directive that every Nigerian stranded must be returned, more will be coming in. With the IOM coordinating this with these agencies we’ll continue to bring them back, but we’re also planning a massive evacuation where we can take a couple of planes at the same time but we need to plan the logistics and then more so we need a landing permit. You can’t fly directly to Libya. You know its a crisis situation. You have to go through Turkey or Tunisia to get to Tripoli. So all of this is being worked out by a strong committee put together by the Federal Government and we have started working.

Now Libya has been described as a lawless country with two or three governments running concurrently so who exactly is the Nigerian government speaking to about this?
Well the UN backed president, but that is actually what escalated the problem with Libya. Black migrants have been killed in Libya for years. When I was in Parliament and I think this was 2009/10, we brought back some Nigerians that were to be killed then. We appealed to the AU…

Were they to be killed for crimes committed?
They were irregular migrants. When they get hold of you they lock you up and sometimes they just kill you. So we were getting those distress calls from prison and then we intervened as a parliament. The AU intervened as well and Gaddafi sent them back but now there’s nobody to talk to in Libya. There are the militias, the rebels. You need to see the girls. 12-14 year old girls… There are two girls I know that came back pregnant. They were raped in prison. The fourteen year old girl has a 9 month old baby. They’re all going through rehabilitation now.

This is something I’ve wondered about. When President Gaddafi was alive there were regular Nigerian migrants there working…
There are still regular Nigerians there working and some of them say, “don’t forget us. We want to come back too.” That’s why you take the planes and say anyone that wants to come back, please come back. There’s also a Nigerian Migrants in Libya association. There are regular Nigerians there who got there a long time ago and are working. The point is, anyone who wants to come back to the country will be brought back to the country.

How easy is it for Nigerians over there to reach out to the Nigerian Embassy for those scattered about Libya who want to come home? What is the first thing they should do?
There are helplines that have been pushed out to the public. There are email addresses from the Ministry of Affairs. There are numbers to call. Anywhere you are, if you’re in distress the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has some numbers to call so you can communicate. However, those in the detention centres can’t even make those calls. There’s a way they seem to be able to communicate. Maybe they talk to someone to get the message across, but we have helplines for everybody.
I have heard of tales where some are brought back into the country and they’ve been through slavery but they make a second trip.

What’s playing out here?
That’s true. Sometimes you hear that 200 came back and 50 returned because they feel there’s hope. There’s this feeling that once you get to Europe, your life is made and everything is perfect, which is not true. That’s why we’re going to give the opportunity for everybody who wants to come back to come back . I believe we will succeed. So yes, some do want to go back but a lot of them don’t want to go back. Nobody ever wants to go back.

About the traffickers themselves. I know the networks of traffickers are strong but is any thing being done?
The statement against traffickers was made but maybe it was not, strong enough or hard enough but here in Nigeria, NAPTIP already have about 30 Nigerian traffickers already being prosecuted. It’s a huge cabal that stretches between the countries of origin, transit, and destination. They have a wide network. It is easy to traffic human beings than it is drugs. And when they die they remove their organs and sell them. So that’s also going on. We don’t have to wait until we see the visuals. It is going on.

Sometimes, they are drowned deliberately at sea. So traffickers must be arrested, prosecuted, named and shamed. They make big money from this business. It’s important that the world ensures that traffickers are arrested, prosecuted, exposed, named so you can show the world who they are. Unfortunately quite a number of them are women. When they return they keep talking about the madams.

Is Africa taking ownership of this problem?
I hope we are. Nigeria at least is taking ownership. The African Union should have intervened before now but better late than never. We must! We should! We have to!

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