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‘I spent three years trying to enter Europe, almost died’

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Omonzbhie


• PCI Opens Shelter For Trafficked Men, Returnee Migrants

As Nigeria joined the rest of the world recently to mark the World Day Against Trafficking In Persons and the Day Of The Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Mark Omonzbhie, an indigene of Edo State, said many Nigerians are not aware of what these days really mean and he still pinched himself to be sure he was really alive, following what he suffered during his unsuccessful effort to enter Europe through Libya.

Bound for greener pastures in Europe, Omonzbhie never made it there. He rather spent almost three years in Libya, seven months of that period in jail, an experience he said he would never forget in life. Recounting his harrowing experience, with tears in his eyes, he said his ill-fated journey started from Kano State on a motorcycle.

He recalled: “If you fall off the motorcycle, that is your personal problem, nobody is checking on you or putting you back on the bike. From Kano, we made our way to Agadez where we changed our Naira. Before trying to get to Europe, I was a stylist in Edo. My friend kept on telling me that I was very talented and a good stylist and that if I found my way to Italy, I would make so much money in three months. When we left Agadez, we were 26 in the Hilux van but five people died before we got to our destination. We met so many dead and dying people on the way but nobody to help them. The drivers routinely raped the women amongst us and maltreated us. If we speak English or our local languages, we could be killed for that because they’ll claim we were plotting to kill them and escape. The friend that convinced me to travel told me I’ll get to Italy in three days, but I spent two and a half years in Libya without ever smelling Europe and seven months of this time in prison.

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“I couldn’t reach my parents or that my friend that arranged everything. The person that trafficked me was here in Nigeria, calling my parents and demanding money that I needed it to get to Italy while I was dying in the dessert. He would call my mom and tell her that I was about to cross one river and needed money and my mother would go and borrow the money. My parents sold all they had during this period. When I was able to get in touch with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and was asked if I wanted to return to Nigeria, I begged them to take me back immediately and it was when I returned that my mom told me about how the trafficker scammed them of millions of Naira.”

Omonzbhie said that many Nigerians were still trapped there, crying for help with nobody to help them.

“Libya is a dead place, filled with death and regrets and nobody should risk traveling there. If I didn’t come back to Nigeria, I’d have died and nobody would know. While I was in prison, we could go a whole week without any food and we were being beaten daily. They forced our fellow Nigerians and Africans to beat us at gunpoint; we were treated worse than slaves. After I got out of prison, I still wanted to get to Italy and managed to buy a seat on a ‘balloon’ (an inflatable boat). As we were making our way on the sea, the balloon burst. We were about 150 on the boat but only three of us from that boat were rescued by some fishermen. The rest, women, children and men all died. I cried when I got myself back, I couldn’t believe I was still alive,” the Edo indigene said.

On his prison experience in Libya, he recalled: “While I was in prison, we were used as slaves and menial workers. They told us to go and dig a place and gave us guns to shoot anyone that came to disturb us while we were digging. Three Hilux vans suddenly came to where we were digging and the occupants of the vehicles started shooting at us sporadically. I asked my friend beside me if he knew how to handle a gun but he said no. We threw the guns away and jumped into an underground pipe, which led us to another desert. That was how I was able to escape those traffickers.

“ The police target Africans. Once they see Africans, they round them up and sell us to slave dealers, organ harvesters and traffickers. They call us ‘business’. They randomly sell Africans languishing in prison to organ harvesters who harvest their organs and dump their bodies in the dessert.”

Omonzbhie lamented that as horrible as the conditions are, some Nigerians still don’t want to come back to Nigeria.

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“They prefer to die there than come back to nothing. I had some people telling me ‘how will I go back after I have sold everything?’ ‘How will I go back after my mom borrowed money from LAPO?’ It’s worse among girls and women, they usually don’t want to go back because they had sworn oaths at shrines and have no means of repaying the money borrowed. They claim death over there is better than shame.”

Omonzbhie, who has learnt his lessons, said: “I haven’t gone back to Edo since I came back to Nigeria and I don’t intend to go back there again. It is not because I am ashamed but I don’t want to be drawn back or distracted again by anyone. IOM brought me back to Nigeria and after a while, I found my feet and now have a shop in Lagos.

“I also work as a ‘migrant as messengers’ for IOM to sensitise people on the danger of human trafficking and irregular migration. I really wish I knew then what I know now because traffickers would only tell you positive and great things about migration. It was when I entered fully that I knew I was in trouble.”

The Zonal Commander, National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Lagos, Aganran Ganiu Alao, said managing victims of human trafficking and irregular migration was a herculean task that everyone must join hands to help mitigate.

“The first few days when they come back are usually very tough and they need a place to be for them to stabilise. They need a lot of counseling and therapy to help them put behind them what they went through. The NAPTIP 65-bed shelter is for both men and women but it is a temporary one. After six months, we ask them if they want to go back to school, learn a trade or start a business because most times, they don’t have anyone to help them. What we want to do is to bridge the gap in the re-integration process for victims of traffickers and break the cycle of poverty. We know the world is a global village and you can’t separate Nigeria from the rest of the world. We are doing a lot to tackle this problem and we want the media to help us in this crusade.”

Alao revealed that from January 2021 to date, his agency has rescued over 350 trafficked persons and migrants just from the airport alone.

“We are not counting land and sea borders. Nigeria is a destination country and these things are bound to occur. We want to give these people a better life when they return because they had been exposed to a lot of negativity.”

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According to him, most migrants and trafficked persons are lured deceitfully, especially women. It is when they get there that they know what they are truly there for.

“The women are usually under debt bondage and oath taking and the traffickers exploit them so much. Some of the returnees come back insane and never get themselves back again and have to be taken to neuropsychiatric hospitals for proper management of their health situations. Some that are wise enough to run to the embassy are saved and brought back to Nigeria. We want our youths to understand that these journeys are dangerous and are usually ‘journeys of no return’. Most people die in the process and only very few manage to come back.”

Founder of the first male reintegration shelter in Nigeria and Programme Director of Patriotic Citizens Initiative (PCI), Ositadimma Osemene, described the unveiling of the shelter in Lagos as a historic.

“This is the first male shelter in the country that is addressing the issue of returnee male migrants, especially since we’re looking at re-integrating them successfully back into the society. We know that the issue of male vulnerability has been kind of neglected over the years as many people and groups tend to focus on women and children. This issue of irregular migration, smuggling and trafficking of persons is a serious one. Many Nigerian men are being killed, dehumanised, tortured and trafficked daily in Nigeria but nobody is speaking for them or helping them with these challenges,” he lamented.

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On the rationale for the PCI, he said it was borne out of his personal experience. “I was once a trafficked person but was lucky to return to Nigeria and decided to help other migrants get back on their feet.

“I was a young graduate looking for a job years ago and living from hand to mouth and things went bad. The next option was to travel to Europe because I was made to believe that money was on the streets there and because of my state of mind then, it was not hard to convince me to take the risk. My ‘friends’ supported me in getting visa and passport, unfortunately the visa was a fake one and I only discovered when I got to the airport. I was told that I had a fake visa and would be penalised. It then dawned on me that my situation had worsened. When I made some calls, I was told I was wasting my time going through the airport and my mates had entered Europe the week before. They told me they had gotten nine people and needed just one more. That was how I found myself going to Asaba the next day. There was nothing you could tell me then that I was ready to listen to except how to leave this country. As a youth, you can’t overrule desperation and the quest to become rich or ‘make it’. I got to Libya and while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea I realised that I was in serious trouble. I left Nigeria well dressed with bags, but at that point in time then, the only thing I had on me was the boxer I had on and a T-shirt. Everything was gone. I came back to Nigeria broken and empty. If I had known truly what was involved and the deception there, I would never have undergone the trip.

“When I came back, the main thing I took from my experience was that I didn’t want others that managed to come back to be like me by coming back to nothing. I self-reintegrated on my own. I separated from my friends and family for a year to get healed emotionally, mentally and psychologically before trying to get back on my feet.

“Sadly, our efforts are like a drop in the ocean because it is just a few of us drawing awareness to this huge problem. The country isn’t seeing this as a problem and that is why the government isn’t doing much about it.

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“Illegal migration and human trafficking have been going on for years and this is just the first male shelter in Nigeria to assist the victims get back on their feet. It is very sad.”

Osemene said the shelter could comfortably take 40 men and has a training facility, clinic and counseling unit amongst other facilities.

“It is our hope that any vulnerable male migrant that passes through here will not remain the same. The first three months are the toughest; migrants need to heal mentally and socially during this period before we begin to look for work for them. For special cases, we can house them for up to a year and guide them into re-integrating back into the society.”

“The IOM and the UK Home Office (UKHO) has been pivotal in helping us get this off the ground, it is not a profit making venture and our goal is to help reduce this menace whilst helping migrants that are lucky to return, get back on their feet.”

Oseneme said the shelter would provide psychosocial counseling, vocational training, entrepreneurship development, business skill training, mentorship programs, life skills and mindset re-engineering and would be run by established returned migrants who understand the process and emotions.

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Mark Omonzbhie
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