Sex hawkers, other desperate Nigerians find new routes to Europe

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Ayodele Ale

She was dressed in a flowing black gown and her head was covered with a veil. Christy would easily be taken for a woman from a core Islamic country as she waited for her connecting flight from Istanbul, the capital city of Turkey, to Iran on March 20, 2010.

“My departure time is 8.30 in the night,” she told our correspondent at the International Airport in Istanbul. It turned out that the young woman in her in her 20s was a Christian from Benin, Edo State, Nigeria. “They (referring to the human traffickers responsible for her trip to Europe) asked me to dress like this,” she said.

According to her, someone had already been told to meet her in Iran to arrange for her travel documents to Greece, where she would stay for two weeks before heading to Italy, her final destination.

The young woman told our correspondent that she was going to Italy to join her sister ‘to hustle.’ According to her, going through Iran was a better option because of the stringent measures attached to the issuance of Shengen Visa at the Italian Embassy in Nigeria. She posited that the trip to Italy was her last hope in the face of bad economic situation in Nigeria.

Like Christy, desperate Nigerians, mostly male, use coastal countries like Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt and Libya as transit routes to Europe, defying the odds of the Mediterranean Ocean.

Expressing his worries about the plight of refugees in Europe, Elias Bierdel, member of a human rights group called Borderline Europe, said, “Young people dream about Europe and how to have a better future. It is what they see, and their lack of perspective in their own country. They are fantasised by what they see on the television, which might not be true, but it is acceptable to them. They figure and think that it is better to have a better future for themselves.” From time to time, these desperate immigrants hire small boats, pack their belongings and food items into it and set sail to Europe through the turbulent Mediterranean Ocean.

Bierdel said, “While they want to make it to Europe at all cost, they do not have the necessary skill and technical experience to manage the situation in case of bad weather. A journey that is expected to last for three weeks eventually takes up to six or seven weeks.

“Many of the immigrants die during the journey either as a result of fatigue or lack of food and water. They resort to drinking salt water, which further reduces their lifespan.

“As soon as any of them gives up the ghost, the corpse is thrown into the sea, while the rest continue their journey. Such corpses are gathered by the military boats patrolling the Mediterranean and given mass burial. Because of this, it has become so difficult to carry out fishing activities in some parts of the Mediteranean.”

In many cases, the overcrowded boats of immigrants capsize, leaving the people on board dead. Only recently, a boat carrying 79 Africans, including women and a children who were migrating to Europe, was said to have capsized in the ocean. Only nine survivors were rescued by a Maltese fishing vessel, Maldonna di Pompei, out of the semi-submerged dinghy 40 nautical miles (about 70 kilometres) off Malta deep water.

They were then handed over to a military boat on patrol on the high sea. After they had been given first aid treatment, the traumatised survivors were ferried to a detention centre preparatory to their repatriation back home.

On another occasion, a group of 37 African immigrants were said to have been rescued. These people, who were in pitiful and near-death state were said to have been attended to by the humanitarian agencies operating in Malta, before they were, as usual, taken to a detention centre, preparatory to their deportation back to their countries of origin. As a matter of fact, Malta, the smallest member of the European Union, is usually the first port of call by African immigrants.

From time to time, Malta receives scores of immigrants from Africa, who, as soon as they arrive, tear their passports and other travel documents to shreds to avoid being repatriated back to their countries. “The belief is that once their nationalities are unveiled, they would be deported. They tell all sorts of stories, claiming to be refugees running from persecution at home,” Anne Kohler, a German who works on migration issues said.

Some of the migrants who are core professionals at home end up working as poorly paid casual workers in the tiny Island of Malta. The influx of refugees into the country has also become a source of serious frictions between Malta and her European counterparts who often instigate her to adopt tough penal measures against illegal immigrants. So, Malta, which relies on the assistance of her European neighbours to drive her economy, often subject the illegal immigrants to untold hardship before repatriating them back to their countries.

Only recently, a 29-year-old Nigerian, Lucky Opia, and his Malian counterpart, 25-year-old Mamadou Sidibe Sedu, were jailed after they were said to have pleaded guilty of forging travelling documents, while the defence counsel, Simon Micallef Stafrace, picked holes in the nature of judgment handed down to them.

The international community, including the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, have also implored Malta to give consideration to the plight of the illegal immigrants. In his appeal to Maltese authorities, Pope Benedict, who had just concluded a visit to the Island of Malta, said, “I am aware of the difficulties that welcoming a large number of people may cause; difficulties which cannot be solved by any country of first arrival on its own. At the same time, I am also confident that on the strength of its Christian roots and its long and proud history of welcoming strangers, Malta will endeavour, with the support of other states and international organisations, to come to the aid of those who arrive here and to ensure that their rights are respected.”

Whether the papal’s plea would be taken is a question that would be answered with time. Ironically, most of those who succeed in getting to the coasts of some European countries, like Turkey, Spain and Italy, do not fare any better, especially when caught by naval authorities and other security agencies patrolling the waterways.

“The warships and speed boats often go out in the night without putting their lights on. But when they return in the morning, you will see them coming out of the boats, fully armed in military regalia,” Bierdel said, stressing that most of those caught, including the captains of the boats, are hauled into detention centres where they languish for months before they are deportated.

According to the human rights crusader who also heads the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, kind-hearted Europeans, using their initiatives to help the immigrants trapped in the high seas, are often termed human traffickers, arrested and jailed. “I spent five days in detention for trying to help some immigrants and the case went on for a long time before I was acquitted. And in Europe, it constitutes an offence if you fail to help someone who is visibly in danger. It is one of the contradictions of our society,” he told our correspondent.

The few who escape the long arms of the law spend their days and nights running from minions of law, while they do menial jobs for survival. “They dare not complain of exploitation because they don’t have the necessary documents in the first place.” Kohler said.


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