More than 150 Nigerians, some of them in tears, broke out in song as they touched down on home soil, after months stuck in Libya waiting to try to get to Europe. “I don’t leave Nigeria again-o! I will never forget my home!” they sang.
The rain fell heavily on the runway at Lagos international airport and night was drawing in but the atmosphere on the small bus taking the new arrivals to immigration control was almost hysterical.
They broke out in loud applause, waving at onlookers curious to see who had emerged from the chartered jet that had flown in from the Libyan capital. “I’m so happy, it’s like winning the lottery,” said Osapolor Osahor.
The 24-year-old tailor said life was hellish in Tripoli: the sound of gunfire was everywhere and there was a mounting toll of deaths, particularly of black Africans. “Some are in prison for so long, six months, seven months… I was put in a cell, like four, five months before I came back,” he told AFP.
Four plane-loads of Nigerian migrants have now flown back from Libya in less than two months. Since the start of the year, 660 people in total have been helped to return voluntarily.
That compares with 867 for the whole of last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is running the repatriation scheme.
Most of the Nigerians are economic migrants who want to try their luck in Europe and travelled up to the Mediterranean coast via northern neighbour Niger and the treacherous route through the Sahara desert.
But with Libya in turmoil, many found themselves trapped by violence while others were arrested and held by militia even before they had tried to make the sea crossing. Ozoa, a mechanic, was among the 155 people who arrived back in Nigeria on Thursday. Lying on a stretcher, he didn’t sing or smile.
Last year he managed to get to the port of Zawiya — one of the main departure points for migrants — some 45 kilometres (30 miles) west of Tripoli. The 30-year-old had a blank look and refused to speak to reporters. He knows he won’t walk again.
“He was caught in the crossfire and he was shot in his back, in the middle of the vertebrae,” said Aladin Abokhsoom, a doctor who made the journey with him from the Libyan capital.
Ozoa was scheduled to be transferred to a Lagos hospital to have an operation to remove the bullet from his spine. For him and his family who made the trip from the southern state of Edo to welcome him home, the future is now on hold.
“We sold everything we had to pay his travel to Europe. I sold my land, I spent 950,000 naira ($3,000, 2,800 euros) in total,” his older brother Abu Zika explained. “What are we going to do?”
The IOM gives 20,000 naira to each voluntary “returnee” to help them go home. Most are originally from southern Nigeria.
Ozoa and about 20 other people considered vulnerable — unaccompanied minors and pregnant women for example — will also get “in-kind” support the equivalent of 1,000 British pounds ($1,250, 1,150 euros).
According to Julia Burpee, from the IOM in Nigeria, the aim is for them to use the cash to set up a small business such as a barber’s, small kiosk or some other way to reintegrate into society.
Abdulahi Bandele Onimode, from Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), said those who returned were driven by a sense that the grass was greener elsewhere.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and one of the continent’s main oil exporters but most of its 180 million people live in poverty: the economy is in currently in recession and unemployment is high.
Onimode said those looking to leave should stay to help the recovery “because we can build a stronger Nigeria so that those countries will now envy our own economy when we join hands to build it”.
Those whose dreams have been shattered in Libya and who have returned to Nigeria may be increasing but they represent only a minority of migrants who have left for good. Humanitarian agencies fear many will try again in other ways.
In 2016, a total of 37,551 Nigerians managed to get to the Italian coast, according to the IOM, more than those from Eritrea, Ivory Coast and The Gambia. That figure has quadrupled since 2014, when 9,000 arrived in Italy. – AFP.