ALTERNATIVES TO ILLEGAL MIGRATION IN NIGERIA

Another essay which I did not win, and did not expect to win. I still find it interesting, so I’ll post it anyway.

In 2017, something extraordinary happened. A boy, said to be 15 years of age, was said to have survived a 12 hour-long flight from Lagos to London while hidden in the wheel compartment of the aeroplane. His survival as a stowaway surprised many (though this was not the first time something like this happened), but such extremes measures to get out of the country did not.

This young man’s example was particularly extreme (and life-threatening), but millions of Nigerians dream of leaving the nation. It is often said that “the Nigerian dream is to leave Nigeria”, as in recent times, as the nation has battled through a global financial crisis, two recessions (one ongoing), food inflation, a rising cost of living, a weakening currency, and rising poverty levels (around 91.6 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty, this desire to leave Nigeria “in search of greener pastures” is more pressing for Nigerians than ever. In 2016, over 20,000 of the people involved in the Mediterranean sea crossing were reported to be from Nigeria.

As countries have tightened their immigration laws, and simply because they cannot take everyone who desires to migrate into the country, a rising number of Nigerians have begun to look into the option of entry “through the back door”. Illegal migration, which refers to the migration of people into a country in violation of the immigration laws of that country, is becoming a preferred pathway for Nigerians to “find a better life”, as more and more people seek to leave the country by all means necessary.

Illegal migration takes many forms, like the example of the young stowaway that was mention above, and ranging from simply overstaying one’s visa, to travelling by car through many countries until the border of the destination country is reached, and sneaking past border control, to bribing the border officials to get entry, to getting to the destination country by foot, and to entry by sea (which was the most common form in the EU migrant crisis).

The reasons for illegal migration are diverse, ranging in scope from refugees seeking asylum from insecurity (for example, the Syrians fleeing the Civil War), the challenges faced by overpopulation, the fallout from trade liberalisation, a desire to be unified with family, and, importantly for Nigerians, a rise in living standards and economic security, finding educational opportunities, and seeking employment. A recent report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP also showed that the feeling of lacking opportunities to exert influence over government also plays an important part in fueling illegal immigration. A study by Lanre Ikuteyijo of Obafemi Awolowo University found that most Nigerians had favourable attitudes towards illegal immigration. According to most of the 63 people interviewed, migrants were far better than those who stayed behind due to having a better quality of life, access to power supply, better food, and physical security.

All these factors make people embark on the journey to leave Nigeria by any means necessary. But what these prospective illegal migrants do not know (or know and choose to ignore in their pursuit of Eldorado) is that the risks of illegal migration are numerous. The journey might not even be completed, as navigating harsh territory like the seas and the desert have harsh repercussions on health and could even kill, as the many capsized boats along the Mediterranean attest. There is also the risk of severe human rights offences being committed along the journey, like rape and molestation. Countries with tightly patrolled borders could open gunfire on the migrant as he/she tries to enter the country.

Even with a successful entry into the intended destination country, not all is well. Human trafficking is a lucrative industry, and Nigerian immigrants provide a large portion of the trafficked persons. The passport of the immigrant could be seized immediately on arrival, and the migrant is sent away to work as a slave to someone that has already “bought” that person, like cases in Libya and the UAE. The smugglers could also exploit their power to kidnap the migrant and demand exorbitant sums as ransom from the loved ones back in Nigeria. There is also the potential to be taken into organised crime networks and used as foot soldiers to facilitate illegal drug trades, commit murder, and the like. Being sold into illegal prostitution is a large possibility, especially for women and girls. Of course, deportation looms over the heads of these people like the Sword of Damocles. From 2017 to 2019, hundreds of illegal migrants were deported from places like Libya, Italy, and South Africa.

Illegal migrants do not have access to the public services that normal citizens and legal migrants possess. For example, they have to go through the stress of forging documents to have access to public healthcare, bank services, and education. Due to the illegal nature of their presence, they are also more liable to be exploited for the labour due to the labour laws of their home nation not extending to them. They are paid much less, are more susceptible to injury and illness due to working in high-risk, low safety jobs, and can die from overwork.

Undoubtedly, illegal immigration is very dangerous, but even with full knowledge of the risks involved, many Nigerians will choose to relocate anyway. The calculation they are making is that the benefits of migrating, if everything works out, far outweigh the potential costs that have been explained briefly above. If we want to address the increasing problem of illegal immigration out of Nigeria, we must first look at the foundational cultural assumption that to “live life” and “make it”, the everyman must do everything in his powers to “japa”. But to address the foundation of a faulty building, the entire edifice must first be destroyed. It is useless to wax poetic about social problems without offering solutions to said problems.

One of the largest problems facing Nigerians who might even desire to stay but see themselves as having no other choice is unemployment. In a country where unemployment among young people (Nigeria has a median age of 18.1 years) is at 36.50%, this is perhaps the single biggest driver of people out of the nation, legally or illegally.

Linked to the problem of employment is the problem of poverty. In a country where the minimum wage cannot even get a citizen a COVID-19 test (the minimum wage is 30,000 Naira, while a COVID test costs 50,000), and more than 90 percent of Nigerians live on less than 2 dollars a day, these twin problems feed into a dangerous cycle that has millions of Nigerians teetering on the edge of destitution and having to resort to risky solutions like crime, fraud, and of course, illegal immigration.

To tackle these problems, efforts should be made by the government, private sector organisations, and philanthropic societies to lift the common person out of poverty and to place them in a position to interact gainfully with society. Solutions could range from vocational learning programs to expand the skillset of unemployed graduates and uneducated Nigerians, encouraging investment in burgeoning fields like technology and research, to making life easier for many Nigerians by providing basic amenities like clean water and good infrastructure.

The problem of security (at least 2 million people are in IDP camps) is a sizeable problem that can only be addressed by the government. Security should be a fundamental human right, and people are having to flee from their abode to escape bandits and terrorists, and some have had their lives turned upside down by criminal groups and cultists.

The most underrated problem, as highlighted by the UNDP report referenced above, is the feeling of powerlessness to influence the course of events in the nation. Mass defections blur the lines between parties and give the impression that everyone is the same regardless of party allegiance: corrupt, nepotistic, and selfish. Plain rigging and underage voting in elections weaken the faith of Nigerians in their institutions and rid the elected officials of legitimacy. Bribery at all levels of government creates a justifiable impression that the government is beholden only to the rich and others are out of their scope. The government has to take the majority of the blame for this, and the work of rebuilding trust and legitimacy is one that time must not be wasted on.

As referenced above, Nigerians also emigrate because of the promise of a safe, easy education. The public university system is plagued by strikes, underfunding, and corruption. The private university system is seen as too costly for the common Nigerian, and so a “middle of the road” alternative should be found, whether in financially liberating the public school universities to provide more funding and autonomy so that school calendars can be stable.

Part of the findings in the study done by Lanre Ikuteyijo referenced above included the fact that many young Nigerians do not know about legal channels of migration and many do not even have a valid passport. There is sizeable work to be done on educating the public on reliable channels of emigration, like the many scholarships provided by many organisations such as the Chevening Association that provide young, intelligent Nigerians with the opportunity to gain a meaningful education out of the country, or job openings that provide for a work visa and steady pay.

The private sector and philanthropic organisations have a particularly important role to play in raising the floor of the Nigerian youth and correcting faulty cultural assumptions. People naturally distrust the government due to the reasons I mentioned above, and this is the perfect space for organisations like the CAAN to step in. The information gap can be bridged by educating the public on the dangers of illegal immigration, adjusting the cultural assumptions fueling the immigration drives, and most importantly, convincing the Nigerian populace that the nation is worth staying for and that this is a project that needs everyone. Stimulating discussions, much like this essay opportunity, are very much needed to get the ball rolling in the minds of Nigerians and educating them on possible possibilities of emigration.

The average Nigerian youth is faced with many challenges to getting a better standard of living, and these problems, plus the pervasive cultural assumption that the best life as a Nigerian is found elsewhere, contribute to a feeling that leaving Nigeria by any means is the only way to success. If the risks of such an approach are highlighted, and special focus is on how to change the conditions of everyday young Nigerians, that underlying idea of what the good life means to a young Nigerian can be rectified, setting the nation on a pathway that will ultimately benefit everyone.

REFERENCES

Africanews (2017 May 7), “Nigerian teenager survives 12-hr Lagos-London flight in wheel compartment”, www.africanews.com/amp/2017/07/05/nigerian-teenager-survives-12-hr-lagos-london-flight-in-wheel-compartment/, Africanews.

Akintuotu, Eniola (2019, Feb 15), “Number of poor Nigerians rises to 91 million — World Poverty Clock”, https://punchng.com/number-of-poor-nigerians-rises-to-91-million-world-poverty-clock/, The Punch Newspapers.

Ikuteyijo, Lanre (2020, Jan 21), “Why young Nigerians risk illegal migration to find their ‘Eldorado’”, https://theconversation.com/amp/why-young-nigerians-risk-illegal-migration-to-find-their-eldorado-129996, The Conversation.

Trading Economics (2018), “Nigeria Youth Unemployment Rate”, https://tradingeconomics.com/nigeria/youth-unemployment-rate, Trading Economics.

UNDP (2019), “Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe”, https://www.undp.org/content/dam/rba/docs/Reports/UNDP-Scaling-Fences-EN-2019.pdf.

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The Armchair Nigerian

20. Avid Reader. Nigerian. Interested in literature, psychology, economics, biology, finance, computer science, and football (soccer). Passive comics fan.