Nigerians evacuated by the Federal Government in the wake of the globally condemned slavery in Libya are currently kept at a transit camp in Port Harcourt, Rivers State for onward transfer to their different states of origin. ANAYO ONUKWUGHA was at the camp. His report
The afternoon sun was sauntering home when the aircraft touched down at the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa, Rivers State.
A few minutes later, the iron bird spewed out its contents: 491 roughly-clad individuals in different stages of emaciation. They were male, female and mostly young with many of the women either pregnant or nursing a baby. They are Nigerians who had left the country in search of greener pasture outside the soil of their country but met a contrary fate. They are now known as the Libyan returnees.
As they disembarked from the aircraft, they were led into the hands of the officials including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, and other top government functionaries who received them.
After the brief reception, they were led in a straight line into waiting vehicles that conveyed them into what would be their temporary home for a while: a transit camp.
The transit camp is located inside the Hajj Camp within the International Airport, which set up by the NEMA, and is heavily guarded by the personnel of the Nigeria Air Force, Department of State Security (DSS) and Police.
Upon their arrival at the camp, which is less than two minutes drive from the tarmac, the returnees were again guarded in a single file but now into tents and canopies set up inside the camp where they were fed with rice and chicken.
After the feeding the returnees were attended to by medical and immigration officials, as well as officials of National Agency and Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), who profiled them awaiting their movement to their various states of origin.
The camp had three main structures, including a mosque as well as three makeshift tent-like houses. While two main structures within the camp and two makeshift houses were for the accommodation of the returnees, the remaining makeshift house for medicals.
The two generators provided by NEMA for power supply in the camp hummed steadily while the medics attended to the returnees most of whom were looking gaunt and ill.
Despite the volume of people in the facility, the sanitary condition of the camp could be described as clean and largely habitable if one overlooked the clothes of the returnees strewn all over the place.
On Sunday, January 7, 2018, the Federal Government had commenced the evacuation of over 5,027 Nigerians stranded in Libya back to Nigeria through the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa, Rivers State.
The first batch made up of 491 Nigerians arrived in the country at about 4:45pm on that Sunday and were joined the following day by another batch comprising of 487 youths who arrived at the airport at about 10:30pm on Monday.
Each batch of the returnees were guided into waiting buses, guarded by the Police, Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) and National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) personnel for onward movement from the airport’s tarmac to a transit camp.
Apart from the returnees from Lagos and Edo states that had been evacuated by their various governments, others still await their turns. Returnees from Bayelsa and Imo States are still waiting for their state governments to evacuate them from the transit camp.
However, the returnees did not arrive home without tales of suffering and deaths that hit them while in the North African country. Majority of the girls were either pregnant or nursing mothers, an indication that they were forced into prostitution.
According to Benjamin Iyamu, a 36- year old indigene of Edo State, two Nigerians died on December 25, and December 28, 2017, a few days before their evacuation. He added that the two would have been alive if they were given medical attention.
Iyamu said, “I am a footballer; I had two cars but I sold everything I had to travel to Libya, because I hoped to get into Europe from there. My dream was to make it big while playing football in Europe.
“I travelled to Libya six months ago believing that I could make money to take care of my mother and siblings. However, I was arrested and kept in prison until the Nigerian government came to our rescue. I lost two of my friends on December 25 and December 28. They died because there were no drugs to treat them.
“I thank God and President Muhammadu Buhari for bringing me back home alive. I will never embark on such venture again in my life. None of my children and grand children will embark on such journey.”
Another returnee is 42-year-old Lucky Iyanusa from Edo State. Iyanusa said he went through hell after he was arrested by the Libyan Police.
Iyanusa explained that many Nigerians were killed by Libyan security agents for no reason, adding that the entire N850,000 he spent in order to get to Europe through the North African country had gone down the drain.
The returnee, who was an artisan before he left Nigeria, recalled that he had to sell all his tools before he could embark on the journey to Libya from Kano State through the desert.
Iyanusa said, “I travelled to Libya on June 9, 2017. My aim was to travel to Europe and the only way I could achieve that was to get to Libya first. The financial condition with me and my family in Nigeria was bad and I had to sell all my work tools to travel to Libya by road.
“I moved to Libya from Kano State and through the desert. I could not get to Europe because I was arrested by the Seaside (Marine Police in Libya). The day I was arrested, 290 Blacks were killed by the Libyan policemen; that was in November, 2017. Nigerians, Ghanaians and Malians were killed. Some had their legs shot and amputated.
“We were arrested and kept in an underground cell since last month. Inside the prison, we met some of our Nigerian brothers, who had been there for up to three years, four years, six months, nine months. Nigerians are going through hell in that place. We were fed once a day with something that looked like the bottom of a water bottle.
“People have been travelling through the desert; I am not the first person. We have burgers we pay to enhance our move. I paid N850,000 to a burger for me to travel to Libya and to Europe. I was washing cars to feed when I got there.”
One of the female returnees, Blessing Gilbert, who is also an indigene of Edo State, said she paid the sum of N600,000 to an unnamed agent to help her get to Italy, through Libya.
Gilbert said, “My mother and my siblings are suffering and that was why I wanted to go back to Italy. I didn’t know that I cannot make it but I am happy that I came back alive. I want to thank my President for bringing me back alive. I paid N600,000 to get to Libya through an agent, though I don’t know his name.”
Receiving the first batch of the returnees at a transit camp located within the Port Harcourt International Airport, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama reassured Federal Government’s commitment to return all stranded Nigerians from Libya.
Onyeama stated that there were stories of exploitation and suffering by stranded Nigerians in Libya, which compelled Federal Government to act decisively.
He said, “We made it clear to the Libyan Government that we want to see all Nigerians there. We insisted that we should see all of them, instead of hearing from them. We made it clear that they (Libyans) are signatories to international conventions and we expected them to have control of those who guard our children.
“They cooperated with us because of respect for Mr President, there were people who were making money from these children and did not want them to return home. We carried out rigorous outreach to ensure that we have everybody back.”
The minister, who noted that the programme was a continuous process that would return all stranded Nigerians from Libya, said, “The Libyan Government got the message that as far as they are Nigerians, we have zero tolerance for molestation.”
Onyeama said the Nigerian mission in Libya was coordinating the identification of the Nigerian migrants with the support of International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
He stated that the Nigerian mission and IOM were being joined by a technical team comprising representatives from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) and other relevant Nigerian government agencies.
The minister said the political and security challenges in that country made it difficult to secure the evacuation of some Nigerians back home.
He said, “There are different centres of power in that country. The central government recognised by the UN and the AU do not have full control of the territories controlled by rebels.”
Onyeama stated that there were over 50 detention camps in Libya, many of them under the control of rebels and militia groups.
Speaking during the reception for the returnees, Secretary to the Rivers State Government (SSG), Hon. Kenneth Kobani, who led the state delegation, commended President Muhammadu Buhari for making efforts in returning the stranded Nigerians.
Kobani said “As a state government, we had no choice really, let me say that the Rivers State Governor made it clear to me that we should do everything possible to make sure that this exercise was handled smoothly.
“The Rivers State Government would do everything in its power to assist federal agencies handling this programme, because above everything else, we are all Nigerians and this programme is a clear indication that when we work together, we can achieve anything.
“What you are seeing here today clearly shows that our governor and indeed the President feel same about this issue.
“On behalf of the Rivers State Governor, Mr Nyesom Wike, I will like to thank President Muhammadu Buhari, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and his team who worked tirelessly to make the return of our brothers and sisters successful.”
To Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and a member of the Federal Government delegation to Libya, those who insist on going on the dangerous trip to Libya should be ready to encounter the risks involved.
While warning Nigerians against travelling to the North African country for riches, noted that the federal government’s efforts to rescue Nigerian from the Libya slave market is continuous
She said, “Anybody thinking of going on that journey should just perish the thoughts because you are not likely to survive it.
“All those who have returned will tell you that it’s not just worth it. They’ve been to hell and back; they have a second chance.
“There is a deadline to bring them (stranded Nigerians) back. Once we bring everybody back and you are still going, really you are putting yourself into trouble.”
On her part, Julie Okah-Donli, the Director-General of National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), noted that the repatriation process is continuous.
Okah-Donli said, “Over 400 (people) came in and we are expecting another 500, about a thousand roughly but it’s a continuous exercise. We are going to be bringing more and more but right now, we are doing a lot of profiling and we are looking at over 5,000 returnees.”
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