Human trafficking: How boat owners kill Nigerians, throw them into Mediterranean, by Newton Jibunoh, an explorer who crossed Sahara twice
…Says cartel’ s headquarters is Benin, recruitment centres in Aba, Asaba, Onitsha, Lagos•Says cartel’ s headquarters is Benin, recruitment centres in Aba, Asaba, Onitsha, Lagos …Inside slave camps in North Africa where desperate Nigerians say ‘no going back home’ Chief Newton Jibunoh is widely known as the explorer who crossed the world’s largest desert twice. He undertook his first Sahara crossing as a youthful adventurer and his second journey as an environmental crusader. He chose the rare and daring challenge of a solo expenditure of driving across the Sahara Desert in 1996. This became a life-changing experience and the inspiration for his now internationally-remarkable achievements in expedition and greening Earth. Newton Jibunoh In 1999, Jibunoh decided on his second Sahara expedition; this time travelling in the reverse direction from Nigeria to Europe. The motivation behind this second desert expedition was to bring to the world’s attention the plight of the millions of people in Africa affected by the fast-encroaching Sahara Desert. After his second Sahara expedition, he founded FADE -Fight Against Desert Encroachment – an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) accredited to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development. In this interview, the activist shares his experience on human trafficking. Excerpts: President Muhammadu Buhari says he will get Nigerians stranded in Libya back home. But those who know say a cartel runs this show. Why haven’t we been able to dismantle the cartel? We can but it will take lives. It is a very powerful cartel and it is an investment in millions of dollars and they are all over the place. They are in North Africa, they are in Europe and they have centres here in Nigeria – Benin, Aba, Asaba, Onitsha and Lagos. In fact, I think Benin is their headquarters. When I started tracking the whole process some 30years ago, one of the migrants that had made four attempts to cross the Sahara, to cross the Mediterranean and was trying the fifth attempt before he was introduced to me, when we got talking and after I was able to win his confidence, pleaded with me and said, “I fear for your life”. He said, “If they find out that you are doing this, they will come after you”. So, it’s a major cartel but, like I said, there is no other way but to try to stop them. Even the mafia, people are going after them. In our own case, people are not doing anything because these men and women go through this cartel and pay huge sums of money. They swear to an oath. They pay quite a lot of money. How much does it cost to engage the services of cartel members for those who want to be trafficked? When it started at that time, it was about N250, 000 – some 15/20/30years ago. Now, I hear, it is about one million Naira that each of these people pay to the cartel for documentation, to cross Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean into Europe. And when they run into trouble – and that is why you have them in these detention camps – they abandon them. So, to follow that process to get to the cartel is going to take quite a lot. Why is it that in spite of the dangers, more people still want to go? I’ll tell you a personal experience; it was during my second expedition. I had all my papers and documentation intact and people had known about me and what I was doing because CNN reported it. I had my car in the hole of the boat to move it across the Mediterranean. I also paid for a cabin because it was going to be an overnight crossing and it was going to take about 12 hours. Unfortunately and unknown to me, I was going to share the cabin with somebody who was smoking continuously and, at some point, I couldn’t take it anymore; so I had to go to the deck of the boat where there were a lot of migrants – 90% of them were Nigerians because I could hear their discussions in our languages. I listened to their conversations. Then about half way through the Mediterranean, a security agent walked up to me and asked to see my documentation. He went through the papers and said, “Please go back to your cabin because the boat was going to be raided” and that if that happens, they were going to push everybody on the deck into the Mediterranean. Did you say ‘push’? Yes, push! Why? The reason is that any boat carrying illegal migrants would be seized and the boat owners do not want that. Rather than have their boats seized by the Libyan or Moroccan authorities, they would get rid of the illegal migrants, so I went back to my cabin. So, just before we docked at Alicante, Spain, I went to the hole to prepare my vehicle and, alas, all those migrants were gone. So, I asked the security guy what happened to all the people. He said just before security agents came, they pushed everybody into the sea. That’s how it happens. I told this story before; I’ve given lectures; I’ve written about these things in a book. I talked about Fulani herdsmen in the book; I talked about migration; I talked about food security in the country. This book is now being translated into French and it is doing well in most of the French -speaking West African countries. Our ambassador in Morocco took me to meet the Mayor of Rabat for the presentation of the book and the Mayor said, “Thank God that Nigeria has woken up at last”. This was in 2002. And we are just waking up. It has taken the collapse of Libya to bring this issue to the fore. It’s not just Libya; you have these camps in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The reason is that once they arrest them and they find out that they don’t have the papers to proceed to Europe, they keep them there. And I’m sorry to say, even those people you say you’re bringing back to Nigeria, if you don’t monitor them, they are going to attempt to go back. Why would they want to go back? The reason is because they have their contract with the cartel and they owe something to the cartel. The cartel gets you the documentation to take you across the Sahara into Europe. And they know everything about your family and they threaten you that if you squeal, they will come after your family. They also force them to swear to voodoo in the shrine. This thing did not just start yesterday or something that we should just look at as an ordinary thing. I have tried for over 30years to effect a change. What do these migrants claim is the motivation in your conversations with them? Better life. Loss of confidence in their country. In the 70s and 80s, Nigeria was the best destination. Europeans came here to work, these same Europeans that don’t want us anymore; West Africans came to Nigeria because it was very attractive. We didn’t have the skilled men and people came from all over the world to work here. We were industrialising at that time. Six steel mills in the country in six geo-political zones; six paper mills; six assembly plants; the country even panicked when the influx of Europeans started and that was why we built colleges of technology and polytechnics in Nigeria and now that we have hundreds of thousands of graduates, what has happened to those industries? What happened to Nigeria Airways? What happened to Nigeria Railway? What happened to NITEL? These were the big employers of labour. There’s a relationship between desertification and food security. There are 11 states in our country bordering the Sahara. Most of the farming land has been encroached on by the desert and the desert keeps moving southwards. Most of these areas are grazing fields, stretching thousands of miles. The grazing lands are gone because of degradation and that affects food security and once that continues, the issue of migration comes in. When I started my expedition, the Sahara was known as a forbidden land. But there are some people who just want to leave Nigeria because there’s no hope, in their view. What are they doing in Italy, Germany and Holland? Most of them have been sold many years ago – as far back as 20 years ago. Then it wasn’t called slavery. It was described as cheap labour. They leave them in camps but, again, it is so expensive for the countries to maintain them in those camps; so owners of farmlands and plantations come and pick them in 20s or 30s to work in their farms. Most of the detention camps are outsourced to private companies and they give them a subvention to maintain the camps. So, instead of keeping so many people in the camp, they sell some off because they’ve come into these countries without the requisite documentation. I addressed them in one of the camps I visited. I told them that “out of all of you in this camp, maybe only 20% will make it”. You know what they started saying? They started singing to God that, at least, they would be among the 20%. Meanwhile, they had forgotten the squalor, their condition. For them to use the toilet, they would have to pay; to get a bucket of water to shower, they would have to pay and I tried to explain to them that “you can never be subjected to this kind of treatment in your home country, especially with our extended family system, somebody must help you out”. But they just want to go to Europe. You know, out of the few that are able to succeed, those who are able to build a small house for their parents, they make it appear as if it is that easy or simple so others want to join. You know, if one Angelina somewhere sends money quarterly to the mother to start a trade, it continues like a vicious cycle. In my visits to the camps, I went with the Nigerian embassies’ staff and the embassies are inundated with these stories. The ambassador in Morocco once told me that for his first two years there, all he had to deal with were issues of illegal migrants and prostitution, 419 and drugs and that, with my project, it was something positive.