In July 2018, a video from a group of 32 Nigerians desperate to escape a detention centre in Libya made its way to The Observers newsroom in Paris. The United Nations' International Organisation for Migration (IOM) sent a team to the centre and helped put the group on a voluntary return flight to Lagos. The Observers’ Derek Thomson went to Nigeria in March to meet the men who made the video, and other Nigerians who were ready to risk everything for a better life in Europe.
Thomson explains how the team first connected with the story:
The video was unforgettable. “Hello, people of the world…. We are locked up here in the prison of Oussama, Zawiyah, Libya… We are dying here. People should help us.” The video was narrated by the man filming, his voice occasionally breaking from fear. It showed another man holding a piece of bread, his face concealed by a red shirt.
The Observers contacted the International Organisation for Migration, who sent a team to the Al Nasr detention centre in Zawiyah. The IOM located the group of Nigerians and got them on the next available voluntary return flight to Nigeria on Aug. 30.
Efe and Frank: “We heard the padlock to our cell being opened”
We knew that the group’s safety wasn’t assured until they were out of the detention centre. Once they were back in Nigeria, reporter Liselotte Mas was finally able to contact them. The man who made the video was Efe Onyeka, a 25-year-old from Delta State who had saved up 500,000 naira (or around €1,200) for the trip to Europe by working for an online betting store. The man in the red shirt was Frank Isaiah, 35, a tire and battery salesman who wanted to make enough money to build a home for his wife and 3-year-old son in Rivers State.
We had been right to fear for their safety. The authorities had seen the video days after it went viral and barged into the cell demanding to know who made it. “We heard the padlock to our cell being opened,” Efe later told us. “We hid the phone in a jar of sugar. Then they started beating us and stripped us naked.” The guards eventually learned that it was Frank in the video. They took him to a courtyard, put a chain around his neck and beat him for six hours, leaving him for dead.
Now back in their hometowns, the two men are hoping to start businesses with help from the IOM, which provides business management training courses. Frank wants to restart his business selling tires and batteries, but six months after his return he’s still not working. Efe wants to open a business buying and selling palm oil. He found work in February loading palm oil onto trucks.
>> Read more on The Observers: Migrants escape detention in Libya after WhatsApp appeal
Esther and Linda: a lucky escape, but a return “without suitcases”
We went to Nigeria for “Observers Direct” to see how Efe and Frank were doing six months after their return. But we were also curious to see the impact their harrowing video might have had on other Nigerians contemplating the illegal route to Europe. Even before they board rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean, these migrants must cross 2,000km of the Sahara desert, where they risk being kidnapped, enslaved and – for the women – subject to rape and forced prostitution.
Benin City, in Edo State, is a major launching point for the trip. But on the night we arrived, there was a group of 111 people returning home. Like Efe and Frank, and the 12,000 other Nigerians since 2017 they had been stopped in Libya and had chosen to come back on one of the IOM’s voluntary return flights to Lagos. They arrived in the dark at the Motel Benin Plaza, where members of the Edo State Taskforce on Human Trafficking were waiting to meet them, with medical care and psychological counselling for each returnee, as well as two nights’ food and lodging.
Among them were two cousins, Esther and Linda. They had been in the same detention centre as Efe and Frank in Libya. They knew about the video and told us conditions improved afterward as the authorities allowed more people to leave.
Like many of the returnees we spoke to, Esther and Linda were nervous about coming home. They had left for Europe without telling their families, lured by a trafficker’s promise of cleaning work. Now they were coming back “without suitcases.” In the language of economic migrants, that means they had left Nigeria to make money, but were coming back empty-handed.
Linda (left) and Esther, who were held in the same detention centre in Libya.
Prince: "I hope that one day I'll be able to make ends meet"
There’s a common perception that migrants who fall for traffickers’ stories are uneducated and gullible. As one commenter wrote in reaction to our report: “Illegal migrants are generally ill-informed. They’re often illiterate… they know nothing.”
But that was not the case in and around Benin City. All the returnees we spoke to had known of the dangers – even if the danger of crossing the Mediterranean is abstract for someone like Frank, who had never seen the sea.
Prince Olumese was working as the director of a private school when he decided to leave for Libya. He took us to see new houses being built outside the town of Uromi, and explained that people in the area leave for Europe not to get rich themselves, but for a chance to improve their families’ lives.
Prince met and married his wife in Libya, where she was already working as a maid and sending money back to her family. They tried to cross to Italy, but were intercepted and taken to a detention centre. They have now been home for a year, but can’t afford to buy a house together. She and their baby live with relatives near Lagos, not with her parents, who were angry that she had stopped sending money back from Libya.
Derek Thomson (left) of The Observers with Prince Olumese.
"I’m hoping that, somehow, one day I’ll be able to make ends meet to take care of my wife and my baby because I love them so much,” Prince, who lives near Benin City, told us. His wife is seriously thinking of going back to Libya, even after being stranded at sea and held in a centre. It’s called being “retrafficked”.
“I don’t want her to go back there,” Prince said. “We might not be lucky this time. It’s like signing a death warrant.”