Death in the Desert: Dangers of Entering Europe Illegally

Want to send your child or ward abroad? Beware, for you may be condemning that person to death. Countless others might have gone overseas.

But the sad truth is that many of those who set out to make it to Europe or America illegally shall never return, because many never made it to their destinations in the first place. For many, their trip to Europe ends in unmarked graves in the desert.

Fowl-stripped human skeletons, which litter the Sahara Desert and numerous bloated corpses, which float to the banks of the Mediterranean, are veritable testimonies to the futility of innumerable immigrants’ efforts to enter Europe illegally.
Beware of that “been-to,” who on his/her home visit seems desperate to prove newfound fortune, after a short spell living abroad. Such emigrants go to great troubles to flaunt their wardrobe, photo-album, and spend money recklessly. Often, these been-to operate in groups.

They drive around town in a convoy of vintage cars and jeeps. From each vehicle, music blares deafeningly, while the occupants, all dressed to the nines, pass around bottles of expensive spirits and wines. The beer drinkers among the lot brandish cans of imported lager beer. They often loudly tell traders to keep the change each time they buy some item.
This air of prosperity found overseas is only a ploy to lure a victim.

Their target is the prospective “wanna-be,” usually young boys and girls without jobs and unable to gain admission to a local tertiary institution. Frustrated at home, these naÃ?¯ve youngsters fall easy prey to the visiting been-to, who promises to ferry them to some land flowing with milk and honey abroad, for a fee that could run as high as 3,000 dollars. Ignorant families believing they would have solved their kid’s problems for good by sending him/her abroad, run around to raise the money and pay the visiting been-to.

For most of these youngsters, however, raising the money to send them “away” (abroad) is not the end of their problems. In fact, it marks the beginning of a bigger, more dangerous and life-threatening burden. Still want to send that child abroad? Beware!

Dreams die first
About 50 Nigerians are believed to have perished in the Sahara Desert in the course of an ill-fated expedition to enter Europe illegally. A source at the Embassy of Nigeria in the Malian capital, Bamako said the victims were among a group of 56 prospective illegal immigrants attempting to enter Europe across the Mediterranean.

Going by accounts made to the Nigerian mission in Bamako by Mr. Bright Omoregie, one of the survivors, the 56 Nigerians had arrived in Mali, in different groups, in November 2000. They eventually gathered in a village called Goua, some 2,000 km from Bamako. From Goua they embarked on the ill-fated journey in two hired Toyota trucks. Four days into their trip, one of the trucks broke down somewhere in the Sahara Desert. Promptly, the drivers of both vehicles and one driver’s mate volunteered to use the functional truck to go and fetch spare-parts and a mechanic. That was to be the last time the others would see the three men.

On the third morning, the stranded travellers woke up to discover that the other driver’s mate, the only one familiar with the unmarked routes on that ocean of sand, had also vanished. Consequently, the desperate tourists scattered into the desert in search of rescue.

According to Omoregie, after two days’ search and finding no help, his group decided to return to the truck, at least to die where their corpses would be found. Given the uncharted nature of the desert terrain it took Omoregie’s group four days to trace the truck.

Meanwhile, each member of the group was surviving on his/her urine. Having exhausted the water reserve in a Gerry-can strapped to the truck, the marooned sojourners had turned on the water inside the radiator and emptied that too.

On their sixth day, on empty stomachs, under the scorching desert sun Omoregie and others in his group picked the faint sound of a vehicle’s revving engine. Immediately, they set out in search of that automobile. When they located the truck, the driver found their tale incredible but still agreed to rescue Omoregie and his companions out of the desert.

Two days later, in the course of searching for the others, this driver spotted some items of clothing scattered about and felt that their owners, or the remains of such persons couldn’t be far away. Further scouting brought the men to a little cave in which they found four survivors close to death. The four, included one girl, and none could talk immediately. Upon revival, none could recall how they got to where they had been found. Unfortunately, the girl in the group later gave up the ghost before the group could be ferried to the Nigerian Embassy in Bamako.

When the survivors were brought to the nearest Malian settlement, to where they had been found, the friendly natives admitted the Nigerians warmly and even called a meeting to raise food and materials for the survivors before their evacuation to Bamako.

According to our source at the Nigerian mission in Bamako, the missing 50, taken for dead, are just one example of numerous Nigerians who perish daily in their foolish and often futile effort to enter Europe illegally.

“The best of our boys and girls are dying like fowls in the desert. The Nigerian media should help in reminding our youth that the streets of foreign lands are not paved with gold”, said one respondent.
Many Nigerians, believed by friends and families to be living in Europe or America are actually either dead or languishing in misery in the Sahara or some West African country. Some can’t come home out of shame.

One boy said he would love to return but cannot, because he had stolen money (over N150, 000) from his father’s bedroom to pay for a trip to Europe. That journey ran aground in Bamako, Mali in 1999. Now, the former undergrad ekes a living as a barber.

Reminded of the Biblical tale of “The Prodigal Son”, tears welled up in the home-sick barber’s eyes who said: “It is doubtful the old man would ever forgive me. We come from a very conservative environment and I shamed him before our societyâÂ?¦. I had hoped I would succeed in getting into Europe. I would have worked hard, saved up, and sent his money back to him. After all, N150, 000 is barely 1,000 dollars”, he lamented. Dreams die firstâÂ?¦.

Apart from Mali, our trip took us to Benin Republic, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) and Togo, among others.

We met on a sunny Monday morning, but one of the three boys, apparently the youngest of the lot convulsed intermittently in the course of our hour-long encounter. We met inside the premises of the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan, Republic of Cote d’Ivoire (RCI) in October 2000. Although the waiting lounge was over-crowded with visitors who were visibly distressed, three youngsters stood out conspicuously, among the lot. They looked like they badly needed sleep. Not only that, each could use a bath, and they looked famished. As we found out later, they were actually starving.

The three young men, Bright Ogiemwonyi, Benson Omoregie and Hilary Ekpenisi, aged 23, 29 and 30 respectively at the time, were stranded. They had been lured into the wilderness and then left in a lurch, by an old school mate.

Omoregie and Ogiemwonyi studied at Ika Grammar School in Delta State. Ekpenisi gave his address as Number 7, Prof. John Ebie Street, Agbor in Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta State. Each of the boys claimed they paid 3,000 US dollars to their old school mate to ferry them to Europe. As it turned out, that trip ran into a terminal hitch in Abidjan.

According to Ogiemwonyi, the man who promised to take the trio to the fabled Promised Land is dark complexioned, tall and hailing from Agbor, and is also a long-time friend of the lad’s families.

Their “Sponsor” or “Trawley”, as human traffickers are more commonly called, claimed to be living in Spain. Since the 1980s when the younger lads came to know him, he had visited home a number of times.

From his airs, wardrobe, hairstyle and the ring dangling from one of his ears, he fit many people’s perception of the image of one living abroad. The trawley’s photo album also held photographs of the Nigerian in the company of non-blacks. This sort of lent further credence to his claim of living in Europe.

Ogiemwonyi finished high school in 1996. An ex-student of Ika Grammar School, the lad gave his family’s address as at Number 10, Egun Street, Agbor.

Before he met the man who promised to get him into Europe, Ogiemwonyi wasn’t doing badly. He owned a mini-mart, selling provisions and could save enough from the enterprise to furnish his abode with various modern electronic appliances such as a high-fidelity stereo set, CD/VCD player, remote controlled colour TV set and so on.

To meet the fee of 3,000 US dollars required by the trafficker, Ogiemwonyi said he sold off his belongings, including the wares in the provision store and closed his savings account.

Ogiemwonyi, Omoregie and Ekpenisi left Nigeria on August 11, 2001 accompanied by their so-called sponsor. From Lagos, the group travelled to Cotonou in Benin Republic where they boarded a bus to Lome, the Togolese capital.

In Lome, the four men continued their journey toward Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, aboard a trans-ECOWAS bus company with the acronym “STIF”.

Ogiemwonyi recounted that on arriving Koumassi, near Abidjan, the “sponsor” gave his wards a total of CFA 10,000 (roughly $20) and directed them to check into one lodge called “Alliance Koumassi” for a night, promising he would come for them the following morning. That is the last time the victims saw their predator. Meanwhile, having exhausted the meager cash left on them, the travellers began to pawn their belongings for food and drinks.

For another seven days or so, the hotel’s workers harboured the lads, partly out of sympathy after listening to their tale of woe, and probably because the three-some promised they would eventually pay up, even if their “guardian” failed to turn up. The operators of the inn were further re-assured by the contents of the fellows’ luggage, which included traditional African textiles, that the boys had planned to sell on arrival in Europe so they could pay for immediate needs. The youngsters also owned expensive wristwatches, shoes and so on.

On the 11th day, the inn’s managers’ threatened they would hand the boy’s travel papers to the police, if the distressed lodgers did not settle their outstanding bills and check out. Desperate and scared, the boys quickly sold off what was left of their property at give-away prices and managed to pay up.

Having sold off virtually all their possessions, feeding became a big problem. After their 14th day in Koumassi, the lads had nothing more to sell, save the clothing they had on. One after another they sold off their shoes. However, each immediately bought a pair of bathroom slippers with a fraction of the proceeds from “hailing” his leather footwear. Later, they resorted to selling their trousers for peanuts to buy food. As one sold his pants, he bought a cheap pair of shorts with part of the money.

Finally, they had nothing to sell, and no fare to pay their way forward or back. Eventually they beg sleeping rough and living off charity. When they came by say CFA 100 (the equivalent of 19 naira, those days), the three young men shared whatever that amount could buy. On some days, that was all the meal they had.

At that point, the unfortunate wayfarers had little choice and ate whatever they could find. Prompted by starvation they quickly adjusted to eating “atcheke”, a cassava-based staple among Ivorians. A ball of “atcheke” sells for the equivalent of N19. It is usually eaten with fish, chicken or beef soup, and costs from CFA 500 and above.

But for our straiten compatriots these protein accompaniments had become luxury they could not afford. Thus, three young men were now sharing a ball of “atcheke” worth N19, (usually meant for one person). This they ate without fish, meat or what have you.

Finally the boys, fearing for their lives in the face of starvation, set out for the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan in search of succour and assistance to get back home.

Ogiemwonyin again: “By the time we trekked more than five hours from Koumassi to “Le Plateau” area of Abidjan, where our mission is located, the embassy had closed for the day”.

Unfortunately, it was on a Friday night they got there and the security officers could not admit them into the premises. Thus, they had to pass the next three nights in the street, by the gate of Nigeria House, as embassies do not work during weekends.

As regards how they fed over the last three days, the trio confessed they had to beg for alms to keep body and soul together.

“Sometimes, it may not be an altogether bad thing for one to experience the hard times. Look at me now; if any one had advised me back home against this journey, I won’t have listened. But here I am eager, even desperate, to return to my country, Ogiemwonyi mused.

When contacted over the lads’ plight, a patron of the Nigerian Community in Cote d’Ivoire, Chief Theophilus Opara called on the depleting authorities to take necessary steps to prevent the so-called sponsors from depleting Nigeria of able-bodied human resource.

“The pretend they will take the young ones to Europe and America, for huge amounts. In the end, they just bring them and dump here. Usually these stranded youngsters have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat.

“Eventually, they look like mad men and somehow they are brought to my house. I sent three of such boys home in July 2001. One of the boys hails from Nekede, my hometown in Imo State.

“Every year, I help between 20 and 30 stranded Nigerians to return home”, said Opara, Secretary-General of the Nigerian Community from 1974 to 1993. Opara, a former President of the Nigeria Community, added: “Our Government should take steps to arrest this parlous situation”.

The nefarious activities of some Nigerians across the West African sub-region leaves many of the country’s diplomats with eyes heavy from want to sleep. At various Nigerian embassies, diplomats have heard so many well-crafted tales of woe; they don’t know which could be true any more.

Mr. Kehinde Olisemeka, Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Abidjan, revealed that mission spent at least 30,000 US dollars on evacuating distressed Nigerians in 2000.

Unfortunately, some people thinking of abusing that privilege cook up heart-rending tales to further fleece the mission.

Given the stress they have to endure, you often can’t help but wonder why some Nigerians prefer to suffer in foreign lands, when they could easily return home, pick up the pieces and relaunch themselves on the path to a decent career. In Bamako, we found that most of the Nigerians managing to stay alive there would certainly be better-off back home.

Yet, many prefer living in a world of fantasy and misery, hoping to raise enough money, even if it takes a hundred years, to travel to Europe.

Many well-built Nigerian young men we saw in Bamako, including some executive members of the Nigerian Community, are barbers. The fee for a haircut in the Malian capital ranges between the equivalent of 50 and 80 US cents.

Thus, how they hoped to save up to pay for their illicit entry into Europe most could not explain. Aside hairdressing, some Nigerians eke a living working in restaurants as dishwashers. Although they get fed thrice a day, the take-home at the end of the month is just enough to take them deeper down the road to a future uncertain.

Many prospective illegal immigrants favour Mali for one reason: The presence of forgery experts, who supply counterfeit Malian passports. Moreover, holders of Malian passports enjoy visa-free entry to some Arab and Maghreb countries, whose northern coastline is a popular stowaway point among human traffickers. For many years, visa racketeers have been enjoying a thriving business in Mali, where clients pay as much as 3,000 US dollars for a counterfeit visa. Surprisingly, many illegal immigrants prefer a fake visa because with that forged document, it is easier to vanish without trace, once they enter Europe or the US, whereas an authentic document bears references, which could prove very useful leads to investigators from the immigration authorities. This is the reason why a fake visa costs more in Mali.

Nigerian girls working as prostitutes across the ECOWAS region further worsen their national image, aside those involved in human trafficking and forgery. The situation is made more serious as the majority of those lured into the unwholesome trade belong in the 14 to 19 years bracket. Although some of the girls were deceived into leaving Nigeria with bogus promises of lucrative jobs and a better life “abroad”, many actually went into this venture knowingly. A lot were even encouraged by their parents to travel abroad to work as prostitutes, so they could send money home to build houses and buy cars like their peers had done.

On August 22, 2001 Mrs. Titi Abubakar, wife of the Vice President and Chairperson of the “Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), received 33 girls rescued in Republic of Guinea, from a syndicate living off prostitutes and various rackets. However, the lucky 33 are like a drop in the ocean considering the number of Nigerian girls operating as whores in West Africa.

Ambassador Kehinde Olisemeka, Nigeria’s erstwhile envoy to Abidjan, once told us that “Children as young as 10 years old are among Nigerian girls working as prostitutes in Cote d’Ivoire”. In 2000, Ambassador Olisemeka had disclosed: “At the last count, the number of Nigerian girls engaged in prostitution in Cote d’Ivoire is 20,000”. In Abidjan, many of the prostitutes from Nigeria operate in Treichville, Adjame, Quartier Biafra, Quartier Appollo et cetera.

Olisemeka, who described the level of involvement of Nigerian girls in the flesh trade in Cote d’Ivoire, “as very distressing” further remarked: “We continue to witness an influx of hundreds of these girls”.

The scourge is the more disturbing because most of the harlots of Nigerian origin in that country fall within the 10 and 20 years age bracket, Olisemeka rued. As a result, prostitution “is a major pre-occupation which the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan is facing, in keeping with government’s position on this issue”, the envoy remarked.

Olisemeka attributed the influx of Nigerian prostitutes to Cote d’Ivoire “to the fluidity with which the girls can move out of Nigeria. It’s an organised network and, of course, they take advantage of the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and Goods,” he observed.

“Usually the girls are promised entry into Europe, after a stop-over in Cote d’Ivoire, where the conveyors claim they will procure visas for the girls. But on getting to Cote d’Ivoire most of these girls are abandoned and they have no other course than to make ends meet, or find some way of keeping body and soul together, pending when they will embark on the next phase of their dangerous trips”, the ambassador said.

Olisemeka, had however, been optimistic that the plenitude of Nigerian prostitutes in that country will begin to decline in the light of recent efforts to tackle the scourge.

“I would like to commend the authorities in Nigeria, in general, for taking this issue to heart. On the institutional basis, a lot is happening”, Ambassador Olisemeka reassured.

Aside the institutional strategies, Olisemeka added that the Nigerian Community in the RCI had been sensitizing their compatriots to the dangers of prostitution. The envoy further added that plans were afoot to establish a forum or non-governmental body, so that through a symbiotic relationship with similar bodies in Nigeria the menace could be reined in.

“We hope that, by liaising closely with the authorities in Nigeria, we will be able to have a scheme on the ground in Cote d’Ivoire that will add value to the lives of these girls. So that when you propose that they should go home, they would return with some trade: They could be good hairdressers, seamstresses, and so on”, Olisemeka said.

While it is not a cheery story that Nigerians account for a large percentage of racketers and prostitutes in various West African countries, their plight in Mali could hardly be worse. A source at the Nigerian embassy in Bamako actually lamented: “Our girls are dying like fowls here”. Aside about 50 taken for dead since their disappearance on the Sahara Desert during a failed expedition to enter Europe, a lot more have perished through other means.

“In August 2001, we buried four victims of the dreaded Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Only one of the victims was male. The most beautiful and brightest of our youth fall victim to these traffickers and end up dying like chickens”, said the diplomat.

Nigerian girls account for a large percentage of the prostitutes operating in the Malian capital, especially around the international motor-park called “Auto Gare Sogoniko”. In fact, during our visit to the area on Saturday, September 10, 2001, we discovered that while more residents of Bamako had their eyes glued to TV sets bearing live coverage of the 2002 African Nations Cup draws, around the Faladie area of the city, within which the motor-park stands, some Nigerians were entertaining those who cared to watch with a different spectacle. A fight had broken out between two Nigerians, over a girl.

However, this was no love war. It was a war of greed in which the girl involved could well have been a ware or some article of trade. As the story goes, one trafficker had brought a curvaceous maiden from Nigeria to Mali. The “conveyor” (as this class of traffickers are called) claimed he had spent CFA 200,000 to ferry the girl there. Since that man is not based in Mali (a roving human trafficker is known as “Shuttling Trawley”), he had put the girl up for sale.

Having brought a “fish” (a trafficker’s catch) in her prime, one Bamako-based trafficker or “Sitting Trawley” had offered CFA 500,000 (then worth N95, 000) for the girl. However, before the “Shuttling Trawley” rose from siesta his ware had disappeared, leaving a note and CFA 300,000 for her sponsor. The sponsor (or “sponsorer” as we heard some girls say) responded to the message by raining telling blows on the talebearer. Although he made 50% profit, at least, on his investment, he was nonetheless enraged by the perceived loss of CFA 200,000, just like that. Not one for lying low in the face of a serious assault, the fellow Nigerian had replied punch for punch, kick for kick. Quickly, a crowd had gathered with Nigerians in the audience split into opposing camps, and soon blows and pieces of broken bottles were flying freely. Such is the dog-hit-dog life of some Nigerians in Bamako.

In Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin Republic, the situation is only marginally different because Nigerian girls, some as young as 13, also account for a large percentage of the call-girls working in various brothels across that city. Such is the ubiquity and preponderance of Nigerian girls in the euphemistic “world’s oldest profession” in Cotonou that their nation’s image has also been severely blighted here, too.

The reality there must be horrible, for a leading member of the Nigerian Community in Benin Republic, Mr. Ibrahim Adewunmi, to have called on the President Olusegun Obasanjo-led Federal Government to take urgent steps toward redressing the nation’s image through curbing the outflow of Nigerian girls travelling abroad for prostitution.

Pa Ibrahim, a former leader of the Yoruba Community in Cotonou for a record 21 years, lamented that Nigeria’s image has been severely battered by the plenitude of Nigerian girls engaged in the flesh trade across various Beninese towns.
“It is a matter of grave concern, and a very shameful development, that our girls account for so many prostitutes in Benin Republic. In fact, we believe that the Federal Government should empower the Nigerian Embassy in Cotonou to get the Beninese authorities to deport all these harlots”, Pa Ibrahim flared.

Many of these whores could be found around “Auto Gare Internationale, Jonquet”, an international motor-park on the fringes of Cotonou’s red-light zone.

“You need to come here at night to witness the embarrassment, which other Nigerians living in Benin Republic have to endure because of the ill-conduct of a relatively few of our compatriots here”, he lamented.

The senior citizen also added that a lot of the Omolanke (truck) pushers at Dan Tokpa Market and around Missebo, a commercial centre on the banks of the Tokpa River are able-bodied young men from Nigeria. To worsen matters, a number of Nigerians are sometimes fingered over various crimes. These do not augur well for Nigeria’s image”, the elder intoned.

“Many of our youngsters think that the streets of foreign lands are paved with gold. Anyone who has travelled abroad knows that this is not true. Our people should therefore, return home, if they cannot find their feet; instead of disgracing our country and all of us, here’, Ibrahim said.

Pa Ibrahim, a native of Iree, in Osun State, also advised Nigerian youths at home “to be wary of fabulous tales of how easily money could be made overseas. These false stories lure many Nigerians out of the safety of their homes into much suffering in foreign lands”, he observed.

Many Nigerians in Cotonou also expressed their feelings of shame at the abundance of Nigerian girls in prostitution abroad, in spite of the perceived wealth of their country, the so-called Giant of Africa.

The Secretary of Nigerian Community Union (NCU), Cotonou, Mr. Lateef Olujobi, suggested intensification of security agencies’ efforts at the borders to fish out suspect characters from genuine businessmen and women with legitimate reason for travelling.

According to Mr. Olujobi, “The porosity of Nigeria’s borders poses a great risk for the nation. People who enter, or leave, our shores through illegal routes could travel with drugs and even guns, therefore security checks should be made more stringent. If the borders were tight, how could our girls come out in such large numbers to work as prostitutes”, he queried.
The NCU scribe then advised: “The problem of Nigerian girls in prostitution should be addressed at source.”

Before the crash of the Nigerian economy, brought about by the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) introduced in the 1980s by the General Ibrahim Babangida regime, very few Nigerian girls went overseas to work as prostitutes. At home, crime rate was generally much lower across Nigeria, too.

Thus, many Nigerians both within and outside their country believe their government has a great role to play in tackling human trafficking, and their national image severely tarnished by the plenitude of Nigerians involved in international prostitution, forgeries and other crimes.

Olujobi, who observed that Nigerian girls are not only hawking flesh in Benin Republic but engage in prostitution all over the world because of the hardship at home, called on the Nigerian Government to work harder to improve the standard of living in their country. “It is only when that happens, and things get better, that our girls will stop going abroad to debase themselves and their nation”, Olujobi reasoned.

Burkina Faso
In Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, the situation is the same, going by the rue of Mr. Salif Sorogho of the local Nigerian Embassy that, “Many of our citizens are disgracing us”. Speaking to people across the Burkinabe city, we gathered that a number of Nigerians have, through their nefarious activities, foisted the image of “419ers”, racketeers and prostitutes on their nation. Nigerians, who have lived in Burkina Faso for decades were unanimous that Nigerian girls account for about 50 per cent of all the prostitutes in that country. Diplomatic sources revealed that the preeminent position of Nigerians in prostitution in Burkina Faso “constitutes a cause of serious concern”.

Aside the capital city of Ouagadougou, most of the Nigerian flesh merchants, who are predominantly from Edo, Akwa Ibom and the Igbo states, ply their trade in Fada N’Gourma, Kantchari (in the eastern parts); Bobo Dioulasso and Sikasso (in the western parts). We learnt that most Nigerian commercial sex workers in Burkina Faso made their exit from Nigeria in buses, which depart from Shaki, in Oyo State.

On realizing that they had been sold into prostitution, some of the girls seeking rescue search out the Nigerian mission in Ouagadougou for help in repatriation. Thus, as at 2001, that Embassy of Nigeria was funding the return of an average of 10 girls back home every month. Sometimes, the number is much higher, said Sorogho, a consular clerk, who added that the Nigerian Embassy in Ouagadougou had been doing its best to redress Nigeria’s image in Burkina Faso.

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