By Charles Kumolu
Mummy, Festus is likely to be among them,’’ Promise Okorodion casually told her mother upon learning about the migrant shipwreck in the coast of Italy.
Seeing that her statement prompted a worried change on her mother’s countenance, Promise added: ‘’ Mummy, you are wasting your time over that senseless boy. It would even be good if he is one of them; that should at least be the reward for his stubbornness.’’
‘’How dare you talk about your cousin in that manner. He is still one of us in spite of the choices he is making,’’ Mrs. Grace Okorodion responded.
Irked by her mother’s obvious sympathy for Festus whose whereabouts has been unknown since January 2015, Promise said: ‘’I don’t really wish him dead, but I want him to have a bitter experience that will jolt him back to his senses.’’
Not bothered by her daughter’s indifference to what had become of Festus, she added thus: ‘’We will keep praying for his safety anywhere he is, even though I am not supportive of the path Festus has chosen.’’
Going by his surname, Okorodion, one would think that 22-year-old Festus hails from Edo State, but his paternal state of origin remains unknown. Reason: His mother, who is an indigene of Uromi in Edo State had him before wedlock as a teenager.
After his birth Festus was left under the care of his maternal grandfather in Kaduna who cared less about him given the fact that he was a product of an illicit relationship. Since the child’s mother was also indifferent to his upkeep, Festus was already an Alajamri (street urchin) in Kaduna at age 11.
Absence of enthusiasm
It was in this state that a relative who came visiting from Edo State in 2002 saw Festus and decided to take him back to his maternal home in one of the prominent communities in Esan North East Local Government Area of the state.
Upon arrival little Festus was received into Mrs. Okorodion’s family as their son. He was promptly enrolled into a primary school which he never attended while in Kaduna. Since he was wholly accepted by his maternal relatives, Festus attended secondary school like any of the Okoriodion lads. Having completed his secondary education, efforts were made to secure admission for him at Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma or Federal Polytechnic Auchi; but
Festus was less interested about furthering his studies.
Due to this obvious lack of enthusiasm for further studies, Mrs. Okorodion suggested he learned a trade or vocational skills. None of these appealed to Festus. All that mattered to him was to travel to Europe by road.
Such choice did not sound surprising to the Okorodions given that travelling abroad is a common aspiration in their locality. However, the fact that other young persons in that household were in tertiary institutions made Festus’ choice worrisome to the Okorodions.
Unknown to them, Festus had concluded plans to escape from home in order to realise his ambition. So while Mrs. Okorodion was away to Lagos for the Christmas holidays, Festus left home on January 15, 2015 without telling anyone. Till this moment, his whereabouts remain unknown. Inquiries from his friends, suggested that he may have travelled to Europe en route Libya.
Police station: Worried by the development, Mrs. Okorodion reported Festus disappearance to the Police. At the station, she noted that the Police also inferred that Festus may have travelled out in line with the craze in that part of Nigeria.
Notwithstanding, an agitated Mrs. Okorodion in a telephone conversation with Vanguard Features,VF, expressed the fear that she could be held responsible should anything happen to Festus.
‘’I am bothered because I know that my husband’s family is likely to accuse me of sending the boy away. He left my restaurant with a huge amount of money and no one saw him again since that day. Please, I am hoping that you will inform us if he is listed as one of the Nigerians affected in the current migration crisis in Italy,’’ she said.
Perilous journey to foreign countries
His case is not in isolation. Festus is one of the growing number of youths who daily embark on the perilous journey to foreign countries by road, especially from that part of the country.
Findings show that many youths in Edo and Delta states have become enamoured of travelling to Europe by road in search of the better life.
Though this has been the case for a long time, it has now become a fad to the extent that such movement is referred to as ‘’See Morocco, See Spain’’ in the local parlance.
Some of the youths are jobless while others, like Festus, are driven by personal desire to make quick money given the perception among them that going to Europe is the quickest way to make money.
The news that some Nigerians were among the 12 migrants thrown overboard by Muslim co-travellers in the Mediterranean while sailing to Italy, attests to the alarming trend.
The International Organisation for Migration ,IOM, in a piece titled: Migrant Arrivals by Sea in Italy Top 170,000 in 2014 observed that Nigeria accounted for 9,000 migrants out of the 170,100 that arrived Italy by sea in 2014.
While most migrants from troubled spots in Africa make the dangerous sea trips as a result of crises in their countries, those from Nigeria often point at poverty which VF found not to be as pervasive as they claim.
It is believed that more than 70 percent of Nigerians live below the national poverty line.
But among countries in sub-Saharan Africa like Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, Gambia and Ghana where some of migrants hail from, Nigeria boasts of the highest GDP, which is $2,700.
Official figures for 2013 released by the National Bureau of Statistics, put the country’s GDP at $503bn (£307bn). The figure nearly doubled previous estimates and well ahead of South Africa at around $350bn.
Since this implies that the country is the largest economy in Africa following booming sectors like telecoms, banking and the Nollywood film industry, the frightening number of people embarking on the dangerous journey’s to Europe, comes as a sharp contrast.
What is the attraction?
Faced with this situation, many are eager to know what could possibly be the attraction in these trips that are often made aboard poorly equipped vessels.
Mr. Elvis Osemokha, founder of Save Our Heritage Foundation, a Benin based non-governmental organisation that campaigns against human trafficking and dangerous migration to Europe, told VF, that poverty remains the remote cause. However, he argued that the level of poverty in the country does not call for such risky journeys to Europe.
Narrating the experience he has had with returnees and intending migrants, he explained thus: ‘’Migrants are of various categories. We are dealing with economic migrants in this circumstance. We all know that the living conditions in Nigeria are harsh. No one should deny the fact that the poverty rate in Nigeria is not alarming. Our people are poor and there are very poor people.’’
Continuing, he said: ‘’In the course of my job, I found out that some who embarked on such journeys lived below poverty line. But the condition in Nigeria has not got to the level that will make our citizens embark on such trips of no return. So, for me the attraction is the hunger for better life. And I have seen that among some returnees that we have rehabilitated. Some told me that if conditions had been good in Nigeria, the choice of going to Europe by sea would not have been made.’’
Premium on wealth acquisition
But a lecturer in the Department of Sociology in one of the private universities in the South-South, Dr. Jerome Onyenebadi, has a contrary or slightly different perception of what the attraction could be.
Onyenebadi sees the problem as a social crisis that comes at every stage of civilisation, noting that the world had often grappled with the challenges posed by migration.
‘’Things should be viewed with empirical lens. Without that understanding the underlying causes of a problem becomes difficult. There has never been a time when migration was not an issue because the society has perpetually been at war with itself. That is why I disagree that poverty is strictly responsible,’’ he said, adding thus: ‘’My argument should not be construed to mean that living conditions in Nigeria are favourable. Rather these youths are pushed into embarking on such trips by so many factors prevalent in our society.’’
Edo, Delta and South Eastern states
Onyenebadi said the reasons cut across social, economic, religious and cultural needs.
‘’We live in a society that places high premium on wealth acquisition. The churches preach materialism instead of salvation; you are only recognised in your community when you are wealthy, not minding the source of your wealth, while the entire societal fabric is materialist. In most cases, parents encourage their children to embark on such voyages even when they are aware of the risk. In this kind of society everyone wants to make money; that is why we are here today.’’
He added thus: ‘’ In 2014 the United Nations Development Programme said the richest tenth of Nigeria’s population have an income 25 times more than the poorest tenth. That tells you the level of social inequality in this country. Vulnerable citizens are bound to make unthinkable choices under this circumstances.’’
Also, peer influence, get-rich- quick syndrome and acute unemployment rate were further discovered as other reasons for such trips which have become common among indigenes of Edo, Delta and most South Eastern states
For instance, the propensity of travelling to Europe by any means is usually found in three out of every five unemployed youths from the aforementioned areas. Even some who are employed but not gainfully so also embark on this search for the proverbial golden fleece, VF gathered.
Now that these fatal journeys have assumed an epic proportion it is the wish of many that the Federal Government goes beyond adhoc responses and address the fundamental issues behind it.
‘’We expect the Federal Government to provide the social services that will create a better life for every Nigerian. That will help reduce the rate drastically among our people. We are also not relenting in our campaigns against fatal journeys, ‘’ Osemokha told VF.
During a recent trip to Benin, VF came across car stickers with the warning message: ‘’Travelling to Europe by Road is Dangerous, Don’t Dare It.’’ The awareness campaign was found to be courtesy of NGOs like Osemokhas’.
On his part, Onyenebadi wants the government to in addition to performing its primary function as enshrined in section 14(2b) of the 1979 constitution, enter into workable bilateral agreements with transit countries so as to discourage the trend.
‘’In my humble submission, if our government performs the primary function of government as outlined in the Constitution which is ensuring security and welfare of the citizens, people will think less about going to Europe or anywhere. We have just elected General Muhammadu Buhari as president. To whom much is given, much is also expected in return. So, it is expected of him to make our living condition better than it is now,’’ he added.
However, checks showed that government had not really folded its arms and watched the issues snowball into a crisis. For instance, government had, a few years ago, launched several initiatives with some countries in Africa to discourage this deadly passage to Europe. One of such countries, it was gathered, was Morocco which used to be the exit route to Spain before migrants discovered the Libyan route.
Blessing Mberu and Roland Pongou in their 2010 piece, Nigeria: Multiple Forms of Mobility in Africa’s Demographic Giant, said government was also working working with IOM on the matter.
‘’The government is currently working with the International Organisation on Migration, IOM, to facilitate the voluntary return and reintegration of Nigerian migrants living illegally in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Italy. Government has also launched campaigns on the dangers of illegal migration and has supported linking the IOM programme to its poverty-eradication strategies,’’ the duo stated.
On the global scale, the IOM had in its response to the latest migration crisis called the European Union to go beyond what it described as minimalist approach in the 10-Point Plan on Migration, announced a fortnight ago, which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores.
‘’As a paramount principle, the safety, protection needs, and human rights of all migrants and refugees should be at the forefront of the EU response. EU leaders must look beyond the present situation and work closely with transit and origin countries both to alleviate the immediate plight of migrants and refugees and address in a more comprehensive way the many factors that drive them to resort to such desperate journeys by sea. Enforcement alone will not solve the issue of irregular migration, but could increase the risks and abuse faced by migrants and refugees,’’ the IOM said in a statement posted on it website on April 24, 2015.