When Bright stepped off the plane from Libya and heard that his home state in southern Nigeria had begun a rehabilitation programme for returned migrants, he thought it was another scam.
“So many people cheated us in the past few months,” he told AFP on the tarmac at Lagos airport, where he arrived earlier this month with nearly 300 other Nigerians.
After months of fear, torture and prayers in detention centres in Tripoli or Benghazi, the returnees registered their name, their former address and the telephone number of a loved one.
Bright, who is in his 40s, barely reacted as the Nigerian foreign ministry official, fresh off the plane from Abuja, distributed jollof rice before television cameras.
He didn’t even see the huge poster of President Muhammadu Buhari’s wife, Aisha, welcoming them back to the country.
But when he found out the governor of Edo state, Godwin Obaseki, had hired a bus to drive them the 400 kilometres (250 miles) home, he felt goosebumps.
“It’s the first time in history that this government is doing something for us,” the father of three said. “I’ve always thought I was transparent in my own country.”
Bright got on the bus with 42,500 naira ($120, 100 euros) in his pocket from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a bag of toiletries, to be reunited with his family.
“I thank God that I came back from hell,” he said.
But he was under no illusions that it would take more than that for him to start a new life.
“I was a danfo (minibus) driver but I sold it to go to Europe. My family had to borrow money to bail me out of the detention camp in Libya. I have nothing left. I came back empty,” he said.
– ‘Big crisis situation’ –
Videos shown recently on CNN of Nigerians being sold like slaves by criminal gangs in Libya provoked global outrage and reaction from the international community.
During the Europe-Africa summit, nine heads of state pledged to tackle illegal immigration, with Nigeria’s Buhari vowing to repatriate all of his compatriots stuck in Libya.
According to the authorities, there are more than 5,000 Nigerians stranded in Libya. But those who have come back say there are many more.
The back and forth of IOM charter flights between Libya and Nigeria, which began last year, has increased in recent months.
Two planes now arrive twice a week from Tripoli. Nearly 1,300 Nigerians were brought back in November. The figure was 826 in October.
Buhari has vowed to offer work and a place in society for the returnees’ children.
In reality, only Edo state, where some 80 percent of Nigerian migrants come from, has put in place a proper rehabilitation programme.
Others returnees disappear into the urban sprawl of Lagos, a megacity of 20 million people, where millionaire preacher TB Joshua has also promised to pay returnees.
Bright was one of 257 people who made the journey from Lagos to the Edo state capital Benin City.
Three days later, another convoy arrived at the hotel where returnees were put up for two nights and where they were offered professional training, particularly in agriculture.
It’s a far cry from their European dream.
Governor Obaseki has set aside 30 million naira to tackle the problem of illegal migration, which sees thousands of Nigerians risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
In September, he set up a special taskforce against human trafficking to take the longstanding problem seriously.
“The state is facing a big crisis situation,” said Sister Florence, a nun who counsels returned migrants.
“The number is too high. I don’t know how long we will be able to cope with it,” she added, cradling a tiny, dehydrated newborn baby in her arms.
– Confidence –
The following day, only about 20 of the returnees were seen wandering about between the rooms of the hotel. Only those unable to face their families and admit failure remained.
“We can’t force them to stay but we will definitely follow up on them,” said Abieyuwa Oyemwense, a member of the governor’s special taskforce.
“Those who get proper training will also help to spread the word.”
Kelvin hasn’t bothered to even register.
“What for?” asked the well-built 28-year-old, whose arms covered in scars are a permanent reminder of his time in Libya. “They never did anything for us.”
Kelvin gathered his IOM money and a plastic bag containing flip-flops, soap and a bath towel, and joined his wife.
On the pavement outside, he walked slowly, like an inmate just released from prison who is happy to have cheated death but petrified at the thought of having to start again from scratch.