Young Nigerians make up the largest population of the growing flow of migrants from Africa to developed countries. In 2016, over 20,000 involved in the Mediterranean Sea crossing were reported to be from Nigeria.
Understanding their reasons for leaving the country is important if Nigeria is going stem the tide.
I conducted a study to establish the extent to which young people aged between 15 and 35 were susceptible to illegal migration and whether they were aware of what it entailed. I also examined the attitudes and survival strategies adopted by irregular migrants returning to Nigeria.
I focused on three groups of migrants who fall into the “irregular migration” category. The first were those who arrived in a country illegally. The second, those who arrived legally – for instance on the basis of tourist or student visas – and then overstayed the period covered by their visas. And finally, asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected and who have not left the country as required.
My findings showed that most young people who migrated under irregular circumstances were motivated by three factors: economic reasons, family dynamics and social media.
Most said they believed that the “end will surely justify the means”. And that they perceived ability to travel abroad as a sign of success.
We conducted interviews with 63 young people who had not yet left the country in four Nigerian cities: Lagos, Ibadan, Ile-Ife and Benin City. We targeted those susceptible to migration. These included those who were unemployed, in their final year at a tertiary-level education institution and those engaged in Nigeria’s compulsory National Youth Service Corps. We also included seven young people who had tried to migrate but had been returned.
We also ran separate focus group discussions for men and women. We chose people on the basis of whether or not they were familiar with the process of irregular migration.
Once in the groups we asked questions to determine their familiarity with the concept of irregular migration. Most said they were. We also established that most were unfamiliar with formal immigration procedures and that more than half did not have a valid passport.
Most knew someone personally who had travelled out of the country through illegal means such as forging a passport, using unauthorised agents, and travelling to “Europe by road” – as irregular migration is referred to in the popular idiom.
Most expressed positive attitudes about irregular migration, stating that the end would justify the means. They all shared the view that migrants were far better off than those who stayed behind because they had access to a better quality of life.
Bola, a 29-year-old female unemployed youth from Osun State, asserted:
Sincerely, those who migrate outside the country often live far better than we in Nigeria. They enjoy constant power supply, good weather, eat good diet and to a reasonable extent, they are secured.
Irregular migration tends to fester in the face of economic adversity. Nigeria’s economy is in a bad shape. Unemployment among young people is particularly high at 36.50% in 2018.
In addition, poverty levels have got worse. In 2019, the number of extremely poor Nigerians was estimated at 91.6 million, nearly half of the country’s total population. Nigeria also has 87 million people living in poverty.
This increase is one of reasons Nigerians leave the country in search of “Eldorado”. In other words to find security, work and new ways of life in other countries.
A recent report launched by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on irregular migration echoed my findings. In documenting the experiences of Africans who had migrated to Europe using irregular means, it identifies a lack of opportunity to exert influence on their governments as reasons for migration.
Finding answers isn’t easy. For example, some of the recommendations made in the UNDP report, such as creating more incentives for young people at home and expanding legal pathways for migration – come across as rhetoric. Most aren’t new either.
Several suggestions have been put forward by scholars and development bodies. These include: facilitating circular migration between European and African countries, tackling the issues of unemployment and underemployment in countries of origin, and addressing the problems resulting from violence and other forms of political instability.
The common denominator is that all efforts must be designed with the aim of making the home a place people don’t want to leave. And programmes to discourage young people from irregular migration must go beyond deterrence and punishments.
There should also be a concerted effort to challenge the fundamentally erroneous beliefs about migration. This must include demystifying fantasies about life abroad and educating young people about the realities of life as an irregular migrant.
Finally, those who stay home and succeed must be celebrated.