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Despite Strict International Laws, Challenges Abroad, Young Africans are Still Crossing Borders

Despite Strict International Laws, Challenges Abroad, Young Africans are Still Crossing Borders

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The migration trend is not entirely new. Since the 1950s, people, particularly the elite class, have been migrating to the UK to pursue a better education…

By Sybil Fekurumoh

On April 4th, 2022, Patrick Lloya, a 24-year-old Congolese refugee was killed by a police officer in Michigan, USA. There is also the unfortunate story of the Nigerian lady, Itunu Babalola, who was wrongly charged and jailed in Côte d’Ivoire where she eventually died. On June 24, 2022, at least 23 African migrants were killed at the Melilla/Morocco border in an attempt to enter Spain. These cases only amount to a sprinkle in the ocean of pitfalls that migration creates. But the sprinkling subsists. Migration is still on the rise. 

Since time immemorial, people have relocated from their countries to others in search of the proverbial greener pastures and for better opportunities elsewhere. It could also be to seek better education, and employment, or to flee war-struck regions or places affected by natural disasters,  to avoid persecution, asylum seeking, etc.  In recent times, there has been a surge of individuals leaving Nigeria – and Africa generally – with many vying to relocate to other African, especially western countries.

In Nigeria, the trend has come to be colloquially referred to as “japa” which loosely translates to “to run away quickly.” Every now and then on social media platforms, threads and posts pop up offering fast ways to leave the country. There are also guide books, migration agents, consultancy firms, English language proficiency practice, examination centres, etc., providing these services. We actively talk about it and make jokes about it, so much that one could say it has become popular culture. There are even songs inferring and encouraging migration. The “Nigerian Dream” is now to leave the country, an aspiration that will speed up success for individuals. A survey showed that 52% of young Africans would consider emigrating. As of 2020, the number of emigrants from Africa has almost doubled, compared to two decades ago. There are a higher number of migrants from South Sudan and Burundi, with Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, and Europe becoming the top destinations for migrants. Canada, the US, and the UK are the top migrant destination for Africans.

Recently, Nigeria reached an agreement with Britain to deter illegal migration by increasing the number of deportation of people considered to be “dangerous foreign criminals.” This group of migrants includes those who entered with illegal documents,  whose visas have expired, or who have entered into fraudulent marriages to retain residency. Since the agreement, 13 Nigerians and 8 Ghanaians were deported back to their respective countries. The UK had also reached a similar agreement with Rwanda, in this case, to send off asylum seekers in the UK to Rwanda. The decision stirred up conversations about whether it was humane to do so as the actions were against human rights. 

Migrants are also challenged with problems of racism, profiling, and xenophobic attack. Non-national African migrants from countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe face frequent xenophobic attacks in South Africa. An example is the case of a Zimbabwean gardener that was murdered in Johannesburg in April, 2022.

There are also adjustment problems, such as getting acclimatised to the weather, food, and cultural shock that new migrants may initially find overwhelming. But despite all of these, the immigration processes and laws becoming more stringent, and migrants running the risk of deportation, especially where entry into the country is through illegal means, it still has not deterred Africans from aiming to relocate. In the words of Kenyan-born poet, Warsan Shire, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” According to Shire, there could be direr conditions back home than there are abroad.

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The migration trend is not entirely new. Since the 1950s, people, particularly the elite class, have been migrating to the UK to pursue a better education. The 60s had skilled migrants from Nigeria relocate in search of better work opportunities.  The farming practice where black children were fostered by white families was prominent in the mid-50s as the African parents were migrant students that took up temporary residency in universities in Britain. The practice inspired the 2018 movie, Farming. In the 70s and 80s, migration rates by Nigerians to America rose in response to draconian military rule and the failing economic situations of the time. For instance, one of Nigeria’s prominent writers and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, went into exile multiple times during military rule for fear of being killed by state-sponsored assassins.

The 1990s saw large-scale migration of West Africans such as Ghanaians, Senegalese, and Nigerians to Italy. There are interesting stories from the late 90s and early 2000s noting the rush there was to leave the continent: the long queues at the embassies and sorting alternate routes such as going through visa-free countries. There are also stories of stolen passports and impersonation, and taking up jobs at the wharf of sea-ports so as to follow cargo ships abroad-bound. Taking the cargo ship route was referred to then as “to stoway,” pidgin English for stowaway. As a last resort, when push came to shove, there is the option of taking the dreaded route to Europe from Libya through the desert. Immigration plots are also replete in written literature, too. Examples are the 2013 novel, Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, On Black Sister Street by Chika Unigwe, Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, and many others, termed aptly under the nascent genre of Diasporic Fiction.

Interestingly, the reasons for people relocating from Africa have remained consistent. The difference, one could say, is that more of the emigrants now are skilled professionals seeking better opportunities and value for their skills, causing a brain drain in their home countries. Increasing numbers of health personnel such as doctors and nurses are exiting the continent for Europe. There are estimates that at least 2000 doctors leave the country every year. With the global increase in the demand for tech-related skills, young skilled people in tech are also opting to emigrate from their countries. It becomes easy to look out to other countries for respite in the face of dire conditions in one’s country. Nigeria, for example, is facing a severe clampdown on its economy, coupled with a high rate of insecurity, a rampage of extrajudicial killings, a massive unemployment rate, poor education and healthcare system, and political instability. When one thinks about all these happenings, migration becomes the most viable option. The aftermath of the 2020 End Sars protest has also left people with more conviction to leave. Nigeria’s homophobic laws of jail term for queer people is also pushing the people in the queer community to migrate. An example is Bisi Alimi that was granted asylum in the UK after facing attacks for coming out as gay on national television in 2014, and also the poet, Romeo Orogun who relocated to the US to seek exile.

In a way, emigration presents a few economic benefits for the countries left behind, as the countries can rely on remittance from the diaspora as people abroad can send money to their families back home. With technology, remittance inflow to sub-Saharan Africa has increased in the past years, with Nigeria receiving the highest remittance inflow in the region, in turn, helping low- and middle-income families. 

However, some migrants do return back to their home countries, perhaps, given that acclimating and adjusting to a new lifestyle is difficult, or a realisation that it is not always greener on the other side. Some speak of being nostalgic and the loneliness that hits like a shock wave in a new country. An example is the story of migrant experiences in Cyprus where migrants have spoken about dire living and economic conditions experienced there. In Libya and Italy, people have also become subject to human trafficking, racketeering, forced prostitution, and modern-day slavery. There are also stories from Dubai of Nigerians living in worse destitute conditions than in their home country.

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But for the majority, the possibility that it will amount to this is a chance worth taking. Unarguably, it takes a lot of resources and commitment to leave, particularly in Nigeria. It is also a luxury that not everyone can afford. Those that make it across borders are cheered, while the others look on with longing.


Sybil Fekurumoh is a creative writer who writes for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.

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