Why Nigerians are emigrating, by Babatope Babalobi

There are about 15 million Nigerians in diaspora according to the United Nations Population Division’s estimates, 2017; Pew Research Centre also reported in 2018 that 60 million Nigerians (or half of the adult population) presently resident in country are planning to leave Nigeria by 2023, if they have their way. The report said 74 per cent of Nigerians surveyed desire to relocate and start a new life in another country within the next five years, if given the chance. A similar study by Afrobarometer 2018 revealed that one out of every three Nigerian has seriously wished to leave Nigeria to start a new life in another country.
Former Nigerian Permanent Representative to the United Nations and former President of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Ambassador Martin Uhomoibhi, was quoted in 2017 as stating that 602,000 Nigerians migrated to European countries in 2016 through the ill famous Sahara desert/Mediterranean sea route, of which 27,000 died on the sea, and 68 per cent of the dead immigrants were university and polyethnic graduates. While this figure may seem exaggerated, it could be true as the Ambassador, once Permanent Secretary of Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had privileged information. As a matter of fact, official figures released in 2017 by the Italian Interior ministry reported an average daily arrival of 109 Nigerians to Italy, about a total 36,000 Nigerians for year 2016.
The long visa appointment waiting times and long early morning queues at passport issuing immigration offices as well as embassies of United States, United Kingdom, Canada and European countries corroborate these reports. The fact that hundreds of Nigerians continue to apply for immigration and non-immigration visas despite constraints like high visa fees (typically above N50,000), indignities in embassies, and the low possibility of visa issuance, all indicate a desperate search for greener pastures by many Nigerians. The green passport booklet seems to be the most prized possession of Nigerians, perhaps, outside the Holy books, as the immigration statistics released by the Nigerian Bureau of statistics shows 1,011,158 Nigerians applied for international passports across the country in 2018, a 40 per cent increase over the previous year.
Relocation abroad is the Nigerian dream. This had materialised for millions. Everywhere in the world, you find Nigerians eking out a living. Nigerians have emigrated to practically all countries in the world. The top country destinations are United States, United Kingdom, Cameroon, Niger, Ghana, Italy and Benin, followed by Northern Ireland, Europe, Dubai, South Africa, according to an analysis by PwC, a consulting firm. On the contrary, statistics by reliefweb.net show most Nigerians in diaspora are living in Sudan, which has 24 per cent, rather than the United States (14%) or the United Kingdom (9%), confirming the widely held belief that the exact number of Nigerians in diaspora is not known.
UK’s Office for National Statistics estimates there are about 196,000 Nigerians in that country as of 2016, out of which 114,718 are resident in London. Seven per cent of the population of Peckham, a district in South London, are Nigerians, mostly Yoruba speaking, according to a 2001 Census. Nigerians are the highest migrants to US, with Houston, Texas having a huge Nigerian population. Germany’s Federal Bureau of Statistics reported in March 2017 that more than 56,000 Nigerians live in Germany. A Pewresearch.org report shows 390,000 documented Nigerian migrants were in Europe, Norway and Switzerland as of 2017. Nigerians made up the largest migrant populations entering Italy and Greece (Ikeke, 2017), and the largest cohort of migrants trapped in Libya (Eurostat, 2015).
To achieve the Nigerian dream of travelling abroad, all means fair and foul are employed. The distinction between immigration and non-immigration visas, legal or illegal routes is lost to most greener pasture seekers. Nigerians emigrate through a mix of avenues and opportunities, including legal means such as family or work visas, international students, Canadian and Australian skilled worker programmes, and unconventional options such as asylum and refugee claims, US-Canada border crossing, over staying visitor’s visa, or crossing to Europe by ships/boats through the three risky Mediterranean sea routes – Central route from Libya to Italy or Malta, Eastern route from North Africa to Greece or Turkey, or Western route from Morocco and Algeria to Spain, which is just 14km wide at its narrowest point – the strait.
Thousands of Nigerians are asylum seekers and refugees all over the world, particularly in the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Germany, Austria, Greece, Norway, Malta Switzerland, Slovenia, Poland, South Korea, Portugal, Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland and Czech Republic. In Europe and developed countries, Nigerians are ranked Number 3 asylum seekers after Iraq and Somali, and fourth largest group of asylum seekers in the European Union, according to global statistics of asylum seekers released yearly by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Italy and Ireland are favourite destination of asylum seekers. “In Italy last year alone, there were 5,333 new asylum seekers from Nigeria and 1,008 in Ireland. Italy was also the country with the highest number of Nigerians seeking asylum last year alone,” said the UNHCR report for 2018. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported 18,158 Nigerians reached Italian shores in 2017, but arrivals to Europe dropped to 1,250 in 2018, with several dying en route. More than 38,000 Nigerians applied for asylum in Germany between January 2016 and August 2019; 12,000 asylum applications have been rejected and 20,000 cases are pending according to official figures published online by Deutsche Welle. Any country outside Africa is a better option for many Nigerians who derogatively label their country of birth a “Zoo”. The UNHCR report indicated that five Nigerians sought asylum even in the extremely cold country of Iceland in 2018.
The new tactic of some US-based Nigerians with non-immigrant visas fleeing from the recent clamp down on undocumented immigrants in United States is to walk across the US-Canada border and seek asylum in Canada. Nine thousand eight hundred and ninety-eight Nigerians illegally walked into Canada without going through a designated port of entry between February 2017 and June 2018, and there are 11,629 pending asylum applications of Nigerians as of 2018, according to an Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Why do people emigrate? Reasons are varied, some genuine, others trumped up and opportunistic. The influencing factors are search of new employment opportunities and better livelihood options, high unemployment rates, relatively low wage rates, desire to improve personal economic prospects, political instability and conflict, lack of career fulfilling and professional satisfaction due to poor wages, poor working conditions, poor infrastructures, Boko haram insurgency, victimisation due to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender sexual orientation, gender persecution, domestic violence, genital mutilation, family ties abroad, schooling, political victimisation, and general insecurity. Afrobarometer 2018 survey reported the most common reasons cited for considering moving abroad are to find work (35%), to escape economic hardship/poverty (31%), and to pursue better business prospects (10%). Only a few cited pursuing an education (6%) or tourism (5%) as their main reason to consider emigration.
Many Nigerians are also being forced or tricked to emigrate through child or women trafficking under the false promise of false marriage or lucrative jobs or for the purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation. Nigeria on the US “2-Tier Watch list” has one of the world’s largest number of trafficked victims residing in over 34 countries in the world according to UNESCO 2016 report Human trafficking in Nigeria. Common European destinations for trafficked women and children from Nigeria are Italy, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Netherlands, Germany and United Kingdom, as well as Côte d’ivoire, Equatorial Guinea island, Cameroon, Ga-bon, Guinea, Mali and Benin within Africa. Edo is the national leader in human trafficking mainly for sex work in Italy, according to reports by the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and International office of Migration. Approximately 11,000 Edo State women arrived via the Mediterranean Sea into Italy in 2016, and Italian authorities state there are between 10,000 to 30,000 Nigerian women working in prostitution on the streets of Italy.
Emigration has its positive and negative implications. On the negative side emigration leads to brain drain, a form of mental colonialism, as some of Nigeria’s best and brightest have emigrated. One of such is medical brain drain with UK, US and Canada being the top destinations of most Nigerians. Medical Doctors are leaving Nigeria in droves and Mo Ibrahim Foundation recently raised an alarm, stating African countries expended $4.6 billion in training medical doctors who have emigrated to, UK, US, Canada and Australia.
About 12 Nigerian Medical Doctors emigrated to UK every week between 2017 and 2018, according to Africacheck.org. Quoting figures sourced from the UK’s General Medical Council online database of registered general practitioners, Africacheck.org reported that 5,250 Nigerian doctors were practicing in UK (as at April 25, 2018), a rise from 2,692 Nigerian doctors in 2006. The reports showed that between 2010 and 2015, some 998 Nigerian doctors were added to the register, or an average of about 200 doctors every year. Also, about 4,000 Nigerian medical doctors are reportedly practicing in US.
On the positive side, emigration has boosted economic fortunes of the migrants and their loved ones resident in Nigeria through foreign remittances to loved ones, extended family, through banking systems, electronic transfer, goods and cash across borders or undercover routes or international money transfers channels such as Western union, Worldremit, TransferWise, MoneyGram and Ria. Nigeria had the highest migrant remittances to sub Saharan Africa in 2017, and it became second to Egypt in 2018 when remittances to Nigeria was estimated at $26.3 billion, representing 6.1 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP, and 83 per cent of the Federal Government budget in 2018, according to Knomad.org. The Central Bank of Nigeria disputed this figure claiming remittances for 2018 was $2.63 million rather than $26.2 million. Remittances have several positive impact on the economy, as there are evidences that it boosted local production and consumption, household investment, construction of houses, payment of school fess, transportation, food consumption and entrepreneurial activities.
Nigerians may continue to be dispersed around the world like the biblical Israelites when they forsook the commandments of God. However, unlike the Israelites, emigration of Nigerians is anthropologic, largely induced by economic downturns and misrule of the Nigerian state. It is therefore safe to hypothesise that at long as the Nigerian economy fails to improve for whatever reasons, Nigerians will continue to leave Nigeria for greener pastures.
. Babalobi writes from [email protected] He can be reached on: +234 8035897435. He is a Doctorate researcher at the Department of Health, University of Bath, UK.