Lagos Postcard: When EU Pushes Migrants To Go Back Home

Nigerian painter Isaac sold everything and left Lagos, in the hope to make it to Germany. After barely surviving in Libya, he gave up and went back.

Isaac (right) is about 15 kg lighter than before leaving Nigeria
Isaac (right) is about 15 kg lighter than before leaving Nigeria
Christian Putsch

LAGOS — In the midst of a heavy night, in the spotlight of the cargo airport of Lagos, a Nigerian politician gives a blazing speech. "You should be grateful," she says to the 160 migrants who have just gotten off a Libyan plane. "Some of you came back with only one leg. Others with only one eye. But you have everything you need to live with God's help. Never forget: Hope comes on quiet feet."

Isaac is sitting on the edge of the hangar and is too tired to tune into this quiet hope. He is lean, about 15 kilograms lighter than before leaving Nigeria for Europe last year. In the morning, before boarding the plane back to his home-country, the 29-year-old was in the Libyan port town of Zuwarah, void of any illusion. Then came the return flight with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) — over the route that almost killed him 14 months earlier overland. Too much to tune into an ode to life.

Isaac silently eats cold rice and chicken. Next to some firetrucks there are tables on which he has become official again: registration, a medical check, a telephone number to get in touch with the IOM for any further help, an envelope with 40,000 Naira (95 euros) for the first few days. Employees of a cellphone service provider give out a simple phone with a little credit. All the ingredients for a new beginning.

The European Union encourages those who want to return to their homeland. And Nigerians represent one of the most important target groups. In 2017, when the majority of migrants and asylum seekers still arrived in Italy, Nigeria had the largest share (16%), with 5,532 registered individuals. The overall protection rate is low: in Germany less than one Nigerian out of six is granted asylum.

In addition to the free return trip, the EU-funded IOM program promises "further support to fund start-ups, study and medical bills' for the most vulnerable. Even Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has stepped in. "You should stay here and look for ways to move our economy forward rather than risking your life," he has said.

The IOM repatriated around 9,000 Nigerians from Libya over the past 18 months. Another 1,000 returned thanks to funds from the Nigerian government. There are also more returnees from Europe. In 2017, some 154 volunteer returnees came from Germany, which also forced some 110 deportations to Nigeria.

This topic has no meaning in Nigeria for the current election campaign. Migration has always been considered normal, at least until reports of torture in Libya became public. Some 20 million Nigerians live abroad, one tenth of the entire population. The majority of them are legal migrants, and their remittances make up about five percent of the GDP.

In Lagos, Isaac had overcome poverty working as a painter, and had been quite successful: he had a lot of work, could afford to buy a a car and a laptop. Then he saw pictures of German color mixing machines. "Go, save a little and bring those machines back to Nigeria," he thought to himself. He sold everything he owned to finance his journey.

He's not sure whether things feel right.

But he played the wrong card. His story resembles that of innumerable victims of illegal migration in Africa. He was deceived by smugglers, who constantly demanded new payments. He was abducted and condemned to forced labor in Libya, imprisoned by militias, until his dream of Europe vanished and was replaced by the hope of mere survival.

But upon landing at the airport, he is not sure whether things feel right. He does not even have a bag. Back home, it's not survival of the fittest but of the richest.

Would he be willing to be accompanied by us for a few days? "Yes, everyone should hear my story." It's midnight, and buses are ready to take the migrants to the Lagos Airport Hotel: 154 are men, there are only six women. Isaac shares the room with another man. The following morning they go separate ways. The majority is driven to Benin City, in southern Nigeria.

Isaac wants to stay in Lagos, a rapidly growing city of 20 million inhabitants, which became a symbol of prosperity for many Nigerians long before Europe. In the 1970s, the oil boom attracted millions, a complete rural exodus.

The next morning, migrants say that the preacher Temitope Balogun Joshua — proclaimed the third-richest preacher in Nigeria by Forbes magazine — has invited them.

Isaac gets going. From the bus, he calls his brother Emmanuel, who became the head of the family after the death of their parents. "Emmanuel, it's me, Isaac", he says in a croaky voice, as if he had caught the flu. The voice answers: "My brother Isaac is dead. Who are you?" "It's really me," says Isaac. "But that's not your voice."

The last Emmanuel had heard of Isaac was when he had phoned his kidnappers in Libya who had said they would kill his brother because Emmanuel could only transfer only $200 to Libya instead of the required $300. He had heard them give him electric shocks. After that he could no longer reach Isaac. He mourned him for months. "I'll visit you," Isaac says.

But first comes the blessing. The bus stops in front of Joshua's church, which with 15,000 seats exceeds the capacity of many soccer stadiums. Joshua claims to be able to use his prayers to heal HIV and cancer, as well as to save believers from exorcisms. In 2014, when a church collapsed, killing 110 people, Joshua blamed a mysterious flying object. The trial is ongoing.

The gold-decorated church is located on the edge of a poor neighborhood. "We see it as our duty to provide for the neediest," says a Briton who introduces herself as a colleague of the prophet, "and of course the returnees are part of it."

In a lobby, Isaac and around 80 other returnees sit on plastic chairs in two long rows. A nurse takes their blood pressure, filmed by two fully equipped camera teams of the church.

An American gives the sermon. In the end, everyone gets two bags of rice and the equivalent of 100 euros. Minutes of rejoicing are immortalized by the cameras. The migrants are all wearing the same tracksuit they got from the IOM the day before in Libya — they barely have anything of their own. Any help is welcome.

Then Isaac makes his way to the traffic. The destination of the trip, it turns out, is an orphanage. "They need the rice more urgently," says Isaac. Other migrants are also donating bags. As rough as this city may be, you will notice many people helping each other. With difficulty, Isaac pulls the bags from the trunk. Then he asks for two days of rest. He must sleep and gather his thoughts.

After the weekend, Isaac sits in the living room at a relative's home. His room consists of a mattress, a Bible, two pairs of pants and two shirts. He paid nearly 50 euros for a smartphone. He wants to work as a painter again, and he used WhatsApp and Facebook to be in touch with customers.

"I have learned what I have in Nigeria," he says. "Now I can move around freely, talk to people, listen to music." For the first time, he eats the spicy national dish: "Oh man, I've missed jollof rice." Then he calls the IOM phone number he got at the airport.

In a file photo from Lagos, UK Minister for Africa and International Development, Grant Shapps — Photo: DFID

Nigeria is a high priority for the IOM, and the IOM staff has just expanded from six to 80. In 2017, there were 3,200 returnees, 15,000 are expected by 2020. Migrants can receive up to 1,200 euros with a convincing business plan.

Some become electricians, others hairdressers, others to school. In the coming weeks, a pineapple company in Benin City is scheduled to go hire 20 migrants. But the programs are still in their infancy stage. An estimated 10 to 20% of returnees will try to leave again.

Again and again Isaac dials the number. "We'll call back," the IOM says. Isaac hangs up. "I have to be patient. You have to be patient about everything the government is involved in." Nigeria is only marginally involved in financing integration efforts. Citizens' trust in the authorities is lower than in any other country on the continent.

Isaac sets off in the pouring rain and runs across the Ladipo Market.He finally meets his brother Emmanuel. Between VW buses, the two men fall into each other's arms. "You're alive," cries the brother. "I survived," says Isaac.

Emmanuel offers him a job, starting immediately. But Isaac refuses. He earned more as a painter, and is in contact with old customers. He hopes the IOM will help with the purchase of paint stirrers.

The next morning, Isaac dials back the IOM number. Again, he is asked for patience, and about his kidnappers. "I can wait, but these criminals must be reported now," Isaac is angry. He has the bank account number to which he had to transfer part of the money. And he knows the address. "I have to go to the police."

But at the nearest police station, the officer hardly looks up from his paperwork. Isaac has to go to the state headquarters, a two-hour drive away. There, someone waves Isaac to his desk, lets him explain what happened, but takes no notes.

"Where is the perpetrator?"

"In Libya."

"Then we can't do anything about it."

"But his wife is here. I have the bank details."

"Where exactly is she?"

"In the state of Imo."

"Then you need to go to the local police."

Imo state is 600 kilometers away. Two weeks after his return from Libya, Isaac gets on the bus to Imo. Somebody asked him to come work on a construction site. On his day off, he goes to the police. "We can't do anything here," they say there as well.

Isaac gives up. Shortly before this article's publication, he sends us a message via WhatsApp: "Let the past be the past,I'm thinking about the future now." He has some gigs lined up as a painter, and newfound confidence.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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