“I don’t know how to swim at all,” Sonia admitted. “I have never swam in my life.”

And yet, late one evening last year, the young Nigerian found herself pregnant and packed onto a 30-foot dinghy – “like a balloon, but stronger,” she said – with 119 other people, crossing the treacherous Mediterranean Sea from Libya towards Italy.

“It’s a big risk for a Nigerian to cross that sea,” said Sonia, knowing firsthand. “The sea is bigger than a river. It’s bigger than a bridge. It’s a very big sea.”

Sonia survived; she was rescued when her dinghy capsized on the Mediterranean Sea then transferred to a detention centre in Libya for 11 months.

More than 2,300 migrants have died at sea on that same Central Mediterranean route in 2017. One in every 49 migrants died on that route last year, according to IOM, the UN Migration Agency. Since 2014, more deaths have been recorded there than on any other migration route in the world.

God is Good bus park in Benin City, southern Nigeria, where most journeys to the Central Mediterranean start.

God is Good bus park in Benin City, southern Nigeria, where most journeys to the Central Mediterranean start.

But, many are willing to take the risk. For the second year in a row, Nigerians are the most common nationality crossing the Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy with roughly 37,550 arriving in the European country by sea in 2016 and about 17,000 so far this year.

The majority of Nigerians attempting the journey are young people who say they want to work in Europe because sending Euros home – a stronger currency – will make a big difference to their families.

The European

“Working in Europe will allow me to come back big time,” said Osarobo.

The 30-year-old is planning to leave his hometown, Benin City in southern Nigeria, for Italy. Osarobo wants to find better pay than he gets bartending at a local hotel so he can return to Nigeria to start a plant and livestock farm, his childhood dream.

Youth unemployment has been as high as 25 per cent in Nigeria or 55 per cent for young women – a major issue in a country where more than half of the population of 182 million is under 30-years of age.

Those who find work at home in Nigeria earn as little as 20,000 Nigerian Naira per month (USD 63), working up to 20 hours a day, spending the equivalent of $29 on transportation and $19 on rent.

Osarobo contemplates leaving for Europe.

Osarobo contemplates leaving for Europe.

Osarobo, a business management graduate, has a modest $15 a month to spend on food, other living expenses, and to contribute to his family’s well-being and siblings’ education.

Sonia's siblings and neighbour.

Sonia's siblings and neighbour.

Echoing Osarobo, Sonia said she wanted to work in Europe so she could earn more money towards her goal: supporting her family. With a late father, aging mother and younger siblings, her contribution is critical. The 23-year-old’s plan was foiled when her dinghy capsized on the Mediterranean Sea en route to Italy in March 2016.

Map of Nigeria. Source: Wikimedia

Map of Nigeria. Source: Wikimedia

Sonia was born in a remote village in southern Nigeria. She got the idea to travel to the Mediterranean Sea when she moved to Benin City. Jobs are scarce, traffickers and ‘bogas’ (smugglers) have big business there, and travelling to Italy by sea is a “tradition,” youths say of life in their landlocked city, 314km east of Lagos.

She shared her story with a woman she met in a keke, three-wheeler taxi. “I said, ‘I want to leave this country because I don’t like it. There is no work. I don’t have anything that is giving me money,’” she lamented, despite her move to the city.

"The lady replied, ‘Okay, no problem,’ she’s going to help me." The condition was that Sonia had to keep her plan – and the woman’s identity – secret.

“I did not tell my family. I did not tell anybody before I left the country.”

Within days, she was gone, unaware that she was two-months pregnant.

Into the desert

Like countless young Nigerians before her, Sonia left Benin City towards the country’s northern border with Niger, travelling by bus and taxis – all arranged by the woman she met, who she was to repay once she reached Italy.

“We spent four days in the desert before we got to Libya. I was afraid because you see so many corpses, so many diseases.”

“So many girls, so many ladies are raped on the road,” said Sonia.

Nigerians use different buses and taxis to reach the country's northern border.

Nigerians use different buses and taxis to reach the country's northern border.

“You don’t see any water to drink. No food. Some persons died, some persons fainted.”

Debbie also experienced riding on decrepit pickup trucks packed with 30 people through the desert towards Libya and the sea. It took her a week to cross the Ténéré desert in Niger, an unforgiving area larger than esteemed Italy and about the size of Germany.

The 25-year-old Nigerian from Ibadan, a city two hours north of Lagos, was travelling on the recommendation of a lady from her church who told her she could earn more money as a tailor outside Nigeria.

“It's a deadly journey. The moment you just leave this Nigeria boundary, that is where the problem starts.”

Armstrong, 31, said that anyone who fell off the back of the precariously packed pickup trucks would be left for dead in the desert, a place often too risky to stop because of the harsh weather and illegal transportation run by traffickers.

He was trying to reach Italy to work, but was detained in Libya. Armstrong chose to return home to Benin City with IOM in May through the Organization's assisted voluntary humanitarian return programme.

"They deceived me"

“When I got to Libya, I was expecting something else. I was thinking there would be freedom there. I thought that, maybe, Libya looks like Nigeria, that there’s freedom... that you can do anything you want there,” said 'Mary,' a young Nigerian from Benin City.

A woman from her father’s distant village said that Mary would earn more money as a hairstylist in Libya. “That woman is not a good person,” she learned.

Mary was forced into prostitution. The woman brought her to a house when they arrived in Libya.

“I saw so many girls inside the house. I can’t even tell how many because they are many,” Mary recalled.

“I said, ‘Ah, I can’t do it! This is not what you people told me in Nigeria,’” Mary said of her pleading. “She said that it’s not her business, that if I do not do what the other girls are doing, that she will sell me to someone else. If she sells me, I will pay times-three of the money that she asked for.”

The woman wanted 5,500 Libyan Dinars, about USD 4,000 or close to 1 million Nigerian Naira – a small fortune – for her freedom, following the long journey by land to Libya.

“So that is how it was. I don’t even know how to explain it because in Libya, it’s very difficult. It’s stressful over there.”

“I was regretting my life being in Libya.”

She became pregnant with a Ghanaian customer, though she never received any pay herself. A local church offered Mary clothing and money to support her baby.

Other young women pushed into prostitution in Libya, many of whom are Nigerians or from other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, improvise abortions, Mary said. “Their womb would fall,” she said, referring to complications they’d suffer without medical attention. “They would still use that same womb to pay that same money.”

“There was no pity. They must pay the money. If not, it’s a big problem.”

The Nigerian ‘madam’ running the prostitution business in Libya told her that since she initially refused to work, they should “collect something” from her body. “They collected my hair and nails,” Mary said of the abuse, which included death threats.

She came close to death several times, bearing scars across her body from the beatings.

“I was only praying to God to help me get out of that situation they put me in,” said Mary, who had expected to work as a hairstylist in Libya.

“I didn’t know that is how it is. If not, I wouldn’t have left Nigeria at all.”

Mary sells grocery items at her new shop.

Mary sells grocery items at her new shop.

Mary is now home, feeling safe and settled. IOM offered her and her baby a flight to Nigeria this year through the assisted voluntary humanitarian return programme. IOM also helped her rent a space and buy products to start her own market shop. The organization's business management trainings will help her further.

Debbie is another young Nigerian who was misled into going to Libya for work; a lady from her church in the country's south said she could earn better money as a tailor there or in Europe, eventually.

She was forced into around-the-clock work cleaning the house of a local man in Tripoli for the equivalent of 60,000 Nigerian Naira (USD 190) per month. The “rough work” and modest wages, not much higher than those in Nigeria, were far cries from her big expectations. Listen to her story:

Benin Boys

“Two of my cousins drowned in the Mediterranean,” said Osarobo.

The young women, like sisters to him, were trying to reach Europe for work. “My mum got the call to say they died.”

“I’m not happy with the whole situation,” he said from Benin City. “Nobody is happy seeing his brother or sister embarking on those kinds of immeasurable risks.”

Still, travelling to Italy through Libya and the Mediterranean Sea is considered a tradition among young people from Benin City. Unlike Nigeria’s federal and economic capitals, Abuja and Lagos, the southern city of some 2 million offers no factory or major industries to employ its youth.

“It’s frustration that’s pushing them out,” observes Don Umoru, former director of Nigeria's Directorate of Employment and member of Edo state's government. “I call it ‘disguised unemployment,’ when youths get jobs irrelevant to their diplomas or with such low wages.”

IOM has helped more than 2,400 stranded Nigerian migrants return from Libya this year. Nearly all said they were trying to reach Europe; more than half of them are from Benin City or nearby villages in Edo state. The rest are from Delta state (about 12 per cent) and other parts of southern Nigeria.

“They’re just like an exodus – they are moving to where they will find a good life,” Osarobo believes.

“It’s all word of mouth,” he and six other youths explained from the hotel where they work. They laugh at the banality when asked if they know anyone who has made the journey to Libya and the Mediterranean Sea.

“More than 50 of my close friends and family members have gone to Europe through the sea.”

“Some of them have died and I know that some are still in the prison in Libya as we speak.”

The dangerous route is still considered the easiest solution to low wages or unemployment in Nigeria, he said. “I’m not exempt from the amount of people who are saving money to embark on that journey,” Osarobo admitted. Many sell their cars and shops to sponsor their travel to the sea.

“I can swim at least 500m. I'm not boasting about it, but if I should get there, I would definitely cross the Mediterranean Sea,” he said.

Osarobo wants to use his untapped business potential in Italy.

But, what about the risks? The shortest stretch of sea from Libya to Italy is about 500km, not 500m.

“That scares me a lot. But, I even have a greater fear for the prison than for the sea. I can’t imagine being thrown into jail in another man’s country,” he said.

“I’m not afraid of dying. I'm afraid of poverty.”

Another young man cuts in, after receiving a WhatsApp message. “They say Italy’s border is open! I’m going!” he cheered.

“Many say ‘The Benin Boys are lazy… they don’t want to work… they’re destined to travel through the sea,’" he lamented. “We’re not lazy. Young men fight over jobs at construction sites,” Osarobo explained of life in his city. “Those who have jobs, push themselves to work a three-day job in one just to keep theirs.”

“We’re noble citizens of this country. We love our families. We love our culture. We love our food. It’s not as if we love travelling through the sea… we’re just looking for a better life.”

“There's no place like home.”

Gideon agrees; Benin City is a special place, though the 25-year-old left it for Libya.

“I spent 11 months in Libya,” he said. “I travelled there without a passport or visa and was arrested on 19 June last year, about one month after my arrival.”

Gideon (centre) returned from Libya with IOM in May.

Gideon (centre) returned from Libya with IOM in May.

He left Nigeria hoping to make better money abroad repairing computers and installing CCTV cameras.

“The problem there is the security. They are not treating us very well there. It was a very bad life experience,” Gideon said of spending months in different detention centres. “I would not advise others to take the same process.”

“Being home is just joy. My family keeps thinking it's a dream. They thought I was dead.”

Gideon is back with his cousin and other family members in Benin City. Photo: courtesy of Gideon

Gideon is back with his cousin and other family members in Benin City. Photo: courtesy of Gideon

“Thank God IOM came to our rescue,” Gideon said. He chose to return to Nigeria on an IOM chartered flight from Tripoli on 20 May and plans to go back to work as a computer technician at the local market.

IOM has helped more than 8,000 Nigerian migrants, like Gideon and Sonia, return from undesirable conditions, including unemployment in Europe, since starting the assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme in the country in 2002.

IOM also helps fight the job shortage that so many youth, especially those from Benin City, say pushes them out. Many migrants are given in-kind assistance of several thousand dollars to start businesses or study upon their arrival home.

Over the next three years, IOM will give this reintegration support to about 4,000 Nigerian migrants at home through the European Union Trust Fund.

Watch how Sonia is resettling at home:

After her dinghy capsized on the Mediterranean Sea, leading to months of detention in Libya, Sonia now advocates against other youths taking such risky routes abroad.

“I’m happy that I’m back to my country and I have so many things with me,” Sonia said of her new businesses. “I can see my parents. I’m happy with my family. I’m really happy and I feel very great...”

“I’m happy that I’m still alive.”