Nigeria’s Libya-returnees and the survival of “arabo children”

Trials and travails of Nigerian women-returnees from Libya’s den of human trafficking
Nigeria's Libya-returnees and the survival of "arabo children"

She was only 18 when she gave birth without a doctor in a Tripoli apartment, gripping the hand of her best friend who had come on a journey they hoped would lead from Nigeria to Europe.

For Joy, who told her story to reporters on the condition that her name be changed, those dreams of a new life on another continent had come to a halt.

Her daughter was the child of her Libyan captor — a guard at a detention camp for illegal migrants where she had first been held after being picked up by authorities in the country. 

He had asked her to move to his flat, and she was not in a position to be able to say ‘no’. Once there, she said that she was trapped inside for a year and turned into his slave.

When she became pregnant, he had attempted to force her out and tried everything to send her finally on the perilous journey by boat across the Mediterranean.

After a series of failed attempts to make her leave, he threatened to kill her and the child, she said.

“They say we are black and we are not Muslims so it’s a forbidden thing to have a child from them,” Joy, now aged 19, said.

Joy eventually managed to escape and to hide with a friend. She had never been to see an obstetrician and feared if she went to a hospital her baby would be taken from her.

“I heard too many things like that,” she added.

“There (in Libya) they can beat you up, abuse you, rape you, they can even kill you, they don’t care.”

Back home –

Joy returned to her homeland of Nigeria in February last year thanks to a voluntary programme organised by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

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She is one of more than 14,000 Nigerians who have flown back on chartered planes from Libya under the scheme since 2017.

About 35 per cent of those who have returned are women.

But the United Nations does not give a figure for the number of children “for their own protection”.

The IOM estimates that there remain more than 60,000 Nigerians in Libya among roughly 600,000 migrants from 39 nations, most of them with no legal documents, held in camps, prisons, private houses or brothels.

Joy now lives at Betsy Angels Shelter, a reintegration and training centre in Benin City in Nigeria’s southern Edo State, a hub for human trafficking to Europe, and her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter is in daycare.

Her lighter skin makes her stand out from the other children. 

“I tell people that her dad is a white man,” Joy says, as if she, somehow, managed to live a bit of the new life she longed for in Europe.

‘Arabo children’ –

Migrants and the aid workers in Nigeria who help them say that most children born in Libya and brought back to Nigeria by their mothers have African, not Libyan fathers.

They speak of the babies more often being born as the result of rape by traffickers, who transport the migrants through the deserts, or from coerced sex with sub-Saharan African customers in Libyan brothels, where women are often sold and locked up.

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Whatever their origins, in Nigeria, these children born in Libya are nicknamed “Arabo children” — stigmatised for the circumstances of their birth.

“Some will say ‘those Arabo children, we don’t want them in our house’,” Jennifer Ero, national co-ordinator for Nigeria’s Child Protection Network, said.

When the women leave on the journey to Europe, families expect them to end up sending back money to help relatives at home. 

But the reality can be very different.

READ: 163 Nigerian migrants return home from Libya

“Now they come back, they didn’t reach Europe, they come with debts, and with baggage — with a child with no name,” Ero said. 

The protection centre that Ero runs in Benin City also provides psychological support for the women. 

The caregiver says that most of the mothers being looked after confide that they thought of aborting, if only they’d had access to the necessary medical help.

Some can be aggressive with their babies, she adds.

‘There is hope’ –

Tiny Justice is small for a toddler of his age. 

But at 18 months, he already carefully investigates the bedroom where he stays and immediately toddles over to hug his mother when he sees her cry. 

Faith, who also asked for her name to be changed, was 19 when she became pregnant in what she calls the “ghetto” — a cluster of buildings in Gatrone in Libya’s southwestern desert where migrants are held.

Her smugglers sold Faith and 10 other people to another gang of traffickers. Three years on, she is the only one to have returned to Nigeria. 

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One remains trapped in Libya. 

“The rest of us… all of them are gone. Only the two of us survived,” she told reporters. 

Faith said the traffickers, who came from a number of different countries, brutally ruled over their prisoners’ lives as they demanded ransoms to release them. 

“We are kept captives, the men they torture them, they hang them on a cross like Jesus, they burn them,” she recounted.

“The girls, if we don’t sleep with them, they wouldn’t give us food. They tell us that if we don’t sleep with them, they will sell us. They sleep with us all the time. This is how I got pregnant.”

Since returning to Nigeria, she has not been able to find work and is struggling to rebuild her life.

But as she talks, the young mother caresses her son’s head — and this gives her strength. 

“As long as my baby and I are alive, there is hope,” she said. 

“Because of what we’ve been through together, I love my baby very, very much.”

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