Nigerian Transnational Travellers at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, FCT File Photo

‘Japa’ Syndrome: Nigeria’s Labour market difficult but has lots of opportunities –IOM Chief

*Laurent M.J. de Boeck, Chief of Mission to the Federal Republic of Nigeria, International Organisation (IOM) for Migration, in a recent interaction with The Punch, speaks on the organisation’s activities in the West African country, describing the current huge emigration from Nigeria as ‘an indicator of a menace of the youths not recognising themselves in a country as an opportunity for life.’ He also highlights how IOM is empowering them to believe in themselves and add value to their homeland. Excerpts:

Alexander Davis | ConsumerConnect

There is a current trend of heavy emigration in Nigeria. It is called ‘japa’ which literally translates to relocating. What would you say about the trend?

I’m aware of it, and I see things changing.

I think it’s an indicator of a menace of the youths not recognising themselves in a country as an opportunity for life.

Laurent M.J. de Boeck

Like I was discussing with my colleagues recently, they are looking for better opportunities.

I think we have to look at it from the perspective of the demography.

I think there is a demography pressure on the country and on the government, also on any institution to structure. Year after year, it has only increased.

We have more youths entering the Labour market and the big secret is to create employment at the same pace.

So, migration is one of the solutions and we are not against it.

The only thing that is extremely important is to inform the youths that they shouldn’t believe anyone luring them with offers.

They should look at the legal ways to migrate or be informed on the conditions of migrating. We see a lot of things.

We promote legal migration, but at the same time, we are fighting those who are abusing this vulnerability because they will believe anyone who can promise them a job, asking them for money to take them through the borders; either smuggling them through the borders or transferring them to another country or within the same country with the intention to exploit them.

And that is where, as an organisation, we are very alarmed because this is increasing.

It is increasing because people are desperate, they try to find job, some have even tried the legal ways but they’ve been rejected, so, they will say that they have nothing to lose and will believe what anyone tells them.

We really need to reinforce the message but honestly, I believe it’s necessary to prevent by talking to the people, but then what?

I have not solved the issue by telling them not to go or not to believe the lies. So, we need to work with alternatives and the alternative is empowering them to believe in themselves.

I have been visiting Edo in a programme where we support the returnees, those who have failed in the migration cycle.

Some had reached European countries but others were in Libya or elsewhere. We worked with some actors or the civil societies there.

They have a very comprehensive programme that is not only looking at the skills or the qualifications which will be needed in the market but their self-esteem and the soft skills because people have lost faith in themselves and I think that means that we have to be involved in a lot of dialogue with the youths. There are not enough places where they can actually exchange their desperation and it was quite interesting that the centre I visited, that we are supporting, there were some people who returned and they talked to the community and brought in youths who had the intention to migrate but eventually didn’t do it.

In the area of employment, we are discussing with the necessary stakeholders for the involvement of the private sector because government is trying, even with the task force on smuggling and trafficking at the government level, but the structures are not able to adapt as quickly as the months go by, so we have to invest into every other actor playing a key role in private sector.

We hope to engage them. It’s very vivid in Nigeria. There are young people who succeed in setting up start-ups, so we would like to actually emphasise scaling that up with structures.

One dimension in joining these objectives is also to look at green jobs because we have to do much for greening the economy and that’s youthful potential with starts-ups for the youths.

Are you referring to agriculture by the green jobs?

It might be agriculture but in a way that is different from what we say farming is, but hydroponic farming for example, where you bring technology into farming.

It might be for a specific niche, a specific product that you need to use it.

I have that and we have done that in my previous posting.

To what extent have you engaged the youths in dialogue in Nigeria?

My colleague and I were discussing it and my analysis is that we are not doing enough in the dialogue with the youths. We need to identify them and talk with them.

In Edo State and in Lagos, we are working with youth organisations of returnees only, for now. It’s our obligation to talk to them.

How were you able to identify and get them?

We have many of them. We have so far supported about 30,000 of them to come back and in each case, we gave individual support.

We put them together, and then, they created these associations themselves and they expanded them by talking to one another.

So, it reaches out to more than 30,000 people but that’s still structured, not necessarily that they have created their own NGO.

I think what we need to look at is talking to youth associations and forming a larger group before they migrate, because what we have done is only a reaction, we have not been proactive and that’s what I want to change now and I believe strongly in the youths and in their power.

I have seen in some countries that they could change, going to the parliament as a group, advocating laws and programmes of the government to be changed in a dialogue.

I would like to do much more in a structured way by engaging with the youths in this regard.

The 30,000 youths that you are talking to at the moment, are there also legal migrants among them?

No, they are all ‘irregular.’ We don’t want to stigmatise the person; so, it’s irregular migration.

We don’t like to say ‘illegal’; it’s stigmatising.

They have all been identified with smugglers or traffickers.

We have structures through our office where they work on their return and reintegration.

That’s how we’ve been in contact with them for long.

What possible projection do you see with this trend?

With the new trend that we have seen, we can localise the departure, the majority of returnees were almost exclusive to Edo State and partially Lagos but mainly Edo State.

And it’s diminishing because there are a lot of our efforts with some associations there by the government, which are also committed to the task force against smuggling and trafficking.

The Edo State Governor has really worked by engaging other actors than just the government and it did pay off.

Now, we did anticipate that departures are from Kano.

We didn’t notice until now that we discovered through the returnees from Libya who we are supporting.

So, that’s what we need to look at in our policy countrywide.

What about the legal migrants, especially with respect to the ‘brain-drain’? Are there measures that you have taken in that light?

Yes. It’s a difficult dimension because we are promoting the right to migrate.

So, Nigerians who are willing to go and find an employment as doctors is totally legal.

In London, we can only encourage him or her because they have done it legally.

The second difficulty is that he or she may send money back home, which has an impact in the well-being of the population and economy.

But it’s his private money, we can’t interfere; we can only provide guidance, encouraging them to reinvest in the system, not only transferring money to their family back home.

How do you mean to reinvest their money?

Those in London will transfer their money or remittances. It can be productive but it’s a guidance; it’s freedom because it’s their private money.

In seven countries in West Africa, which Nigeria is not part of yet, we created funds to support unemployment, which was a support for members in the Diaspora.

The other way is to encourage them to either come back for a temporary time if it will be possible for those doctors or teachers.

We have also done it for some that they can stay there and still provide assistance in the country or given incentives for them to come back and create businesses.

What we look at for the time being is a seasonal work as well.

When I mean seasonal, not necessarily related to agriculture but for short periods they acquire the expertise and the cycle is that they apply these expertise here.

We did it with some countries in Europe, Italy to be specific, and the agreement with the company was that the person goes for six months in a kind of coaching mechanism training for him to come back to start the branch of the business.

So, it’s a guarantee for the company. We want to also invest in Nigeria, that the person will be trained in how the company functions.

That has been very successful with Tunisia, for example, and we have done the same with Egypt. So that’s the kind of thing I would like us to look at and engage the kind of people who leave.

We take up specific sectors with the working conditions because if doctors go, the reason is that they may have more success in their career.

So, we need a structural change and that will take time but we need to alert the ministry of health, ministry of education that the doctors are leaving, but they know actually.

The UK lately announced a policy encouraging teachers from other countries to come in. Don’t you think it’s a strategy used by some developed countries to steal Nigeria’s human capital and that of other developing nations?

I will agree with you. It’s unfair because it’s two different levels if you compare what they are offering.

I will say that the government here should be aware that if they do not provide a conducive environment, those qualified people will go, so, it’s a natural choice, what people will do to seek better conditions.

They may not consider all the social aspects, that they may not necessarily be well-treated, they may lose their jobs, or be homesick because that happens.

We never really heard that much of those who have left, that they may not have employment but it’s not necessarily the panacea and in addition, they feel excluded and there may be some form of discrimination in some countries.

So, there are different aspects of social lives, which they will lose by going.

If we look exclusively at the economical side, maybe it’s better and indeed, it’s unfair.

I think it will be a government-to-government agreement to look at how they can take them with a condition that they should come back and reinvest or gain after their expertise in the country and I think we should be advocating specifically on those two sectors, education and health, because these are key for both the social and health development of any nation.

I cannot condemn (the UK policy) because it’s a freedom of people; it’s a choice but I will say that, yes, I find it unfair.

I have also heard people describe this era of frequent migration as a post-slavery era.

In the first era, the colonial masters came and took people against their will but now, even professionals are lured with ‘juicy’ offers and they go on their own accord. Do you think that description fits?

It might be one consequence that they may go on their own, to be exploited or to be in conditions which are not conducive but that’s an unfortunate situation and that’s why I say it’s unfair because some big countries can make promises but in the end, may not actually fulfil all. That’s where I talk about integrity, looking at yourself.

Are you ready to sacrifice because there might be the need for sacrificing what you have hoped or would have hoped to meet or the dream you have created for yourself and your family.

So, in a way, I may understand if some people say that it’s a new form of slavery.

A lot of legal migrants from here also go through a lot to migrate.

Some even invest their life savings, sell properties, get into debt to be able to achieve that.

With your experience with migrants from Africa and especially Nigeria, What has been the testimony so far? Do they always meet their expectations abroad?

I think it’s the case for some but I think one has to think twice.

If you take the risk of investing your entire life and not yours alone but that of your parents, your uncles and entire family, putting them in debt sometimes, I think you have to think of it if these debts wouldn’t be worth investing in the country and even a quicker success than moving far, being cut from your family links, your community.

I wonder whether it’s worth it. In terms of quality of life, we cannot only evaluate the quality of life by the quantitative amount of money but I had a discussion sometimes in Central Africa with some youths willing to go to my country and they said the salary is higher, but I said the cost is higher.

If you gain 1,000 Dollars but your apartment and cost of living is 700 dollars, then you are left with 300 because life is much more expensive there than it is here in your country.

Here, you may gain 300 in your currency but your cost of living is maybe 50, so, you may have the same in the end without being exposed to difficulties and being far from your family circle.

So, I think we need to measure: Is it worth this really to be far away?

You may believe you may get more funds but the number of people I see in Europe renting an apartment; I have seen cases of 25 people renting a room and they rotate to sleep.

Really?

Yeah. There are people taking advantage of that because they can’t pay for an apartment on their own, so, they can’t sleep three hours.

They will never say that to their families. They will send money back home but after sending money back home, they will have nothing to eat or a place to sleep because they have to sacrifice.

Not that they are super-rich, but they have to save money to come back.

I have seen many coming back with beautiful shoes, beautiful suits when they come back and they are able to pay for their tickets and they pretend that they are very rich but they are not.

But they can’t say it because the family has put itself in debt. So, they must send money and they have to sacrifice on their own.

So, I will say, think twice. There is a labour market here that is difficult but there are also a lot of opportunities.

It’s just to identify them and find who can help you develop your a start-up business plan.

So, it’s feasible but it’s just to make sure that the investment is worth it because you may lose your integrity but otherwise, we encourage legal migration.

In the aspects of insurgency and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the North, what role is IOM playing?

We are very active in the North-East, and in the North Central for the time being, in Kano, Katsina and Yola.

In Borno, we work with the people displaced by the conflicts.

There, we are coordinating activities and providing humanitarian assistance. It could be temporary shelter, non-food items and the coordination with all other actors where we need health, nutrition, water, wash and sanitary services.

So, we have a big team helping in providing these humanitarian assistance to the displaced.

We are trying to look at durable solutions to identify places where it’s stable and safe for them to return and reconstruct their housing and the social network of schools and health centres, but it’s not feasible everywhere for the time being. Another aspect is that we work on what transpires between the farmers and herders and the situation sometimes which may be tense is the case of social cohesion basically, because people are moving and then they are fighting for the same resources, so, we have to work on identifying solutions between the two.

We have done that successfully in Yola, trying to prevent clashes between communities which are within the borders.

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