The drift abroad will expand in size and scope until the country puts the economy in order

The discovery by the Italian authorities of the bodies of 26 Nigerian girls reportedly murdered on the Mediterranean Sea has triggered a public outpouring of anger, and illuminated the horror of irregular migration. Italian prosecutors were reportedly investigating the death of the victims, mostly teenagers, whose bodies were recovered at sea amid suspicions that they may have been sexually abused before being killed as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean.

In a belated statement, the federal government has described the tragedy as “a monumental loss and a sad moment for our country,” while the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) has canvassed “a high level investigation by the United Nations into the incident”. But beyond the usual political statements, it is necessary for the authorities to put the tragedy in perspective. A combination of sustained negative economic growth and a demographic bulge has put the country in a very difficult and potentially explosive situation.

For more than a decade, the economy has been unable to create jobs to absorb its growing army of graduates. Joblessness and frustrations are evidently fuelling the desperation to leave the country as available statistics paint a dire situation of millions of Nigerian youths roaming the streets for work but finding none. So, driven by economic desperation and sometimes by misinformation, hundreds of thousands of able bodied young men and women on a daily basis embark on perilous missions in search of opportunities that do not exist in those very societies. While only a small fraction eventually reach their destinations where they face huge disappointment and frustrations, majority of them usually perish on the way.

Statistics from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) revealed that about 75 per cent of the nearly 155,000 migrants and refugees who got to Europe by sea this year arrived in Italy. But the numbers who perished on the way were alarming. According to some records, 10,000 Nigerians died on the treacherous Sahara desert –Libya –Mediterranean route in the month of May, 2017 alone. The accounts of some of the returnees were, to put it mildly, harrowing. Many who made it to Europe were forced into prostitution, used as mercenaries, deployed as household servants, factory workers, drug couriers and even as organ donors. Reports have also emerged of migrants regularly beaten to death, with torture and starvation the daily staple for those who survive.

Even so, the influx of the young and restless to Europe is rising as they pay little or no heed to the dangers on the way or the disappointment awaiting those able to land. Many of the migrants who are unemployed or pushed by outright poverty are deceived by stories of jobs, businesses and prosperity by people smugglers. Indeed, increasingly, the statistics suggest that human trafficking has become one of the thriving businesses after drug trafficking. The central Mediterranean route from the coast of Libya to Italy is reportedly the most travelled by Nigerians and other illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. In the last five months, more than 1000 stranded Nigerians have returned from Libya thanks the effort of the IOM.

However, as we have argued in the past, many others will continue in the footsteps of the dead and the maimed if the prevailing misery and poverty persists. We live in a country where a significant number of the population is mired in poverty. Many able-bodied men and women are lying waste. Therefore, while it makes sense to sensitise the youth to the dangers of the hazardous journey, it would be more productive for Nigeria to begin to put its economy in order.