African migrants on a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean
African migrants on a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean

Nigeria's government is worried about clandestine migration. Unlike in Europe, the issue is not people coming in, but Nigerians leaving the country. New rules are being enacted to solve the problem.

On Monday, the Nigerian government presented the "Immigration Regulation 2017" in Abuja. It makes it easier for businessmen to visit the country, strengthens the defense of borders against terrorism and aims for better registration of immigrants. But both the title and the packaging hide the fact that this is far from being only about immigration. New rules for emigration are just as central to the project. To quote Nigerian Interior Minister Abdulrahman Dambazu: "It is an adjustment to the dynamics of modern-day's migration realities."

Harsh measures 

Mohammed Babandede, comptroller general of the Nigerian Immigration Service, is less inclined to mince words. "Nigeria today demonstrated it is committed to the fight against the smuggling of migrants. We are aware that a lot of our citizens are dying in the desert and the sea," he said.

The government believes that only harsh measures will stop the dying. Accordingly, the new regulations include severe punishment for illegal migration. The old immigration law from 1963 established only modest fines of less than one euro ($1.08). New fines for infractions can go up to 3,000 euros ($2,800). Prison sentences for serious violations of the immigration law will be much longer than in the past.

Nigeria's Interior Minister Abdulrahman Dambazau and Comptoller General Mohammed Babandede

Nigeria's Interior Minister Abdulrahman Dambazau (right) and Comptroller General Mohammed Babandede

presented Nigeria's new migration policy in Abuja


Nigeria is one of the main countries of origin of illegal migration. In the last year alone, around 30,000 undocumented Nigerians crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Hundreds die each year attempting to reach the continent. Human trafficking has tarnished Nigeria's reputation around the globe. Current estimates point to more than 10,000 Nigerian women forced to prostitute themselves in Europe. Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari believes these numbers are a blight on his country's reputation and has called for a coordinated strategy to fight smugglers and human traffickers.

The right of free movement

Babandede has promised to improve cooperation with Niger and other neighboring states which Nigerian emigrants cross on their way to Europe.

"If we have evidence that a migrant is planning to travel beyond Niger, we can stop him," Babandede said.

That is the kind of measure rejected by Enira Kdrzalic, Nigeria's chief of mission of the International Organization of Migration (IOM).

"Every single person has a right of free movement," she told DW. That applies to all the citizens of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Kdrzalic added, before conceding that countries like Nigeria are under heavy pressure due to climbing numbers of undocumented migrants.

African refugees in Niger sit on the floor waiting for an opportunity to travel further to Europe

Nigeria's neighbor Niger is the main transit country for West African refugees

The European Union is seeking assurances from African states that they will take measures to stop mass migration. Countries willing to cooperate with Europe by joining so-called "migration partnerships" will be rewarded with substantial financial aid and investments. Those who refuse will face sanctions. The EU has put aside billions of euros to finance the partnerships in coming years.

Criminals will find a way

Enira Kdrzalic from the IOM believes that the failure to stop irregular emigration in Nigeria is not due to a lack of political will. Mostly, continued violations of the rules are a result of deficits in the country's administration.

"Many agencies are operating in parallel. Much action is needed to ensure the effectiveness and coordination of their activities to avoid duplications," Kdrzalic said.

Immigration head Babandede agreed that the new rules will not be enough if the job is not done properly.

"There must be a lot of training, attitude change and punishment of officials who compromise at the borders," he said.

But Babandede also said that Europe must assume part of the responsibility. He called for the quick improvement of European laws regulating legal immigration for Nigerians.

"If you don't create the opportunity for regular migration, criminal groups will provide those opportunities," Babandede said.

First published March 22, 2017

Author: Jan-Philipp Scholz