LAGOS, Nigeria – Some knelt and placed their foreheads to the ground in prayer. Several carried small children. After being stranded in Libya on a failed attempt to reach Europe, more than 250 Nigerian migrants were brought home and began sharing stories of abuse and fear.
"If they lock you up in a room, you hardly eat, that's number one," Ejike Ernest, one of the returnees, told The Associated Press on arrival late Tuesday in Lagos. "You'll urinate there, you'll defecate there and every morning, let me say three times a day, you will be severely beaten" until you can pay the money to be freed.
Nigeria's government, its president appalled by recent CNN footage of a slave auction in Libya where migrant Africans were "sold like goats," has committed to bringing its citizens home, along with a number of other African nations.
After disembarking from a plane chartered by Nigeria, the European Union and the International Organization for Migration, some of the newest arrivals looked exhausted, some clutching sleepy children. Some were astonished by the way they had been treated.
"It's heartbreaking, especially when I see a 13-year-old come with a baby," said Abike Dabiri-Erewa, senior special assistant to Nigeria's president on diaspora and foreign affairs. "One 14-year-old girl said to us she doesn't know how many men have slept with her, she can't count ... You look at them and wonder whether their lives can ever be the same again."
The African Union and member states will repatriate more than 15,000 migrants stranded in Libya by the end of the year amid outrage over the slave auction footage, the AU's deputy chairman said Tuesday.
Between 400,000 and 700,000 African migrants are in dozens of camps across the chaotic North African country, often under inhumane conditions, AU Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat told a summit of European and African leaders last week.
Europe has struggled to stem the flow of tens of thousands of Africans making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. But many Africans still make the journey, risking death and abuse, saying high unemployment and climate change leave them little choice.
Another Nigerian recently repatriated told the AP about his ordeal.
"I paid 500,000 naira ($1,600) to one Nigerian called Mr. Fix It in 2016 to facilitate my illegal journey to Europe through Libya across the Mediterranean Sea. But on getting to Libya, he abandoned all of us to our fate," the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears for his security.
He said he and others were detained by Libyan militia members and kept in a makeshift prison where they were tortured and starved. More than 10 Nigerians, including girls, were sold as slaves. He was lucky to be rescued by security forces, he said, and was repatriated in July.
African and European leaders last week drew up an emergency evacuation plan for migrants, agreeing to airlift at least 3,800 stranded in one of more than 40 detention centers across Libya. Morocco, France, and Germany will provide the air carriers, according to Gambian senior foreign affairs official Ebrima Jobe.
Jobe criticized the "African brothers" who act as middlemen for the smugglers. "Our criminal justice system should without delay initiate the prosecution of all those Africans involved," he said.
Other African countries are now joining in on repatriations, including Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
Amnesty International has criticized Europe, saying its primary aim is to close the Mediterranean route and leave hundreds of thousands of migrants trapped in Libya and facing horrific abuses.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Director for Europe, said: "Plans which overwhelmingly prioritize the 'voluntary' return of people now stuck in Libya to their country of origin without an effective system for assessing and meeting asylum needs or offering more resettlement places will end up as a mechanism for mass deportation."
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Hilary Uguru in Warri, Nigeria and Abdoulie John in Banjul, Gambia contributed.