Becoming Hadiza: Putting Migrant Safety first in Niger

She left Nigeria, seeking a new life for herself in Europe.

Along the way, Hadiza got caught up with dishonest people, especially human traffickers. The young survivor now is working to stop others from making similar risky choices.

Hadiza in downtown Agadez, Niger, close to the ghetto where she stayed for six weeks. Photo: Monica Chiriac / IOM (2018)

Hadiza is a community mobilizer, or “MobCom” for IOM, the UN Migration Agency, in Niger. She is one of 50 men and women working hard throughout the country to sensitize migrants about the risks of irregular migration and its alternatives. Together with 13 other MobComs based in Agadez, — one of the main migratory transit points in the country — she welcomes migrants at IOM’s orientation office, but also visits various ghettos and brothels on a daily basis to build relationships with local communities and migratory networks.

Hadiza is also a former victim of human trafficking and one of the many Nigerian girls who embark on the perilous journey abroad each year, tricked by false promises of a better life in Europe.

Before she left Lagos, Hadiza had completed hospitality management studies and was working in a hotel. The pay wasn’t high, so when “a friend of a friend” offered to pay for a trip to Europe and promised to find her a job in a restaurant as soon as she arrived, she jumped at the opportunity.

“That’s what she promised me,” recalled Hadiza.

“I have been in those girls’ position. I know what they are going through.” Photo: Monica Chiriac / IOM (2018)

The “madam” quickly organized the travel arrangements for Hadiza and seven other girls, and soon sent a driver to pick them up for the first leg of their trip: to Libya. On the way there they were kidnapped, but released once their madam paid the ransom. Hadiza soon found out from fellow travelers that she was actually being sold into prostitution.

“I told the other girls that I couldn’t continue the journey if this what they wanted me to do in Europe.”

She didn’t want to believe it was all a scam. “I called the madam who confirmed that it was indeed the kind of work I was expected to do,” Hadiza explained. “She asked me to pay her right away if I didn’t want to continue the trip.”

The other girls agreed to continue the journey to Europe while Hadiza tried in vain to find the means to return home.

The girls cover up once they go out of the ghetto to blend in with the crowd. Photo: Monica Chiriac / IOM (2018)

Once in Libya, all of the girls’ possessions were stolen: money, clothes, and even the kitchen equipment they were hoping to use once they reached Europe. All Hadiza had left was her phone, which she had guarded as if her life depended on it.

Hadiza and the other girls were locked up in a guarded house in the middle of nowhere. “There was a small opening in a fence, so when no one was looking, I jumped through it and ran,” Hadiza recounted. She sold her phone, her only possession, for a little money and convinced a driver to take her back to Agadez.

As soon as they arrived in Agadez, the man who had helped Hadiza took her to a ghetto and told her she needed to learn the trade to pay him back for the trip. Hadiza begged and begged to be set free — she just wanted to go back home. As an orphan, she grew up with her grandmother and younger sister. Her grandma had told Hadiza that she would rather die than see her granddaughter prostitute herself.

Photo: Monica Chiriac / IOM (2018)
“Six weeks, that’s how long I stayed there. Six long weeks.”

Hadiza struggled for the next month-and-a-half to save up enough money to pay the driver who brought her there. She and the other girls in the ghetto would often have to run and hide from the police at night. Local boys would sometimes catch them, beat them up and steal their money. The girls would fight over clients and money every day. “I was so ashamed. The suffering was never-ending. That’s no life worth living,” Hadiza recalls.

One of the streets next to the ghetto where Hadiza spent six weeks. Photo: Monica Chiriac / IOM (2018)

One day, a MobCom team came to her ghetto and asked Hadiza what she wanted. “I started crying. I told them I wanted the suffering to end, that I couldn’t take this anymore. They told me I didn’t have to,” Hadiza said. A few days later, she was filling in her application to become a community mobilizer at IOM’s orientation office in Agadez. Shortly after that, she went through a training and joined the MobComs on their regular ghetto visits until she felt confident enough to lead the sessions herself.

Initially, the migrants in the ghettos would turn her away out of fear that she was working with the police, but they soon understood that they had more in common with Hadiza than they thought. “I have been in those girls’ position. I know what they are going through,” she said.

Hadiza is one of IOM’s 50 community mobilizers in Niger that regularly sensitize migrants about the risks of irregular migration and its alternatives. However, only a few months ago, Hadiza was staying in one of more than 30 ghettos in Agadez, struggling to find the means to go back to Nigeria. Today Hadiza is back in the ghetto, but to sensitize her fellow migrants about safe migration.

Hadiza is one of the 11 non-Nigeriens who have been hired as community mobilizers. Not only is it helpful to have female MobComs in the ghettos, foreigners like Hadiza can communicate with their compatriots more easily — in Hadiza’s case, she can be a focal point for other Nigerians in the ghetto. Many of these migrants have lived in Niger for a long period of time and have no intention of going back home any time soon.

Hadiza still has very close relationships with the girls she met in the ghettos. Photo: Monica Chiriac / IOM (2018)

Hadiza feels accomplished when she is able to refer volunteer returnees to the transit centre, and feels encouraged by her colleagues who treat her like a peer: “They don’t look down on me because they met me on the streets. My colleagues are proud of me when they see the work I’m doing and how far I’ve come,” Hadiza said.

Hadiza and her colleagues in Agadez, Arlit, Dirkou and Niamey have sensitized close to 70,000 migrants this year. More than 140,000 migrants have been reached since the opening of the first orientation office in Agadez back in 2016.

“It was hard at first to go back to places where I swore I would never go again, but I have managed to detach myself. I realized how important the work we do is and how life-changing it can be,” Hadiza concluded.

Photo: Monica Chiriac / IOM (2018)
“For now, I am happy here doing the work I’m doing. I feel at home. What they did for me, I want to do for others.”

Migrants who decide to return to their countries of origin are welcomed at any of IOM’s six transit centres in Niger, where they are provided with shelter, food, water, medical and psychological assistance, consular assistance for their travel documents and transportation back home.

The six transit centres, together with the four orientation offices and sensitization activities, are supported by the Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism funded by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and co-financed by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), the Department for International Development (DFID), the German Cooperation and the governments of the Netherlands, France and Switzerland.

This story was written by Monica Chiriac, Public Information Officer at IOM Niger.