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E.g., 06/26/2024
Nigeria: Multiple Forms of Mobility in Africa's Demographic Giant

Nigeria: Multiple Forms of Mobility in Africa's Demographic Giant

As Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, with an estimated population of 150 million and over 250 ethnic groups, deals with a range of migration issues, from massive internal and regional migration to brain drain and a large, well-educated diaspora in the West (mainly the United States and the United Kingdom) that it sees as key to future development.

Thousands of Nigerians seek refuge and asylum each year, and some also migrate illegally, transiting through North Africa and then crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

Poverty drives much of this movement: more than 70 percent of Nigerians live below the national poverty line. Also, millions have been internally displaced due to religious and ethnic conflicts — particularly in cities across the north — that have persisted despite the establishment of a democratic government in 1999 that followed several years of military rule.

At the same time, Nigeria is home to a large number of foreigners, including those attracted by the oil-export boom from the 1970s and displaced by political conflicts and civil wars in West Africa.

Nigeria faces a number of complex challenges related to causes of migration. According to a 2007 World Bank report, these include translating the benefits of reforms into welfare improvements for its citizens, improving the domestic business environment, extending reform policies to states and local governments, focusing on non-oil growth, increasing and maintaining infrastructure investments, strengthening domestic institutions, tackling unrest in the Niger Delta, and increasing the quality of social-sector spending.

This profile covers Nigeria's migration history, internal migration and internally displaced people, refugee and asylum flows into and out of the country, movement to Europe, Nigeria's immigrant population and migration policies, regional migration issues, and trafficking. It also examines the size and characteristics of the Nigerian diaspora, the remittances they send, and the government's policies toward its citizens abroad.

Historical Overview

Documented history of migration in the territory that is now Nigeria dates back to four simultaneous slave trades in Africa between 1400 and 1900, the largest being the transatlantic in which 12 million slaves were exported from west, west-central, and eastern Africa to the European colonies in the Americas beginning in the 15th century.

The three other slave trades — the trans-Saharan, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean — which began before the transatlantic one, involved another 6 million people. Estimates from Harvard economist Nathan Dunn indicate that Nigeria lost about 2 million people during the 500-year period, out of which about 1.4 million slaves were shipped to the Americas.

The arrival of the British in the mid-19th century provided a framework for large-scale migration as the British needed a large labor force for mines, plantations, and public administration. The resulting rural-rural migration moved people to work as either migrant tenant farmers, farm labor, and/or migrant traders.

In addition, migrant laborers from different parts of the country, especially from rural areas, moved into Nigeria's regional headquarters and administrative and market centers in search of trade and gainful employment; destination cities included Lagos, Kano, Zaria, Enugu, Ibadan, Sokoto, and Kaduna, among many others. Of particular importance to rural-urban migration was the creation of mining towns and the linking of seaports in Lagos and Port Harcourt to rural areas via railways.

During colonial rule, Nigeria also experienced international flows. Geographer Adejumoke Afolayan and colleagues have found evidence of immigration and emigration as far back as 1903.

An estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Tuaregs from Niger moved into Kano city and its environs between 1914 and 1922. Kano city offered better grazing facilities, wells for pastoralists and their flocks, veterinary services, and lower taxes.

For similar reasons, another 250,000 people moved into the northwestern region of Nigeria between 1931 and 1952 from French West Africa, which extended from Lake Chad to Dakar, Senegal, and from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea; the flow dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to pull factors, the British colonial administration was considered less oppressive than that of the French.

On emigration, an estimated 6,500 Nigerians moved to the then Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Cotonou-Parakou in Dahomey (now Benin) to work on rail lines and in gold mines between 1900 and 1902. After the railway was completed, some of the migrants became traders, and many left for Côte d'Ivoire after World War I. Côte d'Ivoire needed labor for cash-crop plantations established by the turn of the 20th century and the infrastructure improvements (ports, warehouses, railroads, and roads) designed to aid agricultural exports.

According to Ghana's 1948 census, there were about 46,800 Nigerians, a number that later rose to 100,000 in 1959 following Ghana's economic development and the country's vigorous Pan-African movement after its independence.

Though estimates vary depending on the source, Ghana's alien expulsion order of 1969 expelled about 140,000 Nigerians between December 1969 and early June 1970, according to the Nigerian High Commissioner. Professor Adejumoke Afoloyan and colleagues have found that the experience influenced Nigerians' migration decisions, such as movement to other destinations (in particular Côte d'Ivoire), shorter stays, and circulatory movements.

During the colonial period, thousands of Nigerians from Hausaland and Borno in northern Nigeria migrated to Sudan. Sociocultural ties, especially ethno-religious affinity, explain the Nigeria-Sudan connection, which remains strong today.

About 257,000 people left Nigeria's northwestern region according to Nigeria's 1952-1953 census. Their destinations included the Gold Coast, Dahomey, and Togo, out of which 28,000 people were mostly from Northern Sokoto. Substantial emigrant streams were particularly reported for the Yoruba of southwest Nigeria to Côte d'Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey, Mali, Togo, Niger, and Ghana. These movements were linked to the artificial nature of colonial boundaries, which split the people of common culture and ethnic groupings into different countries.

Migration since Independence

Flows from Nigeria to countries beyond the region did not occur on a large scale until after independence in 1960. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the emerging elites moved mainly to the United Kingdom due to the legacy of colonial ties, for educational pursuit, and in a few cases for administrative matters.

The expectation was that Nigerian students would return with valuable skills needed for nation building. Indeed, most Nigerians educated abroad in the 1960s and 1970s readily came home after completing their education to assured plum jobs in the civil service or the burgeoning oil and private sectors of the economy.

After independence in 1960, this largely highly skilled migration to the United Kingdom continued, although an increasing proportion of Nigerians also migrated to the United States for study, business, and work.

As political tensions engulfed Nigeria and as its economy stagnated in the late 1970s and 1980s, the stream of emigrants increased. Unlike previous emigrants, these Nigerians tended to stay abroad for longer periods after graduating, and some never returned.

Consequently, a well-developed culture of professional migration emerged. By 1978, an estimated 30,000 Nigerian graduates from UK higher institutions were living outside Africa, with 2,000 of them living in the United States. In 1984, the Nigerian population living in the United States had increased to 10,000 according to Afoloyan and colleagues; many were highly skilled.

In addition to the poor economy, Nigerian-based professionals left because of the austerity measures of the Structural Adjustment Program, which the government agreed to as a condition of a loan from the International Monetary Fund in the mid-1980s. Because the program included devaluing the national currency, wages for professionals became lower and working conditions worsened.

As desperation in the country continued, many less-educated youth became significant part of the emigration stream. By the early 2000s, an increasing number of Nigerians had migrated to countries such as Spain, Italy, Ireland Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, as well as the Gulf states.

More recent migrants to continental European countries are reported to be less skilled on average, and more often work in the formal and, particularly in southern Europe, informal service, trade, and agricultural sectors. However, the United Kingdom and, in particular, the United States (through student and professional migration as well as the green card lottery) generally continue to attract the relatively higher skilled workers.

In addition, relatively highly skilled nurses and doctors were recruited from Nigeria to work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Internal Migration after Independence

Following independence in 1960, the Nigerian government reorganized the territory from three regions into a number of states, a move that encouraged even higher rates of internal migration. The new state capitals, which became home to various state and federal government departments and agencies, as well as related businesses, drew construction workers, job seekers, traders, and relocating civil servants and their families. Similarly, the creation of 776 local government areas between 1976 and 1996 made these places attractive destinations.

When the military-run government made Abuja the capital, in 1991, 200,000 public sector workers, along with staff of foreign embassies and multilateral and bilateral agencies, relocated from Lagos. Abuja's population was 378,671 according to the 1991 census, but the city's population growth accelerated when a democratic government took office in 1999. By 2006, Abuja's population had more than doubled to 778,567, making it the fastest case of urbanization in West Africa.

The country's southwest, which includes Lagos (population 18 million) and Ibadan, attracts migrants from all over Nigeria. The region hosts the nation's two largest seaports, 65 percent of its industrial plants, large proportions of educational and research institutions, and large agricultural plantations.

Internal migrants come from Nigeria's significantly less developed regions. For example, the southeastern region has been a major source of internal migration for several decades due to poor environmental and economic conditions. Nigerian agricultural economist Chinedum Nwajiuba identified the motivations for migration out of the southeast as mainly economic (80 percent), with education a distant second (16 percent).

Due to poor environmental conditions — primarily linked to proximity to the Sahara Desert and consequent desertification— parts of northern Nigeria are unattractive for settlement beyond urban centers such as Kano (the northern region's commercial capital), and areas around Sokoto and Katsina.

According to Nigerian priest and social commentator John Odey and sociologist Edlyne Anugwom, the recent introduction and implementation of Sharia law in northern states heightened tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the consequent persistent ethno-religious conflicts have kept internal migrants away. Journalist Umar Yusuf estimates that the ethno-religious crises have cost over 100,000 Nigerians lives and injured 300,000 since 1979.

In some respects, internal migrants are treated like foreigners in their own country. They are frequently excluded from political participation in their places of residence, partly because of strong local identities and partly because the federal government has not addressed the important issue of protecting citizenship rights of Nigerians irrespective of being indigenes (meaning those who are native to the communities where they live) or settlers in any part of the country.

Beyond politics, internal migrants maintain ties with their communities of origin as an important part of an elaborate kinship system and as a survival strategy for themselves and their investments in times of crises.

For example, following the Nigerian civil war, communities were enabled by the Abandoned Property Decree to seize "abandoned" land and property of the Igbo people located nationwide, especially in Port Harcourt. This remains one of the haunting, unresolved issues of the war 40 years after it ended. Consequently, Igbo migrants have since invested significantly in Igbo places of origin. This has generally enhanced rural economic viability, particularly in eastern Nigeria.

Internally Displaced Persons

Conflicts among Nigeria's ethnic groups have been part of its history. The severity of ethnic conflict has waxed and waned with political developments. During the Biafra War of 1967-1970, in which the old eastern region attempted to secede from Nigeria, over 1 million Nigerians, mostly Igbo, were internally displaced.

Successive military governments, often using brutal tactics, generally kept ethnic rivalries in check. However, since the election of a democratic government in 1999, ethnic conflicts have surged in both number and intensity, leading to sizeable numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs).

While the figures fluctuate considerably due to complex displacement patterns and the lack of any comprehensive and reliable survey, Nigeria's National Commission for Refugees estimated 3.2 million IDPs in Nigeria between 2003 and 2008.

Internal displacement in Nigeria has causes beyond ethnic and religious conflict, and these causes vary significantly by geopolitical zones. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center:

  • about 480,000 persons were displaced between 2006 and 2008 in on-going clashes around the benefits of oil exploration and exploitation in the Niger Delta.
  • the implementation of the International Court of Justice ruling that gave control of the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon created an unexpected wave of displacement of over 755,000 persons into the neighboring Cross River and Akwa Ibom states between 2007 and 2008.
  • floods displaced about 450,000 people in the northern states of Yobe, Jigawa, Kebbi, and Gombe between 2004 and 2007.

Further, reports by the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions and the Social and Economic Rights Action Center in 2008 suggested that over 2 million people were forcibly evicted from their homes between 2000 and 2007 in cities such as Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt following government urban maintenance and/or renewal programs.

As the National Commission for Refugees has found, the Nigerian government has made few attempts to resettle IDPs or to respond in any way. The commission has identified the key constraints to resettlements: lack of experience in dealing with IDP issues, inadequate funding, and competing mandates between institutions. Also, government agencies have only been able to support IDPs in the emergency phase of a crisis but have not had the resources for their long-term reintegration.

Nigerian Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Large numbers of Nigerians have sought refuge and asylum within Africa and across industrialized countries since the late 1980s but mostly from the early 1990s.

In 1989, there were 20 Nigerian claims of asylum in the United Kingdom, but the number surpassed 4,000 in 1994. In the first three months of 1995, over 1,700 new asylum seekers arrived in Britain from Nigeria fleeing the country's brutal military regime, which had imprisoned political opponents and killed prodemocracy protesters.

Between 1996 and 2005, Cameroon received an estimated 60,380 Nigerian refugees, particularly in 2001-2002, when ethnic conflict between Hausa-Fulani herdsmen and Mambila farmers prompted the Hausa-Fulani to flee en masse. A tripartite agreement between Nigeria, Cameroon, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was signed in April 2005, and by December 2005, 7,700 refugees had returned to Nigeria, with 9,700 refugees on record as still in Cameroon.

UNHCR estimates that the United States resettled 13,863 Nigerians between 1996 and 2005. Other top resettlement countries during this decade include the United Kingdom (11,749), Germany (10,406), and Canada (9,378). Over the same period, Nigerians sought asylum mainly in Ireland (21,378), South Africa (14,107), Austria (8,244), and France (6,510).

While the decade includes the dark days of military dictatorship, it also includes the first years of democratic rule, which created an enlarged political space and freedom that aggravated ethnic and sectarian strife across the country.

Repressed groups under the military became invigorated and mobilized around different interests. Groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in the Niger Delta and southeastern Nigeria have become symbols of the south's demands for oil-resource control and self-determination, respectively.

In the north, Islamic groups such as the Izala and most recently the Boko Haram (also known as the Nigerian Taliban) have championed eradicating Western civilization and establishing an Islamic theocracy in Nigeria. The result: conflicts in northern cities and constant clashes between government forces and youth militias in the Niger Delta and southeast. The persistence of these ills — which have killed, injured, displaced, and dislocated thousands and destroyed their livelihoods — has greatly disillusioned many Nigerians, thousands of whom have sought asylum abroad.

Following an upsurge of renewed unrests and conflicts, Nigerians registered asylum applications in 17 countries in 2008. According to UNHCR, no fewer than 12,573 Nigerians applied for asylum in Europe (mainly Italy) and other developed nations— a 71 percent increase over the 2007 figures.

Most of those who eventually make it to Europe or other destinations do not receive asylum. In 2008, asylum recognition rates in developed countries varied greatly, from 62 percent in Canada to 17 percent in France to 0.5 percent in Ireland and Cyprus.

The question of which asylum applications from Nigeria are legitimate cannot be answered simply. In addition to ongoing conflicts that force some to flee, others are seeking to escape poor socioeconomic conditions in a country where political conflicts, turmoil, violence, and dislocations are routine.

Nigerian Migration to Europe

An important dimension of recent Nigerian emigration is the flow of mostly economic migrants to diverse destinations around the world, particularly Europe. These movements are largely clandestine, involving risky passage via diverse transit points, such as through Senegal to Spain by way of the Canary Islands.

Individual stowaways hide aboard ships destined for Southern Europe or headed as far away as East Asia. Unscrupulous agents, smugglers, and traffickers exploit desperate youth with promises of work and passages to Italy, Spain, France, etc. Such circumstances make them vulnerable to criminal gangs along the way.

Nigeria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that in 2008, at least 59,000 Nigerians without valid traveling documents were in North Africa seeking to migrate to Western Europe. About 8,000 were in Morocco, 16,000 in Algeria, 20,000 in Libya, and about 15,000 in Mauritania.

Most of them get stranded in Senegal and Morocco for several years. Some end up in jails in North Africa or die on the perilous desert trails or in dangerous sea voyages with overcrowded rickety boats, which often capsize.

The Nigerian Foreign Minister reported that over 10,000 Nigerians died between 1999 and 2002 while trying to cross to Europe through North Africa. Those who reach Europe today are increasingly being repatriated on arrival or soon thereafter.

In response, the Nigerian government has launched several initiatives, one of which is cooperation with the Moroccan authorities. The arrangement, which began in 2005 and is still in place, in its first year resulted in five joint operations that repatriated some 1,700 Nigerian nationals.

The government is currently working with the International Organization on Migration (IOM) to facilitate the voluntary return and reintegration of Nigerian migrants living illegally in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Italy. The government has also launched campaigns on the dangers of illegal migration and has supported linking the IOM program to its poverty-eradication strategies.

According to an IOM report in February 2009, Nigeria is moving forward, both at the international and national levels, with efforts in place to enhance border management and reduce illegal migration, among other achievements.

Refugees in Nigeria

As is common in Africa, Nigeria also has been a destination for refugees and asylum seekers from the region. However, the country has not seen any recent flows as conflicts that produced earlier waves have been resolved.

UNHCR reported that Nigeria hosted approximately 10,100 refugees as of January 2009, the majority of whom were from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Nigeria's 1,200 asylum seekers as of January 2009 came mainly from the DRC, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

Voluntary repatriation and integration has been the main solution for refugees in Nigeria. In 2007, UNHCR repatriated about 13,000 refugees to Liberia and Sierra Leone following the end of civil wars in those countries.

Under a partnership involving Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, UNHCR, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), UNHCR has continued to protect and facilitate the local integration of some 7,000 refugees in Nigeria. The 2010 initiative, which focuses mainly on Liberians, is intended to help them generate income/find employment so they become part of the local economy.

In 2008, UNHCR helped close the Oru refugee camp, which had hosted refugees for upwards of 18 years. While the camp was in operation, refugees were entitled to protection, privileges, and rights under the UNHCR mandate; these rights include education for refugee children and work permission for adults.

Nigerian Migration Policy and Regional Integration

The primary law governing immigration into Nigeria is the Immigration Act of 1963, currently governed by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Following the principles of international law, the act provides that an alien can only enter Nigeria with a valid passport or other travel document and a visa or recognized entry permit. Admission into Nigeria is under specified conditions, including duration of stay, place of residence, place of employment, and restricted movement within the country.

Migrants of African origin wishing to reside in Nigeria are required to regularize their papers after which they are issued a resident card. The card and registration allow them to bring family members, work, and own property and businesses in Nigeria. Migrants and members of their families are protected under the Nigerian constitution to seek redress in a court of law on any issue of conflict and entitled to earn the same wages as their Nigerian counterparts.

ECOWAS Members
Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo

Nigeria's policy on migration and migrant workers rights is greatly influenced by the ECOWAS Treaty and its numerous protocols, conventions, and decisions (see sidebar for list of members).

ECOWAS was founded in Lagos in May 1975 to strengthen regional economic integration through progressively freer movement of goods, capital, and people and to consolidate states' efforts to maintain peace, stability, and security. Nigeria has played not only a primary role in its founding, but also contributes about 32 percent of its budget and hosts its headquarters.

The protocol on free movement of persons, residence and establishment, adopted in 1979, outlined a three-phase implementation: (1) the right of entry, abolition of visas, and stays of up to 90 days; (2) the right of residency after 90 days to seek and carry out income-earning employment; and (3) the right of establishment of enterprises.

While phase one has been fully implemented, phases two and three have not yet been realized for a number of reasons. In particular, members' economies declined in the 1980s, meaning limited employment opportunities. Other hindrances include massive and prolonged displacement from civil wars, political instability, border disputes, nonconvertibility of currencies, lengthy bureaucracies at border posts, and corrupted officials.

According to researcher M. Leann Brown, an estimated 2 million West Africans (as many as half of whom were Ghanaians) were employed illegally in Nigeria in the early 1980s, notably in oil-related industries, ports, textiles, hotels, security firms, teaching, and domestic services. Their presence fueled concerns about illegal activities such as smuggling of goods across the borders, prostitution, destitution, and vagrancy.

Indeed, the protocol on the free movement of persons was widely perceived as causing or exacerbating Nigeria's severe economic, social, and political problems, culminating in the Aliens Expulsion Order of 1983, during which nearly 1.5 million illegal West African migrant workers were expelled.

While the precise number of aliens affected may not be known, the massive volume of illegal migration in Nigeria was obvious as it was estimated that at least 700,000 Ghanaians, 180,000 Nigeriens, 150,000 Chadians, 120,000 Cameroonians, 5,000 Togolese, and 5,000 Beninois, among others, were forced to leave.

The Nigerian government later amended the order so that certain skilled foreigners, such as secretaries, nurses, teachers, masons, and carpenters, could stay four weeks longer or become regularized. Also, employees of federal, state, and parastatal institutions, as well as citizens of ECOWAS states, Cameroon, and Chad who had come to Nigeria before 1963, were exempted.

Despite the closure of the border in 1983, the government did not have the resources to prevent unauthorized movements. In 1984, Chadians, Cameroonians, and Nigeriens fled drought at home to come to northern Nigeria, with some Chadians also escaping political instability.

Also, a significant number of illegal aliens did not heed the 1983 expulsion order, while others managed to filter back, prompting the military government that ousted the civilian government in December 1983 to issue a second order in May 1985: illegal migrants had to either regularize their residency permits or leave the country. Again, an estimated 700,000 persons were expelled, out of which 300,000 were Ghanaians and 100,000 were Nigeriens.

Despite the emotions stirred by both expulsions, Nigeria was assessed to have acted within its rights under the ECOWAS agreement.

Migrants in Nigeria

While statistics on intraregional flows are generally unreliable, 2006 estimates from the ECOWAS Statistics Office suggest that West African migrants account for approximately 10 percent of the total population in most West African countries.

Relative to her population size, Nigeria has a significantly smaller ECOWAS population than other Member States. Estimates based on 2000-2001 rounds of census data collected in the Global Migrant Origin Database of the University of Sussex's Development Research Center indicate that ECOWAS citizens made up about 0.4 percent of Nigeria's 150 million people.

However, out of an estimated 750,000 foreign-born residents in Nigeria, 74 percent were ECOWAS citizens, with another 12 percent from other African countries (see Figure 1). An estimated 91 percent of ECOWAS citizens emigrated from five countries — Benin, Ghana, Mali, Togo, and Niger — with over 50 percent originating from Benin and Ghana alone.

Among Europeans in Nigeria, an estimated 22 percent came from Russia and about 15 percent each were from the United Kingdom and Germany. Italy, Portugal, and France were other EU Member States with a noticeable presence, together with non-EU states like Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, and Turkey.

Figure 1. Foreigners Resident in Nigeria by Region of Origin, 2000-2001
Source: Development Research Centre (DRC), Global Migrant Origin Database, 2007.
Figure 2. Number of ECOWAS Citizens Resident in Nigeria by Member State, 2000-2001
Source: Development Research Centre (DRC), Global Migrant Origin Database, 2007.


Nigeria is a major center of human trafficking. The US State Department's 2010 human trafficking report identified Nigeria as a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.

Although statistics vary widely, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) reports that about 10,000 people are trafficked from Nigeria annually.

In terms of their origins, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported in 2006 that 83 percent of trafficked children for domestic service are recruited from Nigeria's Akwa Ibom state along the southeastern coast. Religious teachers also traffic boys, called almajiri, for forced begging.

Nearly all foreign children trafficked to Nigeria come from Benin and Togo, as well as Côte d'Ivoire and Niger. Trafficked girls are used for domestic services or street trading as well as prostitution, while boys are generally forced to work on plantations or in commercial farming, construction, quarries and mines, petty crimes, and the drug trade.

An estimated 94 percent of Nigerian women trafficked to Europe for sexual exploitation are from Edo state in the central-southern part of the country, according to UNODC's 2006 report. Italy is the primary destination though women are trafficked to northern, southern, central, and western European countries as well.

Trafficked women and girls are mostly sent to countries in the region, such as Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, and Cameroon. The most common Middle East destination is Saudi Arabia, where, during the hajj religious pilgrimage, Nigerian children and older women are forced into street begging, domestic service, and prostitution.

Most of those trafficked are lured by traffickers' promise of a better life. Nigerian journalist Yemi-Ladejobi has reported about many young women believe the fantastic offers of employment are genuine.

European migration policies have also played a role. According to human geographer Jørgen Carling, immigration restrictions in the 1990s made illegal entry more risky and costly, which provided an opportunity for traffickers.

The Nigerian government not only despises trafficking, it has taken concrete steps to fight it, enacting in 2003 the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act and establishing the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP).

Penalties for traffickers increased in 2005 to five years' imprisonment for labor trafficking and a maximum of life imprisonment for sex trafficking. The country's 2003 Child Rights Act also criminalizes child trafficking, though only 20 of Nigeria's 36 states have enacted it.

Since its establishment, NAPTIP has worked with law enforcement agencies, international agencies like IOM, and the Italian and Belgian governments. In 2009, NAPTIP reported that 65 human traffickers had been convicted and 4,000 victims rescued and repatriated, with some of the victims rehabilitated, since the agency's inception.

Human trafficking in Nigeria has been linked to underlying social and economic problems. The places where children and women are trafficked from are populated by minority ethnic groups and are grossly underdeveloped, with limited livelihood opportunities.

The dominant perspective is that efforts aimed at remedying the low status of women — particularly the economic disadvantages they face — must be woven into a larger antipoverty, anticorruption framework at national and global levels.

The Nigerian Diaspora

There is no consensus on the exact number of Nigerians who live outside the country. Estimates from the last decade vary widely, from 3 to 6 million (the Nigerian National Volunteer Service in 2006) to 15 million (2002 Christian Science Monitor article) to about 20 million (Lagos-based Bank of Industry in 2009).

The bases for these estimates remain unclear, hence we use the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimate of about 1.13 million Nigerians living in another country in 2010. This number has consistently increased since 1960 (see Table 1). Of this group, 62 percent are in other African countries, with smaller shares in Europe and North America, a small presence in Asia, and a minimal presence in Oceania, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Table 1. Nigeria's Emigrant Population, 1960 to 2010
Year Number (in thousands)
1960 94.1
1990 447.4
2005 972.1
2010 1,127.70
Source: UNDP Human Development Report 2009.

Presenting a similar picture but with a breakdown by country that uses 2000-2001 census data, the University of Sussex's Global Migrant Origin Database reveals that nearly a quarter of Nigerians were in Sudan, with 14 percent in the United States, 9 percent in the United Kingdom, 8 percent in Cameroon, and 5 percent in Ghana (see Figure 3). Much smaller populations were scattered across Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Figure 3. Nigerian Emigrants by Country of Residence (percent of total), 2000-2001
Source: Development Research Centre (DRC), Global Migrant Origin Database, 2007.

Why is Sudan home to the largest Nigerian population of any destination country? The most common explanation is a long history of sociocultural ties between Sudan and northern Nigeria, where most Nigerians in Sudan are from. Also, northern Nigerians who travel over land for the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia go through Sudan, and many have settled there over the years.

In the 1993 Sudanese census, West Africans, under the label Nigerian tribes, were estimated to be about 1.4 million, or 7.4 percent of northern Sudan's total population. The Hausa in Sudan, who work mainly in agriculture, are believed to be the largest Hausa diaspora in the world. The Fulani among them can be divided into cattle owners and urbanized Fulani, while most of the Kanuri, believed to be among the earliest dwellers, have been fully Arabized.

Nigeria's ambassador to Sudan between 2005 and 2007, Mr. Dahiru Suleiman, was quoted in the Nigerian media as saying that Nigerians hold positions in the Sudanese government and the security services like the police but that most are subsistence farmers, poor and poorly educated.

Recent actions of the Sudanese government suggest concerns about the legal status of these settlers. In March 2010, it was widely reported that Sudan deported 58 Nigerians, all northerners, and most of them women. The Sudanese authority said that some of the deportees had fake/ expired travel documents. However, journalist Ajikanle Nurudeen reported that the deportees were sent home because they were a nuisance to Sudan, as most of the deported women were blind and were beggers.

In recent years, Sudan has become a destination for younger Nigerians for work and study. BBC Sport journalist Oluwashina Okeleji reported that Nigerian footballers play in the Sudanese league to get on the radar of European scouts and hope to ultimately move to Europe.

For most educated Nigerians, the United States and the United Kingdom have been the top destinations. Using 2003 data, researchers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that Nigeria has the second-highest percentage of highly skilled expatriates in OECD countries after Taiwan.

The US Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey (ACS) estimated a population of 206,604 Nigerian foreign born, making Nigeria the largest African source country of immigrants to the United States. According to the 2006-2008 ACS three-year estimates, Texas had the most Nigerian immigrants (about 17 percent of the population estimate for that three-year period), followed by Maryland and New York (about 12 percent each). The Nigerian Foundation in Houston, Texas, has estimated the size of the Nigerian community there (including US-born children) at 150,000 to 250,000.

The US Department of Homeland Security's 2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics reported that 105,667 Nigerians obtained lawful permanent resident status in the United States between 2000 and 2009, with 15,253 in 2009 alone, 60 percent of them as immediate family members of US citizens.

Nigerian adults in the United States in 2008 were highly educated according to the 2008 ACS: 60.5 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher, more than double the share among all foreign-born (27.1 percent) and native-born (27.8 percent) adults.

In terms of industry, Nigerian immigrants in the civilian labor force were concentrated in educational services, and health care and social assistance (45.4 percent). Over half of Nigerian-born men and Nigerian-born women reported working in management, professional, and related occupations.

About 154,000 Nigerian foreign born were in the United Kingdom in September 2009 according to the Annual Population Survey of the UK Office for National Statistics. This made Nigeria the second-largest African source country after South Africa and the ninth-largest overall. About 95,000 of the Nigerian foreign born lived in London, where the population was the fifth-largest of all foreign-born groups. Between 2007 and 2008, 10,560 Nigerians were granted British citizenship.

The United Kingdom issued 1,690 settlement visas to those applying in Lagos and Abuja between April 2008 and March 2009. During the same period, the UK government granted 23,750 family visit visas at its Nigerian posts.

Most of the Nigerians who migrate to the United Kingdom are work-permit holders, students, and refugees and asylum seekers. About 76 percent of Nigerians were employed, 7 percent were unemployed, and 17 percent were inactive in 2005-2006.

According to the Labor Force Survey and Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) calculations, 50 percent of Nigerians were employed in public service and 27 percent in health and social work in 2005-2006.

Brain Drain

The World Bank Development Prospects Group reported in 2007 an estimated emigration rate of 36 percent for Nigerians with tertiary education. For physicians and nurses, the rates were about 13.6 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively.

In general, key drivers of migration include higher wages in the destination country, secure employment or job security, career advancement and/or training, access to the best facilities and technologies, and political and economic circumstances at home. Nearly all of these are relevant to brain drain from Nigeria.

Due to inflation, salaries in 1991 were so low that a professor in Nigeria earned 1 percent of the salary of his counterpart in South Africa, leading to low morale and low quality of teaching and research and a series of industrial strikes. Many professors sought better opportunities in the private sector or as consultants to international organizations or government; others migrated to the Middle East, South Africa, and other countries.

On the other side of the equation, the United States and United Kingdom have long had policies that favor entry and permanent settlement of highly skilled migrants. Therefore, it is not surprising that high levels of skilled emigration are consistent with data on Nigerians in both countries.


Nigeria's large diaspora is responsible for the largest remittance inflows into sub-Saharan Africa: approximately US$9.98 billion in officially recorded remittances in 2008, amounting to 4.7 percent of GDP in 2008 and up from US$1.54 billion in 1998, according to the World Bank. Nigeria's share of all remittances rose from 1.3 percent in 1998 to 2.4 percent in 2008.

While the value of remittances to particular regions and sectors is not available, a 2005 World Bank study found that remittance recipients are located predominantly in Nigeria's southeast and southwest regions and common uses include family expenses and social security for the elderly, the disabled, and orphans. Other major uses include education of relatives, payback for sponsorship of migration, business development and financing of existing businesses, and funding of special occasions like funerals, weddings, and holidays (e.g., Christmas and hajj).

Nigerian economist Una Okonkwo Osili found that Nigerian expatriates make substantial housing investments in their communities of origin and suggested that these investments may be the first stage of a broader financial relationship between Nigerians and their homeland.

Government Response to Skilled Emigration and Policy toward Diaspora

Over the years, Nigeria has focused on reversing the brain drain by attracting back the skilled people who left. But without dramatic and rapid economic and social transformation, the dream of mass return has been impossible to realize.

Since the return of democracy in 1999, the Nigerian government has changed its approach by officially recognizing Nigerians abroad as important stakeholders and potential partners in the country's development.

In September 2000, President Olusegun Obasanjo convened a meeting in Atlanta of Nigerians in the Americas, and later a meeting in London for those in Europe, to engage them in creating a mechanism through which they could effectively be mobilized and involved in Nigeria's development process. About 3,700 Nigerians attended the Atlanta meeting, while the London meeting attracted 500.

The two events led to a presidential consultative meeting in Abuja and then the formation of the Nigerians in the Diaspora Organization (NIDO) in 2001, modeled on similar organizations in China and India. Also established at that time was the Nigerian National Volunteer Service (NNVS), a quasi-government organization to coordinate the government's engagement with its diaspora.

In 2005, Obasanjo declared July 25th Nigerian Diaspora Day to recognize and celebrate both the individual and collective success of Nigerians abroad as well as their contributions to nation building.

According to Nigerian Ambassador Joe Keshi, appointed the national coordinator of NNVS in 2004, the organization has created national awareness on the need to mobilize, engage, and involve the diaspora in Nigeria's development process. NNVS initiated the Science Conference in 2005, bringing together Nigerian scientists abroad and their counterparts at home. The conference allowed for dialogue, interaction, collaboration, and cooperation.

Despite challenges and setbacks, Obi Akwani of Canada reported that the government's effort yielded some tangible results in terms of solid personal and institutional linkages. Many overseas-based scientists now have access to local research funds through the Science and Technology Trust Fund, and projects identified during past conferences are being carried out.

Expatriate Nigerians are also actively involved in nation-building through initiatives in health insurance, mortgages, and registered pension and credit purchase schemes. All were ideas that the diaspora suggested, and all had been realized by 2007.

Another outcome of government-diaspora interaction has been the 2002 decision allowing Nigerians to retain their citizenship if they become citizens of other countries. The federal government has since established the Department of Diaspora, with new plans to upgrade the department to a Diaspora Commission in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

President Goodluck Jonathan announced in April 2010 that the new commission will comprehensively harmonize the contributions of Nigerians abroad with a view to ensuring proper documentation of their input. As a commission, the organization will have more resources and powers, as well as a board of directors to run its affairs.

The government has also established an 80 billion naira (about US$500 million) investment fund so that the diaspora can invest in the Nigerian economy. According to the proposal, any Nigerian citizen interested in furthering the country's industrialization but who lacks the means can draw from the fund, which is part of the larger National Resource Fund meant for local capacity building, technology transfer, and product standardization to boost the country's export of manufactured goods.

These initiatives are at very early stages, and their full impact remains to be seen. According to Keshi, the establishment of a Diaspora Commission is misguided, particularly as its functions will replicate those of NNVS.

Emerging Issues, Future Challenges

The total number of Nigerians living abroad, their origin and whereabouts, as well as how their migration is affecting development in Nigeria, are all debatable. The impacts of recent government policy interventions are still in their infancy.

The significant number of Nigerians going to Europe through African countries like Libya in recent years as undocumented migrants or asylum seekers underscores new challenges for the Nigerian government. Despite Nigeria's cooperation with several African and European governments, the European Union, the United States, and intergovernmental agencies on illegal immigration and human trafficking, sustaining such engagements over the long term will be important in addressing these challenges.

On engaging the Nigerian diaspora, the government will need to invest in basic infrastructure and reduce corruption to see the diaspora's commitment and return levels increase. In addition, a more dynamic economy would absorb the teeming unemployed youth, who, in desperation, migrate illegally.

It is important to remember, though, that internal migration in Nigeria dwarfs international migration. As urban and rural areas of the country become increasingly linked, Nigeria needs to address the increased urbanization of poverty in internal destinations and more importantly the ethno-religious, political, and oil-related conflicts that push many to leave home. In a related issue, the government will need to make progress on citizenship rights for indigenes and non-indigenes in different parts of the country.

Despite daunting challenges, Nigeria's new democratic leaders have recently promoted a plan to launch Nigeria into the ranks of the world's top 20 economies by 2020. If the plan succeeds, it could mean fewer people leaving and more foreigners coming to Nigeria to work, according to sociologist Douglas Massey.

Crucial to Nigeria's development will be research investments in understanding internal, regional, and international migration, together with developing policies and institutional capacities to manage not only the current and anticipated flows, but their implications for origin communities and destinations.

Blessing U. Mberu can be reached at bmberu [at] aphrc [dot] org and Roland Pongou at roland [dot] pongou [at] gmail [dot] com.


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