A migrant’s journey, 26 years on: ‘It’s sad to see the situations are the same’

Documentary maker Ike Nnaebue, who retraced his attempted journey to Europe a quarter of a century ago, explains why migration is as old as humanity

Ike Nnaebue, Nigerian documentary maker. Photograph supplied by Ike Nnaebue

Ike Nnaebue explains how he decided to retrace the journey he made as a young man in the 1990s. With a group of friends, nearly three decades ago, he unsuccessfully tried to reach Europe. Today, huge numbers of West Africans are attempting the same routes.

This time, what started as a mission to warn Africans about the dangers of making these journeys ended as a documentary exploration of the hopes and dreams of young people who feel they have little opportunity at home.

The 47-year-old has directed about 15 drama features through his work in Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, as well as writing screenplays and producing, but No U-Turn is his first documentary feature.

In 1995, the Nigerian film maker – who left school at 13 to take up an apprenticeship and support his family – had hoped to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. He wanted to get a job in Spain, so he could send money home. Dissuaded along the way with accounts of abuse and exploitation by smugglers and traffickers, Nnaebue ended up in the Gambia, where his film-making career began.


In the documentary, Nnaebue travels through Benin, Mali and Morocco. Making the trip again made him realise how little has changed. “It was really quite sad to see that the situations are still the same,” he says, speaking on the phone from Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital.

There were two big differences. One was the availability of mobile phones and the internet, and the use of social media to access information about the routes. “Then to even watch CNN was an elitist thing,” explains Nnaebue. Now “most [travellers] are very aware of the dangers ... it just kind of tells you about the level of desperation and the level of loss of hope in their own environment.”

Another big change is the number of women making the journey now, Nnaebue says. He follows several women in the film, showing them begging in Morocco, or studying the sea’s currents while plotting how to buy their own boat and cross it.

The film also underlines how common intra-African migration is. “We’re just hoping for a better tomorrow. We don’t know how it’s going to happen but we just keep hoping,” says one interviewee, a young Nigerian man who is heading to Burkina Faso in the hope of finding work there. “‘May things get better’ is the poor man’s prayer.”

Ike Nnaebue: "Why is it unrealistic to dream of a comfortable life in a continent of abundant resources?". Photograph supplied by Ike Nnaebue

Europe – unreachable for many – is an “existential dream” that represents something “way beyond a geographical location,” Nnaebue says in the film. “It’s about opportunity and the chance to self-actualise ... Why is it unrealistic to dream of a comfortable life in a continent of abundant resources?”

In Nigeria, where poverty is rife and corruption a daily constant, young people now have a term, “japa” which means to escape their own country. Those who can find foreign opportunities to work or study fly legally out of Nigeria, but Nnaebue is certain that five times that number are leaving by land through so-called “irregular” means.

“For many, the reasons for migrating are that the countries of our birth do not allow us enough opportunities to dream. So we cross to the next border, hoping there will be space for our dreams there,” Nnaebue says.

No U-Turn shows that migration is nothing new. The title refers partially to the shame people feel about not reaching their goal destination and their unwillingness to return home because of that.

Nnaebue is now hoping to set up a programme which will help Nigerians, who fail to reach Europe, reintegrate into their communities. He wants to provide them with temporary accommodation, professional training and psychological support. Nnaebue would like to see charitable people donate and “adopt” a returnee for a year, helping them throughout that time.

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The documentary is streaming online as part of the Human Rights Watch film festival. One success so far has been the response of European audiences, Nnaebue says, with viewers saying they have “never actually seen migrants as humans with basic human needs” before. Generally “nobody really looks at the humanity of migrants,” he says. “They’re basically numbers in the database.”

Nnaebue is hoping for an expansion of the discussion around migration from Africa, tying it to its root causes, rather than just the “symptoms.”

“At the root cause of everything is colonisation because ... you’ve come to a people and you’ve told them their way of life is barbaric, their gods are evil, their ancestors are evil, there’s nothing good about them. And everything you teach them that is good comes from Europe ... It wouldn’t be surprising if people grew up with a certain psychological mindset where they believe that life is better in Europe, because that’s basically what you’ve sold to them for years, and even generations, so decolonisation is a very important conversation to be had alongside this type of irregular migration.”

In the “long run”, he said he believes that African countries “need to be left alone to create local solutions to local problems. So long as the West, so long as Europe continues to interfere and pillage Africa this will be the end result ... Humans are not trees. If they feel like there’s nothing for survival where they are they will move, even if they have to go through dangerous journeys to get away ... It is just basic natural human instinct, that’s why migration is as old as humanity.”