By Nzubechukwu Okeke
It has been estimated that over 4000 Nigerians are languishing in different prisons in China. These Nigerians includes those awaiting trial or in detention while others are serving their jail term ranging from a few years with hard labor to capital punishment.
However, there are challenges with knowing the exact population of Nigerians in Chinese prisons as some of them are there with documents alleging a different nationality or identity. These are people who left Nigeria in search of greener pastures including business. Growing poverty rates and lack of jobs for the teeming Nigerian population have always been incriminated as the major cause of migration. For some Nigerians, there are no justifiable reasons for migrating but the prevalent “get rich quick syndrome” and greed. However, several Nigerians visit China for legitimate businesses or job opportunities.
For decades, Nigeria and China have maintained a good business relationship. The majority of products used in Nigeria are manufactured and imported from China while on the other hand Nigeria exports resources like crude oil to China. In order to enhance this relationship Nigerian citizens will continue to visit China and like other people migrate to settle there permanently. We cannot stop migration because individuals have the right to migrate and settle in any country of their choice. However, these unlucky Nigerians ended up in Chinese prison for one reason or the other.
Recently, a forum was convened in Lagos by civil society to discuss the plight of Nigerians in Chinese prisons. Participants in the meeting included civil society organizations, representatives of family members of Nigerians in prison, recent prison returnees from China as well as the media. The forum deliberated on the awful conditions and experiences of Nigerians trapped, languishing, traumatized and dying in prison on a daily basis.
The report revealed that Nigerians allegedly were confined on account of some immigration offenses ranging from invalid traveling documentation, over-staying, fraud, and smuggling among others. However, some others are held on drug-related offenses. Forlornly while most of these allegations are neither properly investigated nor proven, a lot of innocent Nigerian citizens have been unfairly roped into crimes they never committed.
The civil society organization acknowledges receiving several lamentations from Nigerians in Chinese prison. The report highlighted that an average of 40 Nigerians are being executed yearly. The returnees highlighted issues like slave labor, mysterious death of inmates, lack of medical attention, poor quality of food, alleged cases of organ harvest, lack of a fair hearing by Chinese government and gross inhumane treatment. Some of the returnees who recently finished their jail term recounted their ordeals. Two of the participants narrated the horrible experiences of watching their friends die in the prison due to lack of medical attention.
Such heinous experiences leave them traumatized and could lead to serious mental health problems. Moreover the family members of Nigerians in Chinese prisons share in their awful experiences. Some of them have not heard from their loved ones for years while others may never hear from them again.
There is a major problem with the rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees into Nigerian society. At the moment there is no clear program to enable them to adapt and adjust to the fast changing environment. Provision should also be made towards establishing an evidenced based intervention program for the rehabilitation of returnees to enable reintegration effectively into the society and lead a successful life. The program should have psycho-therapeutic components to help treat imminent psychological distress.
Though China is a communist country known for stringent punishment especially for drug related offenses which could attract capital punishment, there is a need for the Nigerian government to quickly investigate and ascertain the veracity of the experiences of Nigerian citizens in prison and their alleged offenses. Other options should be reviewing of our foreign policy towards improving citizenship diplomacy.
We do not in any way encourage crime, but everyone should have a fair hearing and if found guilty should be punished. Such punishments are meant to serve as deterrents for committing crime. The Government should look inward to find the cause of the current rise in crime offenses and develop programs to sensitize the youth on the implication of committing a crime.
Relevant government ministries and agencies particularly the National Orientation Agency (NOA) should be strengthened and properly funded, working closely with civil society organizations on civic sensitization at the grassroots level.
More importantly, effort should be made as a matter of urgency towards job creation for Nigerian youth and provisions for support for entrepreneurs as a way of reducing unnecessary migration.
Nzubechukwu Okeke is an Academic Associate at the Cardiff School of Health Sciences at Cardiff Metropolitan University. He wrote this piece exclusively for Nigerianreporter.com.