In a Sad Spectacle, Nigeria Evicts Foreign Workers, Creating a Staggering Exodus

updated 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

The scene was reminiscent of too many others—of Cuba, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia. Thousands of refugees were fleeing from a land they could no longer call home. The most recent tragedy was played out in Nigeria, where on Jan. 17 the Minister of Interior Affairs ordered all illegal alien workers out of the country. Almost overnight an estimated 1.5 million people were left with only the possessions they could carry. These same workers had been wooed to the country in the '70s to provide cheap labor for Nigeria's booming petroleum industry, but as oil prices sank worldwide and Nigeria's economy slipped, the foreigners—most of them Ghanaians—became expendable. In Lagos, more than 20,000 refugees squatted on docks for days, waiting for ships to ferry them to Ghana. When the first one arrived, the frustrated throngs surged forward, fighting for a spot on board. It set sail with human beings clinging to every inch of space—and with several corpses floating in its wake.

Those who took the overland route through Togo and Benin fared no better. Battered by hot winds carrying clouds of Sahara dust, a pitiful parade of overloaded autos and baggage-burdened pedestrians streamed silently west. Along Nigeria's reeking, garbage-strewn roads, many of the newly homeless were robbed of even the few possessions they could carry. Nigerian policemen confiscated valuables on the pretext that the refugees had no export licenses. "You came with nothing," sneered one Nigerian, "and you'll leave with nothing."

Incredibly, some of the refugees still found cause for hope after their long ordeal. "We'll cultivate the earth," said two young Ghanaians on arriving in their native land. Prosper Samora, a 23-year-old Ghanaian accountant, managed to get most of his belongings back to his hometown of Blekusu, but he won't stay there for long. "Soon," he vows, "I will go to Accra and finish the studies that I stopped before I went to Lagos six years ago." For a few, like Samora, the worst may be over. But for most of his countrymen who were forced to return to their depressed homeland, with little hope of work, their anguish continues.

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