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Migrant crisis

Nigerian artist Uyi recounts his epic bid to reach Europe

Uyi took what he called a 'Lampedusa' from Libya. "You pay to die in these boats".
Uyi took what he called a 'Lampedusa' from Libya. "You pay to die in these boats". Alva White/MSF

Prince Aghahowa Uyiosa or Uyi, as he likes to be called, is from Edo state in Nigeria. Earlier this summer, he was picked up with 110 other people in an overcrowded rubber boat off the Libyan coast. After the rescue, he was transferred to the Aquarius humanitarian ship jointly operated by SOS Mediterranée and Doctors without Borders (MSF). Radio France Internationale reporter Matthew Kay, who is on the Aquarius, met him.

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As soon as he had  been picked up by the MV Aquarius he began drawing sketches describing his journey across Africa.

"I travelled from Nigeria to Niger by motorbike," he told RFI. "Then, from Agadez I got a place in the back of a pickup truck.

"There were forty of us. Can you imagine? Forty humans crushed in a small pickup for a week. I couldn’t walk when we got to Libya."

He says the journey from his home to Tripoli took two months and he had no idea how dearly he would pay for a place on a ‘Lampedusa’, the name the smugglers give to the long, cheap rubber boats they use.

"Libya was so bad. They treated us like animals, not humans. It was brutal. I was forced to work for seven months with no pay. We were fed once a day, either a piece of bread or some macaroni. I didn’t have to pay my passage, just work, work, work."

He thought he would never be allowed to leave the prison where he was held with 600 others like him.

Uyi's journey in drawings

His story is similar to the thousands of people who make the journey to Europe via Libya. Detention, beatings, forced labour and sexual slavery – all part of the illegal smuggling industry estimated to be worth between four billion and five billion euros a year.

"Then one day after labouring, they told me, ‘you are going to die today’. About a hundred of us were taken to a river where they inflated the boat and we set off to sea.

"We were at sea for three days before we were picked up. I never knew the sea was so big. We couldn’t even see land. Nothing. When I saw the rescue ship coming I thought they would put us in prison."

Uyi remains positive, when he spoke to RFI, he was living in a Red Cross shelter in Pisa. "I don’t want to stay here. I want to go somewhere where I will get inspiration as an artist."

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