Shadow Migration

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More Nigerian families are having their babies in the United States and Europe. This is costing the country hard earned foreign exchange, and is sparking concerns about future loss of valuable manpower, writes OBODO EJIRO.

When Mike Ogundipe’s wife was seven and half months pregnant in December 2016, he sold his only car. He had bought the car, a Toyota Camry 2013 model, a year earlier with funds collaboratively raised by himself, his wife and close friends, just before his wedding ceremony.

“We had to sell the car to fund our ambition of having our baby in the United States,” the 29-year-old property developer and his wife, who works with a newspaper told me in their living room in Surulere, Lagos.

“Today, my daughter has an American passport and birth certificate, which is a head start,” Mrs Ogundipe cheerfully told me as she revealed that her second child will follow the same path (She is already carrying her second pregnancy).

In the last two decades, more middle income families in Nigeria have deemed it a priority to have one or two of their children born in the United States (U.S.), Canada or other developed countries in Europe.

In the past, the trend which is also referred to as “birth tourism,” was very common among families in the ruling class and high income bracket. But as more awareness about travel, cost of foreign trips and other details become readily available, more Nigerians across divides are embracing the trend.

“I can count on my fingers the number of pregnant women who have come here to fixed itineraries to and from the United States this week alone,” a ticketing officer at the Lagos office of a Middle Eastern airline told me in confidence. “They prefer our airlines because we offer competitive prices and hotel accommodation for pregnant women and children in transit,” he said in a hush.

By his estimate, over ten visibly pregnant women come to purchase tickets every week, often in company of their husbands. That comes to over 40 women per month. That number does not cover those whose pregnancies are not visible or those that complete their bookings remotely, the ticketing officer said.

And given that over 10 airlines operate international flights out of Nigeria daily, the scale of the movements is enormous. By some estimates, thousands of Nigerian women leave the shores of the country every year to give birth to children in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In some cases, some are making the trip for the second or third time.

The phenomena is so pervasive that one local bank has already crafted a loan product that targets families that are interested in making these journeys. Over in the U.S., a number of Nigerians living in the U.S. have also devised ways of making money out of birth tourism. They operate maternity hotels for women who do not have relatives in the U.S. to put up with while waiting for their delivery dates.

These hotels, which are often private residential buildings, offer feeding and accommodation to the pregnant women (who often have to wait for three months before their due dates), arrange for doctors on behalf of women and process documents for the babies once they are born.

Following the leaders

If Nigeria’s middle and lower class is sold on the importance of birth tourism it is the product of the action of the upper and ruling class. As of today, most of the children of those in the upper and ruling class are born abroad.

In December 2009, Nafisat Yuguda, daughter of then President Umaru Yar’Adua, was delivered of a baby boy in Maryland in the U.S., a few months earlier her elder sister, Zainab Dakingari also had a baby in the same country. Both women were married to serving state governors at the time.

In September, 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s daughter welcomed a baby girl also in the United States, while in 2017, the son of former military President Ibrahim Babangida had a baby boy in the same country. Under the current administration, President Muhammadu Buhari’s daughter, Zahra Buhari Indimi, had a baby boy in Spain in 2017.

But apart from the ruling class, many successful business men and women, top civil servants, military personnel and clergy across divides encourage their children to have their kids abroad. These days in Nigeria, it is a thing of prestige and accomplishment to have ones children born in the U.S., Canada or Europe.

“The trend is being driven by the situation in Nigeria,” says Ikechukwu Kelikume, a don at the Pan Atlantic University. “The country is not making much progress and its image is still in the woods; so people are seeking alternative passports for their children,” Kelikume, an expert in human economic behaviours says.

“For some families,” says Kelikume, “the move is a precursor to planned migration. But this does not apply to the ruling class who do not have an incentive to abandon Nigeria, except some unexpected shift occurs.” Such babies are referred to as “anchor babies” by the Americans and the process of having them is expensive.

What a golden chid costs

“The America passport comes at a high cost,” says Mrs Helen Udoh, who had twins in the American state of Washington in May 2017. Estimates for the round trip vary from states to states with more densely populated states in the United States posting higher bills for baby delivery.

On average, a woman who goes to have a baby in the U.S. has to have at least N6million to cover the cost of transportation, feeding, accommodation and medical bills. If there are complications during child birth, the medical bill could be double what was budgeted.

I interviewed several women who have undergone the process and they revealed that on average, normal birth in a birth center (not hospital) costs about $3,500 (N1.3million) per child, a woman who has twins pays twice that amount. Normal birth at a hospital costs as much as $7,500 (N2.8million). However, if there are complications in the process of having the baby, additional fees of up to $2000-$10,000 (N730,000 –N3.7million) could apply depending on the severity of the complications.

In the case of a caesarean sections, the patient could pay as much as $20,000 (N7.2million) depending on how complex the medical procedures the doctors have to engage in are.

For most Nigerians, cash payments are made, unlike American patients who pay piece meal and spread their payments over several years. All of these foreign exchange is pulled from the meagre foreign exchange which Nigeria gets from crude oil sale and foreign remittances.

It is estimated that Nigerians spend at least $73.4million annually on birth tourism. These are funds that could have gone into the accumulation of capital assets that could lift millions out of poverty.

For a country desperate for foreign exchange for national development, this abnormally high expenditure puts pressure on the nation’s reserves,” says Dr Bongo Adi, an economist with the Lagos Business School. “In the end,” according to Dr Adi, “citizens of a poor country are enriching doctors and other professionals of a developed country.” “There are affordable hospitals in Nigeria that can offer fantastic services at a quarter of the price which is charged by hospitals in the U.S., says Kelikume.

But Mrs. Udoh who had twins in the U.S. thinks otherwise. “The quality of health care is different. When you have your baby at a hospital in Nigeria, some of the nurses are so sarcastic, especially in government owned hospitals. In the U.S. the story is different, they actually treat you like a queen over there. They are also better equipped to handle all sort of emergencies.”

According to Mrs Udoh, “American law is the second reason many Nigerian women are making the journey.” Under America’s fourteenth amendment, “all persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens of the United States.”

The Nigerian families shelling out millions of dollars to get U.S. citizenship for their children know that it comes with a lot of pecks: free access to the U.S., access to American education and health care and the prestige of being American.

“If they can afford it, who doesn’t want good things for their,” Mrs Udoh asks me leaning forward from her chair as if she was challenging me to give superior answers.

“When I was told I was carrying twins I said to myself we have killed two birds with one stone” she said. “Of course we couldn’t afford to pay the bill at once, so we set up a plan with the doctors to pay up in the next five years. For some Nigerian women the story is different, the bolt from the hospital to avoid payment, which I something the authorities in the U.S. are concerned about.

But beyond money the new crop of American born Nigerian babies is leaving another concern.

Shipping out our best?

According to Kelikume, there is no guarantee that most of these children will remain in the country when they become adults. “This may leave us with a situation where some of the best trained Nigerian citizens are more loyal to countries where the infrastructure is running better and life is more delightful. A great wave of brain drain awaits us, the lecturer says.

In recent times, in the face of widening inequality and recession, more Nigerian professional are leaving the country as they are beckoned on by countries including the UK and Canada. More and more Nigerians with expertise in Information technology and the medical sciences are relocating out of the country. “These children who hold foreign passports are sure to follow that path,” says Kelikume.

According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, no fewer than 5,405 Nigerian-trained doctors and nurses are currently working in the UK. It is estimated that about 2,000 medical doctors leave the shore of Nigeria yearly to practice in the UK, U.S., Canada, United Arab Emirates, South-Africa among other countries.

When I asked Mrs Ogundipe if she wants her daughter to remain in Nigeria she said, “my daughter has an American passport in her hand, its left to her to decide whether to remain here or leave the country for good when she grows up.” And in response to the same question Mrs Udoh said, “its good to have alternatives right?”

Governments’ response

In 2012, the U.S. congress debated the growing trend of foreigners coming into their country to have babies who are automatically given citizenship, but no concrete step was taken to address their concerns. The issue was also raised by the Canadian government. But back in Nigeria, not much has been said about the trend in government circles.

What is being said among the many men and women who are pushing this trend is that if Nigeria becomes a more habitable and functional nation, many of these trips will become unnecessary.

Nigeria’s government has to stand up to the responsibility of giving hope to its people through the implementation of plan and policies that drastically improve health care and other forms of physical infrastructure. More has to be spent on upgrading the health care system in Nigeria so as to make it unnecessary or anyone to seek medical attention in the west, except for very severe illnesses.

Also, more jobs and opportunities have to be created so as to assure ordinary citizens that life in Nigeria does not necessarily mean hardship. Above all, positive messaging about the future, potential and prospect of Nigeria has to be reinforced. Government has to bring back pride in the Nigerian identity and make Nigeria a nation people can easily associate with.

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