LAGOS, Nigeria

At 7:40 p.m. on Dec. 18, a Boeing 737-800 aircraft taxied down the runway at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. The first figure that stepped out of the plane was female. She was clad in red pants and a red jacket with the hood up, hiding her face from the onslaught of cameras waiting on the tarmac. As she climbed down the stairs, her legs wobbled and she tripped, her hands gripping the handrails. Two officials of the National Emergency Management Agency rushed to her side, propped her up between them and led her to the ambulance that had been waiting for hours.

Another person, this time a man also dressed in sweats, hovered in the doorway of the plane. He scanned the horizon with shielded eyes and peered down the stairs for a long moment before descending, his steps slow and heavy. And then the rest poured out.

They were among the latest batches of Nigerian migrants rescued from deplorable conditions in the North African state of Libya where some had been held in detention for up to two years. All 167 of them came bearing stories of horror and despair. Looking to find a better future in Europe, they took a deadly trip through Niger and across the Sahara only to end up captured by Libyan militia groups and detained in overcrowded warehouses. Worse, some were sold into slavery, auctioned like cattle in a market.

“They tranke me in Libya,” said Lucky Egbado, one of the returnees, using the migrant slang for kidnapping. “They sold me for N600,000.” About $1,700.

There is a new vernacular that Egbado and the other migrants created when common parlance failed them. The slang reveals the depth of the awful conditions migrants are forced to survive in. The smugglers who facilitate the trip through the desert to Libya are called burgers, and kalabush describes the capsizing of smuggling ships that transport migrants across the Mediterranean to Italy. There’s also piping, which involves severe beatings with a plastic pipe. The Libyan captors beat the detainees on the soles of their feet until they’re bloody.

The “they” Egbado is referring to are the Asma boys—a criminal gang of mostly Libyans, but also Nigerians and Ghanaians—who are notorious for kidnapping and torturing Africans. They are only one of several armed gangs and smuggling rings that operate in Libya. Once kidnapped, the gang would force their victims to call someone back home in Nigeria for ransom. Some had to pay ransom as many as four times because the gang would claim not to have received any of the payments. Sometimes, the gang members inserted sharp objects in their buttocks to force them to work or to torture them to demand swifter payment of the ransom.

But Lucky, as his name suggests, was fortunate. In the dead of the night, he and other Africans who had been sold broke out from their prison and got to a state-run deportation center in Tripoli. All of them got away.

The United Nations’ migration agency has been airlifting migrants from official deportation centers back to their home countries. There are about 30 state-run deportation camps scattered across Libya. These are the camps where persecuted migrants seeking refuge run to if they are lucky enough to escape their armed captors. Sometimes, the Libyan authorities round up African migrants they find trying to cross the Mediterranean and haul them to the camps. At the camps, the International Organization for Migration, IOM, prepares them for deportations—a long process that can take up to four months. Egbado said he had been held in one such camp since October.

But the conditions at these official centers are hardly better than the hostage dens the migrants had escaped. Many of the returnees said they were given a small roll of bread and watery pasta that turned their stomachs. Sometimes it was all they were given for days. Since the civil war in 2011, public service in Libya has broken down and state institutions are poorly funded. Militia groups and revolutionary gangs known as Katibas (some of them allegedly on the government’s payroll) took control of some of the centers, running them without oversight. At night, the halls are hot and airless. Some of the migrants sleep crouching on their feet because there is no room to lay down. Bathing is a luxury; there isn’t even enough water to drink.

By mid-2013, Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) had wrestled control of some 17 centers away from the militias, yet conditions have not improved. There are several reports of human rights abuses by official guards themselves. In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that “five detainees said guards suspended them upside down from a tree and then whipped them.”

Libyan law criminalizes illegal migration and allows for indefinite detention, so thousands are captured at will and some are detained for years. These are not new occurrences: In 2005, a former director of the Italian secret service declared to the Italian Parliament that “undocumented migrants in Libya are caught like dogs” and held in such appalling conditions that “policemen must wear a dust mask on the mouth because of the nauseating odors.”

In 2017, the U.N. called on the U.S.-backed interim government in Libya to shut the camps down because of the inhumane conditions. At the airport, one of the returnees—a young man of about 30 with a long, fresh scar that extended from under his left eye to his ear—touched his overgrown hair and beard and lamented, “No barber to even barb your hair.”

The ordeal of female migrants is just as terrible, or worse. The girls are raped and sold to other black men as prostitutes. Even pregnant women are not spared: In fact, they are worth double the normal price. Faith Imade, 20, gave birth in captivity. She was in Libya for 16 months, and 10 of those were spent in prison where her Libyan captor beat her without mercy and forced her to work. “The Arab man beat us every day, especially the women,” she said.

African migrants continue to face these conditions. IOM estimates that anywhere between 400,000 to a million Africans trying to reach Europe are currently being held in Libya. The migrants, most of them fleeing terrible economic conditions, armed conflict and political persecution, are largely from Nigeria, with others coming from Sub-Saharan countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan.

“I won’t advise anybody to go there,” Egbado warned, his eyes clouding up as he recalled the nightmare he lived through in the past few months. He left Nigeria to escape a biting economic recession and worsening unemployment rates, but the situation in Libya was far worse. Libya is a hotbed for deadly clashes and crimes against humanity. Since the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the ensuing war, Libya has not had a stable, recognized government in power, and armed confrontations between militia groups linked to ISIS and al Qaida have broken out. Instability and violence have characterized life in the country.

It doesn’t help that Libyans have a deeply pervasive racist culture against blacks. In Egbado’s words, “blacks don’t mean anything there.” Anti-black racism, prevalent also in Mauritania, Sudan, Algeria and other Afro-Arab nations, is an extension of rife racist sentiments in Middle Eastern countries. The Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy argued in The New York Times that the 2005 and 2007 killings of black Sudanese refugees, including pregnant women and children, in Egypt were racially motivated.

The race dynamics in the Arab world can be traced to the Arab Slave Trade of the 19th century, which saw tens of thousands of East African women captured as sex slaves. The legacy of the trade is still glaring, especially in Libya: 200 black Africans were killed in race riots in October 2000. Following the Libyan uprising in 2011, thousands of black people, including Nigerians and dark-skinned Libyans, were massacred.

Previously, the European Union employed a strict closed-door policy, sealing its sea borders and leaving Italy on its own to bear the burden of thousands of migrants following the central Mediterranean route. But that changed early last year. In February 2017, Italy and the rest of the E.U. signed an agreement to train and fund the Libyan Coast Guard to seize vessels smuggling migrants to Italy and force them back to Libya. The topic of migrants dominated Italian elections in March, sweeping anti-immigrant and far-right parties into power.

The Italian government is also allegedly funding militia groups in Sabratha, a popular migrant hub and the main departure point in Libya. Interior Minister Marco Minniti reportedly orchestrated funding for the Amu Brigade, a militia group, to forcefully keep the migrants from crossing. But the effects of the Amu deal have proven disastrous for the migrants involved because the gateway to Europe is now closed and because even more people continue to troop in from the desert unaware of the blockade. As a result, the smuggling centers in Libya have become even more crowded and conditions have deteriorated even further.

Italy’s move has led to more problems for Libya itself. In a bid to show their willingness to work for the Italian government and get funded as well, other militia groups attacked Sabratha in mid-September of last year. Rival factions battled for control of the city and hundreds were killed in the violence that erupted, including migrants. In the aftermath, 20,000 migrants waiting to be smuggled across the sea were carted away in open trucks to official prisons. Some of these “official prisons” are structured criminal enterprises run by armed groups seeking relevance after they helped bring down the Gaddafi government in the civil war.

Although Italy’s efforts have been effective in restricting migrants from leaving Libya, as is evident in the sharp drop in numbers of migrants arriving on the coast of Italy, the cost of human lives lost is colossal. The E.U.’s policies have been called “callous” by Amnesty International and “inhuman” by the United Nations. The militia groups paid to detain the migrants are brutally efficient, sparing no thought to taking lives. Some of the Nigerian returnees at the airport confirmed that the coast has effectively been closed and anyone caught at sea will most likely be “muted”—migrant-speak for killed.

On Friday, Nov. 3, less than 50 days before this batch of migrants made it home, 26 Nigerian girls were muted in kalabush.

They died at sea. Their bodies were recovered and brought to shore by an Italian warship used to rescue migrants on the Mediterranean. Marian Osaka and Osato Osaro, the only two who could be identified, were pregnant. Osaka was married. All the girls were teenagers between 14 and 18. Other survivors found on nearby rubber boats confirmed the girls were indeed Nigerian, all trying to get to better lives across the sea. That same day, 64 other migrants were unaccounted for and presumed dead as well.

No Nigerian representative showed up to identify the girls and return their bodies home. Their bodies were transferred to the Southern Italian city of Salerno and a simple memorial service was held in their honor three weeks later. Single white roses adorned their coffins. Smaller ones were made for the two unborn children. A day of mourning was declared. Still, no Nigerian representative showed up.

The Nigerian government was heavily criticized for its blasé attitude toward the death of the girls and toward the plight of its citizens trapped in Libya. “We frown on the haste with which the 26 girls were buried without full disclosure of their identities and nationalities,” Julie Okah-Donli, head of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), responded in a press release after the burial. She also demanded that the death of the girls be investigated because foul play was suspected. But autopsy reports proved they drowned. One of the women died of a hemorrhagic shock from a liver wound.

A recent directive from Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has, however, led to a doubling of efforts to repatriate thousands of Nigerians stranded in Libya. The order came after a CNN investigation showed African migrants being auctioned for $400 in what appeared to be a slave market.

“They talked about various abuse—systematic, endemic and exploitation of all kinds,” said Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, while on a fact-finding mission to Libya this year. The new evacuation plan took effect immediately. An estimated 5,500 Nigerians will be flown out of Libyan camps.

Back home, Egbado and the other returnees were met by a host of local rescue agencies, including NEMA and NAPTIP. They were documented and given plastic packs jollof rice and bottles of water. In the ambulance that waited on the tarmac, four people received treatment. A woman lay unmoving on a stretcher, hooked to IV drips.

After facilitating the migrants’ return, IOM handed them over to Nigeria’s refugee agency, which shelters the returnees for up to 90 days during which they are rehabilitated and counseled. They are also provided business training and re-integration allowances before they’re transported to their states.

A large number of the returnees, including Egbado, come from Edo, a southern Nigerian state with a population of about eight million. The state has the highest number of human trafficking cases in the country. In the early 1990s, girls from Edo migrated to Italy, became prostitutes, and eventually formed strong and powerful cartels that spread across Europe.

This first group sent word of economic success back home, telling their parents they worked as nannies and hairdressers while hiding the true nature of their work. In a desperate attempt to improve their economic status, parents sold personal property to get their female children to the successful madams in Europe by any means, so they could work and send money back home. Sensing a business opportunity, the madams offered to foot the transport bills and, on the girls’ arrival, forced them into a debt bondage that could only be paid off after several years of prostitution in Europe. The debt-bondage system is still a common practice, and thousands of girls are trafficked this way annually.

By 2003, trafficking had become so endemic in Benin City, the Edo state capital, that a U.N. report estimated that “virtually every Benin family has one member or the other involved.” Human trafficking is now a fully formed enterprise that has become almost impossible to fight. Last year, the state government rolled out an economic initiative that aims to provide young people with jobs and funding with the expressed intent to reduce trafficking numbers.

Nigerian officials say over 7,000 people have been flown back into the country since November. With rescue efforts intensifying, the numbers are expected to double. As of Jan. 15, close to 1,500 had returned home in 2018.

According to the IOM, 150,982 migrants have made it across the Mediterranean sea in the past year, with 75 percent arriving in Italy and the remaining numbers split between Greece, Cyprus and Spain. An estimated 2,500 people lost their lives trying to cross the deadly waters in 2017. In the previous year, the number was believed to be double.

Back at the airport, Egbado watched as a man kissed the tarmac and another prostrated on the ground. They were grateful to be home alive, even though most had sold everything they owned to pay their kidnappers.

Egbado wants to start a business. Like many of the returnees here, he had fresh respect for his country, and he believed he had gotten a rare second chance to make things right. In his shy smile, there was newfound hope for a good future in Nigeria.