Travel Smart With Attorney Chika Okoroafor: Young and Thinking of Migrating? Don’t Be a Victim. Here’s a Safe (And Relatively Inexpensive Way) to go About It.

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The Travel Smart series is written by Chika Okoroafor, a Nigerian Immigration lawyer. Through the series , she gives useful information to people intending to migrate to other countries. The series is part of her effort to promote legal migration and stem the trend of young African immigrants losing their lives at sea in quest for greener pastures abroad. See our interview with her here.
The health and education sectors are two industries in Nigeria that compete in incompetence and deterioration. While the health sector is fortunate to have crusaders, like the Nigerian Medical Association, fighting to give the sector some semblance of decency, the education sector is on a free fall to rot. Compared to minimum standards, our educational sector, especially at the tertiary level, is a mockery, a pitiful excuse of what a tertiary education system should be. As a matter of fact, ours’ represent everything tertiary education should not be. The tertiary education provided by private sector is not exempted.
 
Jobs are scarce in Nigeria, yes. But not as scarce as human resources. You can ask any entrepreneur in Nigeria whether this is true or not.  Like a computer system, what we have is a system of garbage in garbage out. The system, and not the products, is to blame. What we have are mostly, unmotivated, unpruned, half-baked and unemployable graduates roaming the street competing in a saturated labour market with no selling point and nothing to offer a  potential employer.
 
Unemployment is, unarguably, the chief inciter of economic migration. Almost a decade in this field has taught me there is no dissuading an unemployed,  demoralised  youth who is convinced by his peers that his hope lies in shores of the white man’s land. So it’s futile to preach “don’t do it.” When we come across such client, the first thing we do, is to gain their confidence. This is imperative because their desperation makes them easy prey to “agents” and human traffickers who will explore there vulnerabilities for selfish interest, lining their pockets off the very little the desperate youths have left; leaving them poorer, depressed and at times suicidal (we counseled a lot of such cases).
 
Most economic migrants are usually financially challenged, hence prima facie ineligible for visa to the destination they seek. Most diplomatic missions have their share of backdoor deals. Forget the labels, Nigeria does not have monopoly of corruption. But The most an applicant can get from the backdoor deals is a visitor’s entry permit. I’m glad we have treated the substance of a visitor’s permit. If you missed it, please revert to this link for my publication on that.
An applicant who intends to migrate to a first world country on a visitor’s entry permit is not just doing something illegal, but it is also disadvantageous to the applicant. First world countries’ immigration regulations are regularly reviewed and the purpose is mostly to block loopholes that encourage illegal migration. Countless illegal migrants have lost their lives in the most horrible ways imaginable, in their quest to migrant overseas. Where a migrant succeeds in gaining entry, the host country’s internal regulation will be a trammel to an illegal immigrant’s stay.  
 
Here are some of the challenges faced by illegal migrants:
 
  • They cannot legally work
  • They have no interstate right to ingress and egress
  • They will be taken advantage of and maltreated but they cannot enforce their human rights
  • They are constantly blackmailed and threatened because of their immigration status
  • They are exposed to a life of crime willingly or unwillingly
  • They Deny themselves little comforts like driving for fear of being flagged down by the police, and
  • They are constantly at risk of being deported, etc.


I MUST TRAVEL. WHAT DO I DO?
 
You start, by not taking the quick fix bait of migrating long term on a short term entry permit .  If your travel intention is for long term, then seek an entry permit that will grant you long term stay, like a student visa, work visa, visa lottery, family reunion visa etc. Among the various long term visa options, student visa is the most easily accessible.
 
Students visa allows a holder right to stay for the duration of study (some programs can run into years) and most times right to work inside the school, and even in some cases outside the school. Student visa in some countries can transition into work permit post-study. A student has a right to bring his/her dependants (spouse/children) and in some country (e.g UK) the student’s spouse is allowed to work full-time. A student can issue invitation letter to family and friends for short term visits. In summary, a holder of student visa is accorded almost similar rights  as a citizen of host country for the duration of his/her legal stay
 
To a financially constrained, desperate economic migrant this option may seem capital intensive, hence inaccessible. But read again the downside to illegal migration listed above for holistic comparative analysis of real cost. If the goal is to migrate, the advice is do it right. Save, solicit funds from family/friends, give it a little bit of time, most importantly, consult a professional who will advise on plethora of study routes. You may be amazed to discover that there are some international institutions, in developed and developing countries, that are quite affordable (for N1 million or less) much more than our local private tertiary institutions. Furthermore, a standard international education gives you an edge in the labour market worldwide and more so, in our local labour market should you intend to return home post-study.
 
Student visas create a bridge between your home country and country of study. You have unlimited access to ingress and egress as you please. Hence, decision on whether to permanently migrate or not will be based on personal  convictions and on balanced information and not on hearsay or fairy tales.
 
STUDENT VISA APPLICATION
 
METHODOLOGY
There are three parties involved in a student visa procedure- the student/Student sponsor, the school and the diplomatic missio.
The procedure is usually in two consecutive stages:
  • Admission processing stage, and thereafter
  • Visa  processing stage.
 
ADMISSION PROCESSING STAGE
Key notes
The School: Applicant’s preferred school must be one approved/licenced by the country where the school is situate, to grant admission to international students. Before admission is granted, an applicant
  • Must provide documents, like credentials and essays, required by the school;
  • Excel qualifications test e.g GMAT, IELTS, TOEFL etc where required; and
  • Make tuition/part tuition payment
 
Refund policy: Admission into a licensed school does not guarantee Visa. Where an applicant is mandated to pay tuition or make a part-payment before admission is confirmed, it is important to check first, the refund policy of the school with regards to conditions, deductibles and the school’s expediency in making refunds, before making  any financial commitments.
 
Time: student visa application, is time sensitive. An applicant has to take into consideration admission processing time, school resumption date, and visa processing time and variables in between. Lapse in proper time management will jeopardize the whole process.

VISA PROCESSING STAGE
 
Diplomatic missions are not bound by the decision of schools. The missions run independent assessments. Decision to grant or refuse a student entry permit is based on an applicant’s eligibility vis-a-vis the diplomatic missions’ regulation.
 
While evaluating an applicant’s student visa application, every diplomatic mission has their particular area of interest, which may include all or some or more of the list below.
 
  • Admission letter from a licensed institution
  • Applicant’s age
  • Academic background
  • Maintenance funds
  • Medical/criminal  records
 
Future posts on student visa application will be discussed in line with the regulation of particular diplomatic missions. Until next publication in Travelsmart series, please share and spread the word, #notoillegalmigration
Do you have questions or in need of further clarification or advice? We welcome questions at the comment section or you may email us at attorneychika@gmail.com
 
PS: Some institutions provide financial aid and scholarships to international students. I know people who have benefited from them so that’s an option to explore.
PPS: If you have your masters degree in sciences and scored 60 or higher, and are interested in pursuing your doctorate degree, leave your email below. Someone I know who is doing her PhD on scholarship has offered to email interested persons opportunities to study abroad.
PPPS: I have been reading Kacheetee.com a lot. The blog is run by a 28-year old Nigerian lawyer who made first class both in university and at the Nigerian law school. She eventually did her masters at Cambridge on full scholarship. From her blog and elsewhere, I got the links below hoping these stories of young successful Nigerian women inspire you to be all you can be.

Love,

Anne

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Meet Chika Ugonwa, Lagos Immigration Lawyer and Entrepreneur

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Chika

Editor’s Note:In Nigeria, it is not often that you hear of a young lawyer whose clients don’t mind having her flight tickets included in their bills. Such privileges are accorded only Senior Advocates and highly experienced attorneys. But because of her specialized area of practice and her dedication to her clients, Chika Ugonwa, a young lawyer in her early thirties, is so sought-after that her practice takes her around the country. Chika (whose vision includes to establish a firm that will serve as a one stop shop for everything Travelling/Immigration inquiry and assistance in Nigeria; to establish bilateral relation with immigration firms all over the world, Embassies and High Commissions; and to build a strong brand on the foundation of Trust and Integrity) granted us this interview discussing her work as an Immigration Lawyer, the epidemic of human trafficking in Nigeria, and why she think laws protecting only women are unnecessary. She also expressed her desire to help women who are marginalized, pro bono. In her down time, Chika writes poems with such great rhymes you will want to give her some dimes. I hope Chika’s extraordinary courage and hard work inspires you, like it inspired me.

We are excited to do this interview with you. Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself.
Thanks for having me. My name is Chika Ugonwa. I am a Lawyer, a Graduate Manager, an Immigration Consultant and an Entrepreneur. In the past I worked with Abubakar Mustapha & Co. (Kaduna) and Threshold Barrister & Solicitors (Lagos). Presently, I am running my own firm Tnencucc Consulting in partnership with Reality Education Ltd (Port Harcourt), Rexcue Barrister and Solicitors (Lagos), and New Dimension Konsult (Kaduna).

Okay, now that sounds interesting. You are affiliated with three firms. What’s the arrangement like?
I started my Immigration Law practice in Lagos with Threshold Immigration Consult which is a subsidiary of Threshold Barristers & Solicitors. As you know, Legal practice is built on trust and in the course of the attorney-client relationship, one has access to client’s sensitive private and financial information. So when I moved to Abuja, a lot of my Lagos clients still sought me. My efforts to get them to work with other lawyers failed. That was where the partnership idea came from. After some attempts at trying to work with my clients in Lagos from Abuja, I realized that I could successfully serve clients anywhere.

For my clients who are based in Lagos for instance, they consult me through the phone or email. Then I do their work and send the finished work to my colleague (Rexcue Barrister and Solicitors Lagos), who ensures my clients properly endorse their documents. For some VIP clients who can afford to fly me to their location, I also go to them to finalize and prep them for Interview.

Overtime, through referrals, my clientèle grew; some clients trust whoever referred them enough to release personal information and pay professional fees without seeing me. Others don’t mind the cost to get a one-on-one meeting with me. When they can afford it, they come to me or if the fee is right I go to them using any of my partners’ office as a meeting point.

Congratulations on your achievements so far. Has law practice been what you expected? Many people go into law school with great ideas. Did the reality of law practice match your earlier expectations of what to expect from the practice of Law?
I don’t know about ‘many people.’ For me, I did not really go into the law program with great expectations or any expectations. The decision to study law was suggested by someone I could never say No to. In secondary school I was good in social sciences and art, my parents wanted me to be an accountant; my grandfather wanted Law. I chose Law. In University my goal was not to fail my grandfather, my parents who were paying for my education and myself. (In my family, my siblings and I are a bit competitive). Long story short: I did not have ‘earlier expectations.’ But having practiced for a while I expect so much more from colleagues, the Bar, the bench, and our legislators (our legislators are surrounded by lawyers, bills are drafted by lawyers so lawyers should be blamed for ALL the faults in our laws). The socio-economic fate of this country to a large extent lies with the legal profession and so it suffices to say we are to a large extent part of the problem of the country. We need strict ethics and conduct regulations.

What has been your greatest challenge practicing law in Nigeria?
Law practice is a very broad concept. The challenges a lawyer encounters are unique to his/her area of practice. My areas are Maritime, Civil, Family, Company and Immigration law practice. I can write a book on the challenges for each but for this interview I will only mention one challenge in Maritime practice which is ‘stagnancy’.

My former firm (Threshold barristers & Solicitors) had over 30 cases on different maritime matters. Apart from one of the matters that I got a default Judgement on, others ended up in settlement before I got the chance to taste my skills in trial. In court one day while I was moving yet another motion for discontinuance and adoption of parties’ terms of settlement, the Judge said (jokingly) that in his 20 years in the bench he was yet to deliver a final Judgement on a Maritime case.

In Maritime, litigation is instituted just to get the shippers/and or the insurance company to settle. Hence in rare cases where the matter goes all the way to trial, there are hardly sufficient judicial precedents to rely on.

But one may consider the cases settling a good thing, seeing how we are now advocating for alternative means of resolving disputes which reduces the stress and hostility associated with litigation. However, I can see how lack of precedence in case law is a disadvantage for the Maritime cases that do make it to trial. Of all the areas of law you mentioned you practice, which do you practice more?
I practice Immigration Law more. Thanks to Nigeria legal system, a lawyer in Nigeria can practice in any part of Nigeria. My Job takes me around the Country (and I hope someday beyond) and we attend to clients at any location within Nigeria.

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Are you surprised at how little or much your clients know about Immigration law?

Not at all; Immigration law practice is still a grey area of practice. I was fortunate to stumble into it myself. Its sounds alien when I discuss it with my colleagues. Apart from a few firms in Lagos I am not sure there are firms in other jurisdictions who engage in it. Imagine how many countries there are and the entry demands for those countries. Through this job, I have learned a lot and I am still learning.

Most people are not even aware of the need to consult a lawyer until it’s a bit late. Some clients come to us with terrible immigration record. There are cases of applicants with over ten refusal stamps in their passports. These are eligible applicants seeking entry for genuine purposes (e.g business, study, medical etc). Their applications are refused repeatedly because of poor or improper documentation. It’s sad considering that application fees are non refundable. A particular client who came to us after he had been refused over and over again only found out after he consulted us that he was serving a ten-year ban as a result of some forged documents an ‘agent’ used in his first application. His refusal letter always stated “refused under para.360H.” I had to explain to him that any refusal under S.360 attracts a ten-year ban. While we do our best to fix some, there are some cases, like the applicant serving a ten-year ban, we can’t fix.

Years ago, anyone in Nigeria could have multiple passports with different identities on each although it is illegal. However, that is no longer practicable in this era of E-passport and bio-metrics. It has now become imperative for people to consult an immigration lawyer first before applying for any visa.

Many Nigerians do not know that some lawyers specialize in Immigration Law practice. For their benefit, please what does a Nigerian Immigration Lawyer do?
You are right. And not a lot of people know that traveling across border is actually a right not a privilege. Let me not bore your readers with sections of UN Treaties and African Charters on Human right and other citations that uphold these rights.

In summary; A country cannot close its borders from entry to members of other territories. There are exceptions though.

We attend to Immigration issues bothering on;
Permanent migrants i.e spouses, children, parents etc. who seeks to join families overseas across border or regularize foreigners already in the country. Temporary Migrants which includes International Students, Work permits (eg. Canada Federal Skill migrant scheme, for professional migrants) etc. My firm is also an International Education facilitator. We work with schools in Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, Malaysia etc. Then we have our cluster clientele: the short time Visitors. Tourist, family visitors, Medicals Visitors etc.

It is quite an interesting job. You will be amazed at the volume of immigration cases there are out there.

In addition to the above, we also organize trainings and seminars. News are often reported about mangled dead bodies found in international flights tyre compartments, like the stories here: http://www.nairaland.com/432392/desperate-man-sneaks-into-delta, http://old.nationaldailyng.com/news/crime/5988-arik-dead-body-uk-authorities-may-join-investigation. Some lose their lives at Sahara Desert or at sea, in desperate attempt to illegally migrate in quest for greener pastures. In the later instance, loved ones are saddled with the agony of not knowing for sure what happened to their wards–pain they will be forced to endure to their graves. Those who promote these inhuman practices for profit will never inform their clients of the risks involved. Through these seminars we educate the youths on the dangers of illegal migration, we warn them against patronising fraudsters who will promise them 1st world countries Visas just to reap them and they families off huge sums of money. We also create awareness on human trafficking.

I am truly amazed at your accomplishments. Chika Unaigwe’s novel On Black Sisters’ Street is an eye-opener on human trafficking in Nigeria and prostitution by Nigerians abroad. I am happy you are part of the group making efforts to stop this inhuman act. So in concrete terms, what type of services do you render to your clients?

1. We offer professional advisory services. Information is very important, especially since countries keep reviewing their immigration rules and regulations to protect their borders against economic migrants and terrorists. It is our duty to advise based on the prevailing rules and regulations. We also advise clients on their eligibility status.
2. We give packaging assistance; a lot of immigration process / application is done online and not many people know their way around the internet nor have the patience to be bothered with it, and the question may be a bit technical, so we do the actual application for clients who retain us to do so.
3. We also represent clients on appeals (via paper litigation) for clients who have been wrongfully refused. We prepare ground of appeal, witness statement(s) etc.
4. Further, we offer International Investors legal assistance through our partnership with other law firms abroad. We can help a client secure an investment abroad, or a foreigner secure investments here (Nigeria).

What is the most fulfilling case you have ever handled?
As a rule, I do not take on any case I am not passionate about. It is my passion that propels me to give my best. In my immigration practice however, one particular case comes to mind though. Client was a 17-year old boy at that time. He lost his mother at a young age. His mother was never married to his father. He was raised by his maternal grandmother who also later became deceased. His father was a Nigerian / Belgian permanently resident in Belgium. He wanted the client to join him. There were a lot of documentary challenges. Initially it looked like a hopeless case. The client, young and without assistance (other than professional fee his father paid to the firm), did all his best to assemble necessary documentation. He made several trips from Edo (where he was living at the time) to our firm in Lagos. The package took about 6 months to tidy up and another 6 months in the embassy. I was gearing up for appeals when the documents came out and his application was granted. This case was fulfilling for me because in the course of packaging the client’s application, I got to learn of his life story. He’d had a difficult life and I felt that he deserved a break. I was very happy he got his visa. He is doing very well in Belgium now.

I share your joy. I do find too that the cases we tend to love the most are not the ones we made most money from but the ones we helped our clients get life-changing results. Given your diverse practice, have you noticed any dissimilarity between Immigration Law and other areas of law practice?
Yes there are, for instance, one of the popular principles in law is that a person is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. In Immigration law the reverse is the case. In Immigration Law, it is an applicant’s duty to prove that his/her purpose is genuine before his/her request is granted. In other words, you are considered an Economic Migrant (especially if you are applying from an undeveloped country to a developed country) until evidence proves otherwise.

Another difference is that Immigration law is not guided by Precedence. Even where two clients have the same immigration challenges, solutions are rarely the same. Every application is unique to the applicant’s personal and economic circumstances.

Lagos State government recently uploaded the State Laws on the internet but requires people to make a certain payment before accessing them. What is your take on this? Shouldn’t people know, say the Criminal Code, without having to buy them, in order not to break the law.
I have always been of the opinion that basic laws (criminal law and fundamental human rights) should be introduced as subjects is senior secondary schools and that such laws be also made available to the masses especially since ignorance of the law is not a defence in law. Take this yahoo yahoo thing for example, a lot of youths who engage in it do it for the fun of it as much as for the money. They are ignorant of the fact that they are committing a felony nor the penalty it attracts. But the Government as usual is focused on generating revenue at the expense of the masses’ welfare.

The National Assembly did not pass the gender equality bill that was presented before it earlier this year. What effect do you think passing this law would have had on women’s right?
I have not read the bill though but I do not think it will have any substantive effect on women’s right. I am not aware of any law(in my jurisdiction) that is specifically discriminatory against women. The constitution provided for Fundamental HUMAN rights. The Criminal Code did not segregate crimes or penalties on gender. I am indifferent to the bill just like I am indifferent to the bill on domestic violence (when the criminal code has amply provided laws against physical and non-physical violence). I am indifferent to these laws and bills focusing on women simply because I think they amount to proliferation of laws. If we women are serious about our rights, we should stop expecting special treatment. It is our constitutionally giving right to challenge any law or practice that we feel is discriminatory towards us on basis of gender. Any woman who seeks to challenge such laws or practice will have my support pro bono.

So if someone wants to apply for visitors’ visa to U.S. are you able to do that?
Yes. Like I said the bulk of our clients falls in the Visitors (short term travellers) category. We also serve clients who wish to travel to Canada, Australia, Europe etc .

Where can people get information and resources about Maritime Laws and Immigration Laws in Nigeria?
There are plethora of books and legislations on Maritime: NIMASA ACT 2007, Sabotage Act etc. For Immigration law, there is the Immigration Act but general rule , it is the Immigration rules and regulation of the country a client is seeking entry to that is relied on.

You practice Maritime law. What is the relationship between depreciation of the Naira and Importation?
The Naira depreciation is as a result of Nigeria’s heavy reliance on importation. Nigeria imports almost everything. If importation reduces, the Naira will appreciate.

Thank you, Chika. I enjoyed this interview and I learned quite a lot, and I’m sure our readers will too.
You are most welcome, Anne, and thanks again for having me. It is an Amazing job you are doing with the blog.

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