Nigerians are fleeing South Africa in droves following xenophobic attacks targeting immigrants in the former apartheid enclave.

With diplomatic ties between Nigeria and South Africa now hanging by a sagging, loose thread in the wake of the attacks and reprisals back in Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria declared that his government was going to be evacuating its nationals who want to return home.

"President Buhari has also given instruction for the immediate voluntary evacuation of all Nigerians who are willing to return home”, a statement from the Nigerian presidency disclosed this week.

Air Peace to the rescue

Commercial Nigerian airline, Air Peace, says it plans to operate two flights with Boeing 777 aircraft for the job of evacuating as many Nigerians as possible.

The first Air Peace aircraft is billed to leave Lagos late Tuesday, September 10 and will return on Wednesday, September 11 with evacuees.

At least 640 Nigerians have signed up to leave South Africa. 

"I decided to leave because I value my life more than anything else because here is very hostile at the moment. It's not safe for me. I lost a lot of things. I don't want to lose my life," one Nigerian told eNCA, a South African television news network, at the O.R. Tambo International Airport near Johannesburg.

Busloads of Nigerians are being conveyed to the airport and more are expected to follow. 

Nigerians have gathered round the consulate in South Africa for departure, although invalid papers appear to be slowing down the process. 

"A private citizen who owns an airline has offered to evacuate Nigerians from South Africa who want to leave, and obviously there are immigration rules that go with that, so it’s a process," Ayanda Dlodlo, South Africa's Minister of State Security, told reporters in Cape Town on Tuesday.

Zimbabwe is also repatriating

Nigeria isn’t the only African nation evacuating its nationals from South Africa in the wake of the xenophobic attacks. Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo told reporters in the capital Harare that the government plans to evacuate 171 people from South Africa, including the bodies of two people.

Moyo added that Harare would "escalate" the evacuation if the situation deteriorated. 

South Africa does not know how many undocumented foreigners are in the country of 58 million people. Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh and Ethiopia topped the list of countries where people applied for asylum or refugee status in 2018.

Nigeria placed seventh with 948 people applying for refugee status and zero accepted, said Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, the New York Times reports. 

First batch arrives

The first batch of 84 Nigerians evacuated from South Africa arrived Nigeria on Wednesday, September 11 at 2.p.m. local time via the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, in the company of officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which disclosed this in an update made available to journalists in Abuja, explained that although 313 Nigerians were confirmed as the first batch of evacuees, only 84 of them arrived on Wednesday because they were the ones cleared to embark on the flight to Nigeria.

Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, says the returnees would be encouraged to enroll and participate in the various social intervention programmes of the federal government.