Child trafficking: Modern slavery monster

The nefarious activities of those who traffic in human beings, particularly children appear to be on the rise in the country. And, the practice, unfortunately has gained prominence owing, perhaps, to the level of poverty and dwindling moral standards in the land, reports ISIOMA MADIKE

 

Blessing is a native of Benue State. She is one of Nigeria’s many lads whose lives have been indentured in the hands of a few privileged elite, who take delight in trafficking children in and around the country for selfish gains. She is a popular face at Agidingbi Street, Ikeja, the capital of Lagos State where she hawks groundnut. She lives around Moshalashi Street in Agege, a suburb of the metropolis. For her, everything appeared to have gone wrong from the onset. She had earlier dropped out of school when her father died some years back, and has had to be trafficked to Lagos in a bid to liberate her family from biting poverty.

A quick glance could not reveal that Blessing had packed such a considerable but stressful experience into her life. She is, certainly, a pretty girl at 12. Light complexioned with radiant skin and right figure. The smile on her face, though, was contrary to the expectation that she would be edgy. Yet, the glow on her rosy cheeks confirmed the fact that she was, indeed, very young. She represents the story of many, her age in the new slavery.

But, if you think Blessing’s case is dreadful, then Ekaette, 15, from Cross River State, would simply force tears out of the hardest of the hearts. Ekaette is supposed to be under the protective shield of a caring parent. She cut an innocent look but pitiable sight as she sat with forlorn looks in front of a dingy room that has been her abode since she was forced to follow a woman she knew only as ‘Auntie’ to Lagos in search of the proverbial greener pasture. It was a misadventure that has permanently altered the poor girl’s perception of her world.

That was about a year ago.

The Auntie, who had convinced her mother to allow Ekaette come with her to Lagos with a promise that within a few weeks she would be sending money home with which to fend for the rest of the family, ended up introducing her to prostitution in a most cruel way.

Four days after arriving Lagos, Ekaette was told it was time she started earning her pay. The poor little girl, who was barely 14 years old when she left home, was taken to a grimy brothel in the backwoods of Ojuelegba, where ‘Auntie’ instructed that she must open her laps to men for a fee. She narrated her story in tears. “It was a terrible experience for me. The first man, who came to me was hurtful and didn’t give me anything even after he forced his way. Left with no choice, I had to cope with the job because I had to survive. I couldn’t even find my way back home, should I get anybody to borrow (lend) me the transport fare,” Ekaette told this reporter rather sadly.

However, the said Auntie abandoned Ekaette when police came to raid the home. Before then, rough men, who flocked the brothel had savagely abused her. Since then, she has been from one open bar to another within the metropolis, fending for herself.

Incidentally, Blessing and Ekaette are not isolated cases. In many homes, including those of the influential in the society across the nation, they are replicated as maids, more fashionably called house helps. They may not be unfortunate groundnut hawkers like Blessing or prostitutes in the mould of Ekaette, but they, nevertheless, undergo debasement and personal de-humanisation as victims of sexual abuse by their mistresses’ husbands or children. They are the young women and children, who are exposed to forced labour by their heartless and exploitative traffickers.

The captors prey on the ignorance, self-worth and vulnerability of victims, who, often times end up enduring harsher lifestyles away from the promises of “milk and honey.” Indeed, the realities on ground have shown that traffickers have continued to devise ways of recruiting their victims, particularly from poor, rural communities where there is high rate of ignorance and poverty, which is creating limited opportunities for work and sometimes, survival.

Today, children are being recruited and trafficked to earn money for others by bagging or hawking goods on the streets and sometimes forced to sell their bodies at night. Many of them are also exploited by the elite, who initially promised helping them get lucrative jobs abroad. Hence, every year, hundreds of them are separated from their parents, legal guardians or habitual caregivers and sold as mere commodities. The picture usually painted before unsuspecting victims starts with the promise of a better life, good jobs, better education and regular income. The parents are taken in and the children persuaded. Many of them leave home willingly with excitement. By the time they realise the futility of the promise made to them at recruitment, it would have been too late to rediscover themselves. They would have lost everything, including but not limited to their self-esteem.

At present, girls and boys are trafficked internally from poverty-stricken areas to places of relative opulence. The trade also boom within the West and Central African countries. The children in this instance are used for domestic services and sexual exploitation. This has equally assumed an international dimension as it now involves cross-border dealings.

John Okwuose, a temporary guardian of a 16-year-old sex worker “liberated” recently by the Nigeria Police in Lagos, said, “the incident of trafficking is not different from the slave trade of old, which saw many able-bodied Africans ferried across the Atlantic to Europe and the New World. It is now a pandemic, worse than the dreaded Human Immuno Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS).” There are others, who likened trafficking in humans, particularly teenage girls in and from the West Coast of African to the 21st century slavery coming more than 200 years after the abominable practice was abolished by the League of Nations in 1926.

Traffickers, according to reports, force their victims into prostitution, pornography and child labour. While some victims end up in seamy places in Europe, especially Italy and Spain, others are taken to West African countries to work on plantations, reminiscent of the evil days of the slave trade. In some cases, parents are said to connive with middlemen to send their children to distant places to raise money to meet some of their needs. Another variant of this trade is when victims are kidnapped, drugged and transported against their wish to unknown destinations. A pointer to this is the sheer number of people, who have simply disappeared without any trace. The victims of this dehumanising trade provide cheap labour and source for gratification of desires and fantasies for the privileged.

Yet, some of these innocent victims are directly being roped in to fend for the rest of the family. Not too long ago, a young girl of seven in Benin City, the Edo State capital, was reported to have been raped by two men. The act was said to have been coordinated by the directive of the girl’s father. The father, reports added, claimed that his daughter was too weak, naïve, and inexperienced for the task of seeking financial breakthrough for the family with which her “gender has destined her.” So, her own father decided to induct and give her a taste of what was to come.

There was also another disgusting story of another teenager, Anita, from Akwa Ibom State at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention in Geneva some year back where she relived her sorry story in the hand of traffickers. She was orphaned at age 11 and was put in the care of a relative, who maltreated her. Her friend, who introduced her to an aunt, who resides in Lagos, promised to bring Anita to Lagos to assist in her styling business and also learn the vocation. She agreed, reasoning that such arrangement might end her suffering.

But, she was wrong.

On getting to Lagos, the said aunt subjected Anita to more cruelty as she ended up in a brothel at the tender age of 12. A Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), involved in children’s welfare, Women Consortium of Nigeria (WOCON), rescued her from the brothel after two years at age 15. Anita was then rehabilitated and trained as a hairdresser. She now runs her business, employing additional two hands. Anita’s is one of the few lucky cases of children, who have been rescued from the clutches of a heinous crime permeating the borders. The patrons of this evil act are usually said to administer oath on these innocent girls before they are smuggled to Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain through Nigeria’s border with Benin and Togo Republics. This, according to investigations, is to ensure that the girls did not violet their allegiance to their custodians in those countries.

This may have been why ILO noted that “international trafficking of girls fuels the prostitution rackets in Europe while in the Middle-East, boys are often enlisted in drug trafficking and illicit sale of arms. And thousands of people are trafficked around the world into simple slavery for economic exploitation.”

The trafficking of children for the purpose of domestic service, prostitution and other forms of exploitative labour has become widespread phenomenon in Nigeria. Children and women are recruited with promises of well-paid jobs in urban centres within the country or abroad, realising too late that they have been lured into a debt bond. Violence, coercion and deception are used to take victims away from their families. Regretfully, Nigeria is a source, transit and destination country for trafficked women and children. However, prostitution, domestic and exploitative labour continues to fuel this modern from of slavery.

To fight this monster of human trafficking, the Government passed the Trafficking in Persons Prohibition and Administration Act and established the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related matters (NAPTIP) in 2003. Since then, investigation of cases, prosecution of criminals, rescue and rehabilitation of victims have been the major concern of the Agency. Similar concern is also evident at the global level.

Just recently, three Nigerians, Olusoji Oluwafemi, 44, Johnson Olayinka, 45, and Florence Obadiaru, 48, were jailed for a total of 13 years in the United Kingdom for being the London connection in a global trafficking conspiracy. It was gathered that dozens of young women are being smuggled into Britain as sex slaves every year under the threat of black magic curses. Many were taken to witchdoctors, who cut them, rubbed black powder in their wounds and threatened them with death if they ran away from their captors. In some cases, young women were forced to sleep in coffins, drink chicken hearts, soaked in alcohol, or ‘sacrifice’ intimate items.

The trio were in constant contact with a shadowy ‘fixer’ woman, who prowled poor Nigerian villages looking for young women to exploit. The woman, who remains at the centre of an international manhunt, also supplied young girls to another crime gang that was smashed last year. Investigators discovered that the victim volunteered to travel to London because her family had fallen into hardship since the sudden death of her father in 2008. She was told that she must repay £40,000 by working in Britain and taken to a witchdoctor to pledge her total obedience to the gang. The woman swore an oath in a juju ceremony that involved cutting her armpit and pubic hair and taking finger nail clippings.

She flew to Heathrow in September 2011 before spending several weeks at the house of Obadiaru, in Brockley, South East London. The victim was then provided with a false passport and throwaway mobile phone and sent to Milan where immigration officials turned her away. They conned an innocent 23-year-old into flying to Heathrow on a bogus passport with the promise of education, a job and a new home. But, instead she was raped, beaten and subjected to a ‘juju’ ritual before being sent to Italy where she was destined to be pimped out on the streets as a prostitute. The victim’s terrible ordeal was only uncovered when officials in Milan spotted her forged passport and sent her back to London where she was saved by police. Her experience is typical of many other Nigerian victims.

The phenomenon of human trafficking, particularly in West Africa, has, in recent years assumed alarming proportions and hence receives unprecedented global attention. Although, there is a lack of accurate data, it is reported that in West and Central Africa, over 200,000 children are trafficked annually, while in West Africa alone, an estimated 35,000 women and children are trafficked every year for commercial sexual exploitation.

Nigeria, the largest and most populous country in Sub-Saharan African, occupies a central position as a country of origin, transit and destination for the crime of human trafficking. It is ranked as one of the seven poorest countries of the world. Its poverty coupled with a high rate of unemployment, massive devaluation of the local currency and civil and political unrest, are some major internal factors responsible for a high rate of migration, which paves the way for human trafficking. Within Africa, Nigeria is the largest single source of trafficked young girls to Europe and Middle East. A recent survey reveals that the country is responsible for more cases of trafficking of teenagers into Europe for forced prostitution than any other African country. Italian authorities estimate that over 10,000 Nigerian prostitutes work in Italy, many of them victims of trafficking.

Other factors responsible for trafficking are the desperate search for better opportunities, gender imbalance and discrimination, high levels of illiteracy, a taste for adventure, family instability, the breakdown in value systems and inadequate implementation of laws and policies against human trafficking and forced labour. While the major external pull factor that has fuelled the trend is the high demand for cheap, submissive labour, especially in the informal economies of the destination areas and the growth of the sex industry.

For several decades, human beings, particularly children has been trafficked from Nigeria to countries like Cameroun, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Benin, Togo and Ghana in the West and Central African Regions; Europe and the Middle East are also the choice destinations. Those trafficked to Europe are principally taken to countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom. The major destination for Nigerians in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, while major transit routes for Nigerians en route to Europe are via Libya, Algeria and Tunisia.

Nigeria is also a receiving country for trafficked persons from neighbouring countries, particularly Benin, Togo and Ghana, for various forms of exploitative labour such as domestic work, farm labour, and use as lumberjacks in factories and quarries. They are also used for child marriages, begging and for sexual purposes. Internal trafficking from rural communities to urban centres is equally widespread and has only recently been recognised. The majority of internally trafficked persons, mostly women and children, are primarily trafficked for domestic labour, work on plantations and sexual purposes, while men and boys are trafficked principally for begging and farm labour.

Investigations have also shown that those trafficked internally are mainly children from rural communities in Cross Rivers, Akwa-Ibom, Benue, Ebonyi, Kwara, Bayelsa, Imo and Anambra states. Shaki in Oyo State and border villages in Ogun State are also where young Nigerians are trafficked for domestic service to the city centres such as Lagos, Kano, Port-Harcourt, Ibadan and Kaduna. Most of the domestic helps that work in the cities confessed that middlemen facilitated their present jobs. Intermediaries supply these children, who are often less than 16 years of age to different households in exchange for their travel expenses and six months of wages. In some cases, at the expiration of six months, the employer continues to pay the children wages to their ‘uncle or aunt’, who, in reality, may not be related to them.

However, this age-old form of internal trafficking is usually confused with the traditional practice of child fostering within the extended family. Unfortunately, such children are no longer cared for but rather exploited through placement for different forms of labour. Also, parents and guardians (mostly in the rural communities) now give away children to non-relatives for labour in exchange for money. There are also reports of children, who are kidnapped by traffickers from the villages and trafficked to cities within Nigeria. Child begging is, especially widespread in northern Nigeria and most of the people parading as deaf mutes at filling stations, mosques, churches and hospitals with envelopes asking for alms have been found to be victims of trafficking.

Vulnerable group, such as women and children, especially from poor rural communities and with little or no education often constitute the larger percentage of trafficked persons in Nigeria. Traffickers exploit the vulnerability of the people in places where there is general poverty, lack of income generating opportunities and pervading ignorance, to source the victims of trafficking. The vulnerability of rural dwellers becomes more visible in cases where the children and young people are not only from poor rural communities but are orphans or come from dysfunctional homes. In some cases, the trafficking is facilitated or carried out with the active connivance of members of the victims’ families.

Incidentally, traffickers in Nigeria have many faces. They could be men or women members of organised criminal networks that traffic mostly women and young girls into forced prostitution. Bilateral cooperation agreements with, inter‐alia, Italy, the Netherlands, the Nordic Countries, France, and the UK, have led to the dismantling of several international criminal trafficking networks. NAPTIP is reported to have rescued more than 4,000 victims since its creation, and has equally achieved more than 100 convictions of traffickers between 2008 and early 2010. Though, reliable data on the smuggling of migrants is hard to obtain, statistics obtained by criminal networks involving Nigerians and other West African nationals has remained a growing concern.

In Nigeria, experts have blamed failure of state to criminalise the traffic in human persons over the years, especially as they say the country remained a source, transit and destination point of trafficked persons. But, the scourge, which the United Nations (UN) statistics put at a staggering $32 billion business globally, according to many, would perceptively be tackled only when all stakeholders agree to work together.

Two hundred years after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the trafficking of African children continues unabated. This is one of the most horrific violations of a child’s right. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) has defined trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation.” Reasons for trafficking children include: sexual exploitation, forced labour and/or slavery, domestic servitude, forced marriages, illegal adoptions, and even forced organ removal or human sacrifice. UNICEF has estimated that over 1.2 million children worldwide are trafficked each year. The highest rates of child trafficking in Nigeria, according to research by NAPTIP, are found in the Niger Delta region.

Children become vulnerable to being trafficked for a number of reasons, with the root causes being poverty and lack of opportunities, corruption and instability and/or armed conflict. Ion some instances, their parents pay for them to be taken to another country, in the hope that they will gain employment and a better life abroad. Alternatively, children may be sold to traffickers by their parents, or kidnapped by such groups. Street children are particularly susceptible to becoming trafficking victims, as are children, who suffer from other forms of discrimination. In the Niger Delta region, for instance, children, who have been stigmatised as ‘witches’ are extremely at risk as they are usually rejected by their families and communities, and often live on the streets with no-one to care for them.

However, there seems to be a ray of hope in arresting this trend in the country. The new Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Bill seeking to repeal and amend the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act of 2003 has been considered by Nigeria’s Parliament. The new bill had been in the National Assembly and was passed by the Senate recently. It stipulates stiffer penalties for offenders than the existing law. It also seeks to stop human trafficking in Nigeria and prescribes a minimum of seven years imprisonment or a minimum fine of N1 million for offenders.

The law did not stop at that. It prescribes criminal punishment for any person found to have illegal custody of a child under the age of 18, sexually abuse, or causes any person to be exploited. It further protects children generally from being used for exploitative, injurious or hazardous work. The passage of the bill followed a clause by clause consideration of the report of the Senate Joint Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Women Affairs and Youth Development. The repealed version of the bill had prescribed five years jail term or a fine of not less than N1 million.

 

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