Quest for a better living exposes unsuspecting Nigerians to dangers of trafficking
By Valentine Iwenwanne
— Uyo, Nigeria — On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in October 2012, a posh black Sport-Utility Vehicle pulled up in front of Mercy Akan’s aunt’s provision shop in Oron, a coastal city and the third largest city in Akwa Ibom. Oron is located in the southern corner of Nigeria. Two of the five male occupants got down from the SUV and approached her with vague promises of a better life in Europe.
“Two of them came down from the vehicle, came to me in the shop and asked if I would like to work and earn good money,” Mercy said. “They told me that I was going to work as a sales girl and earn much more money than the peanuts I have been receiving, and I was convinced, but they never told me the destination.”
Mercy rushed home in the evening to tell her mum about it. She didn’t bother telling her dad. She feared he would disapprove.
Two days later, three of the men came to retreive Mercy at an agreed meet-up point in Oron and with approval from her mum. They traveled some 200 kilometers from Oron in Akwa Ibom to Imo State in the southeast where she joined with three other victims—one male and two young women.
“The four of us were crammed into the back seat until we arrived at a particular house around 9pm, they drove in and we spent the night there. The next morning around 5am, they woke us up and asked us to dress up for a journey to Lagos.”
However, they ended up in the outskirts of Lagos. A few days later, two young women were removed from the group and taken to an unknown location, while Mercy Akan and the other — the only male captive — were left in a house within a walled compound and strictly controlled entrance gate.
The duo was held incommunicado for three weeks in the facility without access to anyone outside the compound.
“One day, we decided to stroll around the compound since we couldn’t go out,” Mercy recounted. They went into the back yard and saw a bloodstained drum. They opened it. “We were shocked seeing human heads drenched in blood, we also saw some women that were tied with blood dripping from their bodies, and rice was also coming out from their mouths.”
“The traffickers were in the living room drinking and merrymaking while we assembled bricks we found in compound to make an escape ladder. It took us less than 10 minutes assembling those blocks,” Mercy told the Catholic Herald. “We scaled the face into the bush behind the fence, we walked through the farm, tracing vehicular movements until we get to a point where we met those that helped us with money to travel back home.”
Mercy managed to escape back to Uyo with one other victim, three weeks after being locked up in a gated house on the outskirts of Lagos.
Mercy Akan’s is one story, but there are countless others like hers in Nigeria.
Every year, thousands of Europe-bound Nigerian youths illegally travel along often-dangerous migration routes through the Sahara desert and across the Mediterranean Sea, voyaging on hapless boats, most intent on reaching Italy where they hope to make a better living. Their hopes often crumble like a house of cards.
Most fail, many die.
In 2017, twenty-six teenaged Nigerian migrant girls drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Those who got stuck in Libya were abducted and placed in detention camps where people are auctioned as slaves on the market.
In 2018, Nigeria ranked 32nd out of 167 countries with the highest number of slaves. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 36,512 migrants stranded in Libya and Niger Republic indicated Nigeria as their country of origin. Most of the trafficked persons were lured to Europe by traffickers’ dubious promises; they were forced into prostitution, used as sex slaves and drug trafficking agents.
This year, the IOM, in collaboration with Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), launched a new project in Abuja, Nigeria capital, to raise awareness of the scourge of human trafficking among populations at risk in migration prone areas across the country.
Since 2017, IOM has assisted the voluntary return and reintegration of more than 21,500 Nigerian migrants, of which approximately 15 per cent are victims of trafficking from Libya, Mali, Europe and the Middle East, among others.
Across the world, 40.3 million people are trafficked and 75% of this population is women and girls.
Earlier this year, local media reported the rescue of 22 ladies including underage girls used for prostitution in a hotel. The girls were lured from their respective villages in Akwa Ibom State to Ogun State, in the Southwestern region of Nigeria, with the promise to work as sales girls in restaurants and supermarkets.
Uduak Umoren, State coordinator for Child Protection Network, Akwa Ibom, a network of organizations and agencies that protects the rights of children, say the incidents of human trafficking are sad reminders of the drawbacks of unemployment, lack of education and skill acquisition programmes to keep the youths engaged.
“These victims are deceived and made to believe that the grass is greener over there in Europe. Seeking a promising condition may be reasonable, but it must be done in the right way through proper procurement of documents.” She said.
Before focusing her work on human trafficking, Uduak didn’t know how much of a problem it is, the network has been focusing on rape and other child abuse cases until she got to work with the IOM in 2018.
“They emailed me about young girls below the age of 18, from Akwa Ibom state who were trafficked abroad and told me that they wanted to return them. I was asked to help with family tracing and identification; they gave me their names and addresses to trace, as given by the girls.”
“I got to their families and they say that their children are in the United States of America, while they were actually in Mali. I asked what the children were doing there and how they got there, but none of them could give any cogent answer. I took photographs with them and then sent them to the IOM for the girls to identify their parents.” Umoren told Catholic Herald.
According to a recent research by Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN), the Uyo Zonal Command of NAPTIP which formerly covered Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River and Rivers States has rescued and managed more than 1,385 victims of trafficking in persons, it received 975 cases with 985 suspects and investigated over 568 cases of trafficked persons, and has convicted 120 traffickers with 87 cases pending in court at different stages of prosecution between 2015 and 2021.
The report further states that part of the problem is the traffickers being a part of the extended family, has links with the family nucleus or is someone known within the local community; they flaunt luxury cars to show off their wealth and also lure unsuspecting victims for trafficking, and usually have established mafia type organizations with strong connections in most destination countries.
Umoren says she had heard about human trafficking before she began her work as a child protection advocate, but didn’t know that it had degenerated into trafficking of minors. “I see it as a problem associated with adults; I don’t even know that teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 16 are also involved.”
Thirty-two year-old Kofi Komela-Angelo, a Ghanaian fisherman residing in Ibeno, lost touch with his younger brother, Solo Komela-Angelo, 20, after he was trafficked to Gabon to work as a fisherman in 2018.
“We waited a whole day and didn’t see him return, so we started looking for him. We were later told that he and other young fishermen traveled with a man to Gabon for a fishing business. Nobody knew anything about the travel arrangements; he concluded all the plans without telling anyone until he traveled.”
“When he arrived in Gabon, he phoned to inform me of his arrival, and he called often,” Kofi told the Catholic Herald.
After some weeks, he began to complain about his living condition over there and requested that I send him money to come back home, but I didn’t have much then because I wasn’t making enough money from my fishing business here.”
After a few months of patchy communication, Kofi lost contact with his younger brother, Solo; his mobile phone fell off into the water during a fishing expedition. Hence finding Solo became a daunting task that seems impossible.
“He said he’s being treated like a slave over there, he doesn’t have the freedom to move around on his own, he leaves in the morning to the sea for fishing and then return back to their lodge in the evening.” Komela-Angelo told the Catholic Herald.
Beyond the problem, AFJN is pushing for more sensitization and awareness on human trafficking in Akwa Ibom and has scheduled for a six-days-long campaign from July 10th to 16th this year.
Fr. Aniedi Okure, a Catholic priest and Executive Director of the AFJN, says the situation of human trafficking in Akwa Ibom is different from Edo State where human trafficking is prominent.
“The problem,” he told the Herald, “stems from the idea of employing locals as cooks and house help when it was still a thing of pride. People often travel to Akwa Ibom to employ locals there as cooks and cleaners because they consider them good, loyal and dutiful people.”
“It was like a badge of honor for people from the state,” Fr. Okure explained. “Hence Akwa Ibom became an attraction for the people when they seek to employ or engage dependable house help, and with the renewal of modern slavery, traffickers under the guise of getting house help.”
“Once the young person is taken away out of the state,” AFJN’s Executive Director continued, “they become vulnerable and subjective to all kinds of indignity, including being trafficked abroad and are mostly used as sex slaves.”
Ubong Ekwere, Zonal Coordinator for NAPTIP in Akwa Ibom State, says human trafficking is a difficult crime to fight because it is a lucrative business.
“Human trafficking is very endemic in Akwa Ibom State, and due to the poor state of the Nigerian economy triggering unemployment, ignorance and trampling on family values,” Ubong told the Catholic Herald “So, it’s a fight that requires collective responsibility of both traditional rulers, faith based organizations, traditional worshippers, none-governmental organizations, including the state government and all other relevant government agencies.”
“This fight shouldn’t be for the NAPTIP alone,” he said. Ubong believes challenges in tackling the menace range from poor funding to unavailability of operational vehicles for public enlightenment, arrests and investigation and other technological equipment.
“Uyo command has only one operational vehicle refurbished for the purpose of fighting this scourge, unavailability of walkie-talkie to aid free flow of communications,” especially in remote and hard–to-reach communities, where telephone networks are often unreliable.
While human trafficking remains underreported in Akwa Ibom, much of the trafficking business takes place in communities that lack minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. It is hard to reach these far-flung communities with sensitization campaigns. These communities have little in the way of decently-paying work, education, and robust skill acquisition programs.
All this combines to put the people in such communities at high risk of being trafficked.
Though it has only recently begun to garner the attention of international news media, the scourge of human trafficking has been a mainstay for decades.
In 2003, Nigeria joined forces with few other African states in criminalizing human trafficking, but getting legislation passed at the federal level and implemented in Nigerian states has proved difficult, and – as the cases visited here illustrate – human trafficking remains a very serious problem in Nigeria, and one that affects people and countries throughout the world.
Valentine Iwenwanne (@valentineiwen) is a Nigeria-based travel Journalist and photographer with interests in development journalism global health, social justice and the environment. His works have been featured in Vice World News, The National News, Ozy, Equal Times and more.
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