* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Young migrants willing to risk hazardous journey in the hope of a better life are often victims of human trafficking and enslavement
Aidan McQuade is an expert on slavery and forced labour and former director of Anti-Slavery International.
To obtain a better life, Hope wanted to travel from her home state of Edo in Nigeria to Germany. So, she found an “agent” who promised to help her get to Libya, from where she thought she could get a boat to Europe. In return she swore juju oaths - sealed in animal blood - that dreadful things would befall her if she did not pay this “agent” 8,000 Euros from her earnings in Europe.
Like the vast majority of people interviewed in the course of research for Stamping Out Trafficking in Nigeria (SOTIN), a 4- year programme funded by the British government and implemented by Palladium with support from Anti-Slavery International, this is when Hope’s problems really began.
On the journey to Libya in 2016, Hope saw people die in the desert due to a lack of water and food.
“I was sold at different points to various Arab men and finally to Africans who used me and other girls and young women as sex workers,” the 21-year-old told local researchers in Benin City, the capital of Edo State, following her return home in 2018.
Another migrant, Idris, described similar experiences of seeing fellow migrants killed and raped en route to Libya. Their names have been to changed to protect their identities.
Migrants’ accounts of their journeys from Nigeria to Libya are consistently of this nature: filled with violence and death and frequently leading to enslavement.
Indeed, it is slavery that is the “agents’” purpose from the outset. These “agents” are in fact human traffickers who know that there is a ready market for young Nigerians in Libya. Once there, some are held by criminal gangs to extort ransom from their families. Others are forced into agriculture or construction work. Many women and girls, like Hope, are enslaved for sexual exploitation.
The juju oaths that these overland migrants are forced to swear are now, in essence, part of the deception that traffickers practice: these help promote the idea that the traffickers expect them to get well -paying jobs in Europe when the truth is that they will be sold like livestock in Libya.
Even without the trafficking element migration across Niger, Libya and the Mediterranean would be enormously hazardous given the dangers posed by the desert and the scale of banditry in Niger, and violence in Libya, and the practical perils of trying to cross the Mediterranean in ill-suited and overcrowded boats. With the addition of trafficking, the certainty that migrant Nigerians will suffer considerable violence and exploitation becomes almost absolute.
And yet, there appears to be no shortage of young people willing to risk this journey in the hope of a better life. The intensity of the belief amongst communities in Edo State that “abroad is better”, and that successful migration is easily facilitated by Nigerians living openly as human traffickers, is so profound and extensive that traffickers appear to have to do little work to recruit victims. They come voluntarily to them seeking help in the belief that migration represents the only realistic prospect of improving their lives from the poverty and thwarted ambitions that they currently experience.
One would think that communities would rise up against such parasitic behaviour in their midst, but there is little evidence of this. Generally, traffickers seem to be regarded as offering a useful service to facilitate migration and hence are tolerated by the community.
Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking, following her 2018 visit to Nigeria, said trafficking prevention measures aimed solely at raising awareness of the risks of migration had proven ineffective. She recommended they be coupled with job creation, business skills training and extensive tutorship during the start-up phase of a business. But there is little evidence that this has happened yet.
Furthermore, community acquiescence in trafficking seems to translate to, at least, indifference towards trafficking on the part of the police. Typically traffickers remain unharried by either police or community and continue to ply their trade, selling trusting young Edo people into the slave markets of Libya.
So long as the wider community continues to tolerate traffickers, there is likely to be little social or political pressure on police or other authorities to act decisively against this phenomenon.
So, two hundred years since the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, human trafficking still blights West Africa.