Newsclick Nigeria Investigation: Tales, woes of Nigerian victims trapped in web of multibillion dollar global human trafficking business (I)



By Olaotan Falade

Olaotan Falade, Senior Editor, in this two-part investigative report spanning 60-days of travels within Nigeria and the sub-region chronicled tales, woes of Nigerian victims trapped in web of multi-billion dollar global human trafficking business.

This report was facilitated by Newsclick Foundation for Investigative Journalism (NFIJ).

Editor’s Note: We adopted pseudo names for victims interviewed in this investigation for protection.


Fantasies of ‘perfect life’ abroad

The unquenchable thirst for a better life just anywhere outside the shores of Nigeria has made Nigerians susceptible to all forms of horrible, degradable and better-imagined-than-experienced circumstances. Owing to the prevailing economic and security woes, many Nigerians have had to gladly choose to live in countries with fewer resources for human capacity development not minding the consequences. For them, it is a case of anywhere, but Nigeria.

Sensing the distrust between the government and the governed, some unsolicited ‘middle-men’ who pose as travel agents are smiling daily to the banks with huge profits made from unsuspecting Nigerians blinded by the Hollywood and Nollywood fantasies of the ‘perfect life’ abroad. This is for the category of Nigerians willing to part with a significant portion (and in some cases all) of their hard-earned money while also submitting themselves to rigorous visa interview sessions at the embassy of their choice countries.

However, some other Nigerians also want the ‘perfect life’ but do not have the financial capacity to bankroll the process. These sets of Nigerians, mostly in their prime, fully aware that they lack the least prerequisite to procure a valid visa to travel to their choice destinations. Yet, out of desperation, they choose to seek perilous alternative sources to circumvent the process and realise their dreams of greener padtures offshore through irregular migration option.

Although in recent times, some University graduates have joined the irregular migrants in droves. Originally, the migration was dominated by ignorant, desperate and mostly unskilled young men and women who virtually shut out their sense of reasoning to any treatise against their unlawful movement abroad.

What is human trafficking?

Back view of some trafficked underage girls

Human trafficking, simply put, is when a person is taken from one location to another with the intent of forcing or exploiting the victim. There are at least 1.4 million victims of human trafficking living under coercion and exploitation in Nigeria, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).


The Illegal migration process

In a bid to explain the intricacies of the illegal migration process, the IOM identified voluntary and involuntary type of migrations. According to IOM, voluntary migration involves a prospective migrant approaching either a smuggler or human trafficker to assist in facilitating his/her trip. The second part of migration is engineered by parents who often times, against the wishes of their children, sell off properties, borrow and empty their life-savings to facilitate an irregular transit for their children/wards to countries where they hope they would hit it big.

There is also another means employed by traffickers dealing in harvesting of human organs. They lure unsuspecting migrants with juicy offers only for them to be killed and their organs harvested and sold for thousands of dollars.

According to reports, popular destinations for trafficked Nigerians include the neighboring West African countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon and Guinea), European countries (Italy, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom), North Africa (Libya, Algeria and Morocco) and Middle Eastern countries (Saudi Arabia and Lebanon). Recently, South America has also become a point of destination for trafficked persons, particularly Venezuela.

The human traffickers, to ensure loyalty, usually bond their victims to an oath of secrecy and loyalty using voodoo and also enter a repayment schedule ranging from between €25,000 (equivalent to N11,602,263.96) – €80,000 (equivalent to 37,123,383.36) to buy off their freedom.

In most cases, the traffickers on getting to Libya or Mali, sell off the migrant to another syndicate which in turn extracts a new financial repayment commitment subjecting their female victims, especially to prostitution, rape and all sort of vices.

Corroborating the foregoing, the immediate past Director General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Ms. Julie Okah-Donli in an address to the ECOWAS Parliament at its First Ordinary Session in Mali said: “There are more than one million Nigerians residing in Mali. About 20,000 of these Nigerians are girls believed to be victims of trafficking and the number increases by 50 per day.

“Many victims are deceived to leave their livelihoods in Nigeria for greener pastures in Mali.

“Some of the victims are abducted from Nigeria, including those that arrived in school uniforms.

“On arrival at the border town between Burkina Faso and Mali, many of the girls are sold off for CFA 350,000 to 400,000; their new owners then make them pay back about CFA 1.6 million to CFA 2 million with one CFA being 0.6 Naira.”

Okah-Donli while giving detailed report on the welfare of trafficked Nigerian girls especially in Mali disclosed that the girls were usually abused and extorted. She said efforts to repatriate the girls were usually foiled through the complicity of Malian security forces, coupled with the willingness of many of the girls to return to the ‘sex-for-gold’ trade. She said there were some of the girls who were trafficked to the Northern parts of Mali where they not only offered sex, but were radicalised.

The ex-NAPTIP boss added that many of the victims who were rescued in 2011 and some others in 2017, came back to Nigeria; only to return with more girls.

According to her, some of the sex slaves were made to sleep with numerous men, without protection, while also being made to pay huge taxes by alleged complicit Malian authorities.

“The Malian authorities collect taxes from the victims on a weekly basis and sell condoms and other medications compulsorily to their victims every month.

“Malian women are already grumbling that Nigerian girls are taking their men, and there are fears of imminent xenophobic attacks.

“Three Nigerian girls were killed between November and December 2018,’’ Okah-Donli revealed.

She said efforts to stop the trade at the borders had not been encouraged by border security as they had not made efforts to arrest the traffickers in spite of all information given to them.

“The border point between Nigeria and Seme-Krake and Burma Fas/Mali are notoriously porous, and despite numerous reports and pictures of traffickers sent to law enforcement agencies at the borders, no arrests or rescues have been made.

“The traffic madams are well known to the Nigerian community, but they are afraid to report them because of the complicity of the Malian security agencies in human trafficking, especially the gendarmerie who assist the traffickers to carry out their activities.

“Nigerian victims are way-billed from a motor-park in Cotonou, dropped at Sikasso near the border with Burkina Faso, from where they are picked by Malian gendarmerie for delivery to their madams,” she alleged.

Okah-Donli noted further that the Nigerian sex slaves lived in about 300 settlements in Malian bushes, with each settlement holding 100 to 150 girls.

The girls, aged between 16 and over 30, hang around bars and night clubs to display for their prospective clients who take them into their huts made of polythene, Okah-Donli said.


Human trafficking business in Nigeria

Trafficking in human beings, especially women and girls, is a bizarre age-long type of business/practice. Historically, it has taken many forms, but in the context of globalization, has acquired shocking new dimensions.

The 2021 Global Organised Crime Index ranked Nigeria among the top 10 criminal markets for trafficking in people, firearms, illicit cannabis and heroin trade, fauna crimes, synthetic drugs and non-renewable resource crimes.

The index shows that the countries with the highest criminality levels are those experiencing conflict or fragility, adding that such affected nations were most affected by organised crime.

According to the report, the Democratic Republic of Congo topped the list of the criminal markets with a score of 7.75, followed by Columbia 7.66; Myanmar 7.59; Mexico 7.56; Nigeria 7.15; Iran 7.10; Afghanistan 7.08; Iraq 7.05; Central African Republic 7.04 and Honduras 6.08.

The report was authored by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL in affiliation with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

The report states, “In breaking down criminality and looking at the 10 criminal markets covered, the global average was slightly lower at 4.65, with human trafficking determined to be the most pervasive worldwide (with a global average of 5.58). Indeed, human trafficking features in the top five criminal markets of every continent in the world. After the trafficking of people, the illicit cannabis trade and arms trafficking were assessed to be the second and third most pervasive markets worldwide, with global averages of 5.10 and 4.92, respectively.”

The index observed that failure on the part of states to provide safe environments and stable economic livelihoods for millions of vulnerable populations, created conditions conducive to exploitation.

It affirmed that opportunities for human trafficking have increased with Internet technology, which provides both a ready online market and, simultaneously, the means to exploit people with greater anonymity, adding that human trafficking market is present in a wide range of contexts, from both stable countries; to those in conflict, often overlapping with other criminal markets, such as human smuggling.

Nigeria, unfortunately has acquired a reputation for being one of the leading African countries in human trafficking with cross-border and internal trafficking.


$150 billion annual profit global industry

The motive of traffickers—regardless of the type of human trafficking they are engaged in—is clear: money! Annually, the business of human trafficking globally, generates an estimated $150 billion in profits according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Two thirds of this figure ($99 billion), learnt is generated from commercial sexual exploitation, while another $51 billion results from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities.

ILO estimates that there are currently 25 million victims of human trafficking around the world.

In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm according to the 2017 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which covers 155 countries.

According to data released by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the average woman trafficked for forced sexual servitude/exploitation, generates $100,000 in annual profits (anywhere from 100% to 1,000% Return On Investment (ROI). According to the United Nations, the smuggling route from East, North and West Africa to Europe is said to generate $150 million in annual profits ($35 billion globally).

Meanwhile, in the Global Slavery Index (2018) Report, Nigeria ranks 32 out of 167 countries with the highest number of slaves – 1,386,000. According to NAPTIP, the average age of trafficked children in Nigeria, ranked a Tier 2 Watchlist country on the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking In Persons Report (2018), is 15. NAPTIP further contends that 75% of those who are trafficked within Nigeria are trafficked across states, while 23% are trafficked within states. Only 2% of those who are trafficked are trafficked outside the country, according to NAPTIP (2016).

The total number of human trafficking victims outside of Nigeria is largely unknown. However, it is undisputed that principally due to Nigeria’s population, Nigeria is routinely listed as one of the countries with the largest number of trafficking victims overseas (particularly in Europe), with victims identified in over 40 countries in 2017. The recent scourge of illegal migration has highlighted Nigeria’s challenges in this area, with one former Nigerian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Mr. Martin Uhomoibhi, contending in June 2017 that in 2016 alone, 602,000 Nigerians endeavoured to migrate to Europe via the Sahara Desert.

According to Mr. Uhomoibhi, 27,000 of these migrants died en route. Also pretty alarming is his claim that of those who perished on the journey, 68% were Nigerian University graduates. Most estimates, however, place the total number of Nigerians arriving Europe in 2016 at about 40,000 and about 18,000 in 2017 (men, women and children).

In 2016, Nigerians, further findings by accounted for about 21% of the total 181,000 migrants braving the Mediterranean sea to arrive Italy. In 2017, that number decreased to 15.5% of total migrants arriving Italy (119,000) in light of the numerous efforts made by Italy and the European Union to stem the flow of migrants from Libya.  In 2018, however, Nigeria continued to feature among the top five countries of origin for irregular migrants illegally entering the European Union.  More specifically, in the Sahel and Lake Chad region, it is the first country of origin of irregular migration towards Europe.


Edo State: Nigeria’s hotbed of human traffickers

Edo State is an internationally-recognized sex trafficking hub, with built in infrastructures and networks which support the sale of human bodies. According to IOM, an astounding 94% of all Nigerian women trafficked to Europe for prostitution hail from Edo State, with Italy being the number one destination country.  In fact, a 2003 United Nations Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute Report concluded that “virtually every Benin family has one member or the other involved in trafficking either as a victim, sponsor, madam or trafficker.”

The overwhelming majority of trafficking victims and illegal migrants make the treacherous journey from Edo State (particularly Benin) and Delta States to Kano, from where, this medium learnt, they are smuggled into Niger or Algeria before traversing 500 miles over the Sahara Desert into Libya.  CNN also contends that Edo State is the most trafficked through destination in Africa.  In Libya, migrants are held in detention camps, generally for several weeks to months, before they are placed in unseaworthy dinghies or floatable boats on the Mediterranean Sea.

The IOM has registered more than 400,000 total migrants in Libya, estimating that a total of anywhere between 700,000 and one million remain in what has become the primary gateway into Europe (91% of migrants attempt the journey into Europe from Libya).

The IOM further averred that as of July 2018, over 60,000 Nigerians remain trapped in Libya, with 50% of them hailing from Edo State. The souls and bodies of survivors are turned into commodities for financial gain while the survivors themselves are held in debt bondage, severely abused (often gang raped and physically assaulted), starved, tortured or infected with various sexually transmitted diseases before being deported back to Nigeria. Others who are victims of organ trafficking are murdered and never make it back to Nigeria.

There are more readily available statistics on the numbers of women who are trafficked from Nigeria into Europe, particularly into Italy. According to IOM, approximately 11,000 women arrived via the Mediterranean Sea into Italy in 2016, again mostly from Edo. IOM estimates that 80% of these young women arriving from Nigeria – whose numbers have soared from 1,454 in 2014 to 11,009 in 2016 – will likely be forced into prostitution as sex trafficking victims.  (According to Italian authorities, there are between 10,000 to 30,000 Nigerian women working in prostitution on the streets of Italy.)

Worried by the alarming rate at which young girls in his domains are trafficked within and outside the country, Oba of Benin, His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II in March 2018 placed a curse on human traffickers in the state and urged all traditional rulers in their respective domains to do same. He also called on the Edo State House of Assembly to pass a law outlawing any form of human trafficking and smuggling in the state.

Heeding the Oba’s directive, the Edo State House of Assembly on March 18, 2018 passed a bill and enacted a Law to prohibit trafficking in persons and also approved the establishment of a State Task Force (Edo State Taskforce Against Human Trafficking, ETAHT) against the practice.


Other Nigerian trafficking states

Aside Edo, the United States in its ‘Trafficking In Persons Report June 2021’ identified Delta and Kano as some of the states where majority of Nigerian trafficked victims in Europe and other parts of the world hail from.

The report released by the US Department of State chronicled the menace of human trafficking globally in about 200 countries across different continents.

The report significantly noted that the Nigeria government was yet to fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but it was making efforts towards developing its anti-trafficking capacity.

It, therefore, stated that Nigeria was upgraded to Tier 2 in 2021 from Tier 2 Watchlist in 2020.

The report partly read, “Historically, the majority of Nigerian trafficking victims in Europe have come from Edo State, via Libya; however, observers noted an increasing number originating in other states, to include Delta and Kano.

“Additionally, officials noted that Abia, Delta, Ebonyi, Edo, Imo and Kogi states are common origins for trafficking of victims to West Africa and Europe.

“Cases of labour trafficking involving domestic workers to the Middle East and Gulf States, as well as men coerced into sexual exploitation and drug running to Europe, increased during the reporting period, according to an international organisation.

“In 2019, the media reported that networks consisting of illicit actors profiting from human trafficking and smuggling, recruited women and girls from IDP camps in North-East Nigeria for ostensibly legitimate jobs in Europe but exploited them for commercial sex in the Northern Nigerien city of Agadez, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Europe.

“Primarily in Cross River and other southern states, as well as from IDP populations in the North, illicit actors – including some church leaders – operate ‘baby factories,’ which the government and NGOs describe as a widespread criminal industry in the country; experts state the phenomenon is driven by poverty and a lack of opportunity for young girls, as well as the demands of the illegal adoption market and cultural pressure for large families in Nigeria”.


Human trafficking methods/tricks

Speaking on a monitored programme on TV recently, the former DG of NAPTIP, Ms. Julie Okah-Donli said the trafficking cartels have upped their game. According to her, the traffickers now use religious tactics to recruit potential victims especially in the rural areas.  “There is a very big problem, a new trend where religion has been brought into this, we have people who deceive young girls and boys that they want to send them on a pilgrimage to either Mecca or Jerusalem and when people hear this, they get excited.

“Then we have these travel agents, who go into the rural areas again and bring these young girls and tell them that they are going to get jobs as housemaids in the holy land in Saudi Arabia, and they take them there and the rest is history; most of them are trafficked, we get distressed calls every day from girls being trafficked.”

However, the age-long tradition is for a willing migrant to approach either a smuggler to ferry him or her abroad for a fee.

Another method is for the traffickers to persuade, cajole or use fronts in different operating areas to lure desperate youths eager to travel abroad with juicy offers of jobs dangled.

Trends identified in trafficking trajectory in Nigeria shows that the practice is organized primarily by women. Many of the traffickers have themselves been trafficked victims before. Women who fulfill the pact, are free to earn a living on their own and often find it difficult to find work in Europe that is unrelated to the trafficking business.

A less well-known, but the growing problem, are the so-called ‘baby factories’, where women and girls are held captive to deliver babies who are then sold illegally to adoptive parents, forced into child labor, trafficked into prostitution, or, as several reports suggest, killed for alleged ritual purpose. Baby factories going by trends from reported discoveries and arrest documented by this reporter. are more common in the South Eastern part of Nigeria, where security operatives have carried out several raids, including an operation in 2019 when 19 pregnant girls and four children were rescued.


Factors responsible for human trafficking/illegal migrations

It is not enough that the society blame people (most especially the youths) for wanting to do almost the impossible to leave Nigeria. The question that many including those in authority have refused to ask and provide valid responses to, is why?

During the course of this investigative series, discovered that those willing (and desperate) to migrate (legally and illegally) are not just the jobless, destitutes or never do wells in the society as many are made to believe. Quite a surprising number of gainfully-employed Nigerians have either abandoned or considering abandoning their jobs for a dream life in Europe or America. Almost every sector in Nigeria especially the banking sector despite paying relatively good salaries have lost hundreds of staff members who have joined the migration train to Europe or America, mostly legally though.

This according to them is the failure of successive governments to make policies that will make Nigeria a better place to live in by her citizens.

Other factors that increase vulnerability to trafficking in Nigeria include extreme poverty, corruption, conflict, parental/peer pressure, eroded mindset/values, illiteracy, climate change/resulting in migration and western consumerism lifestyle.


Watch out for true life stories of survivors/victims of illegal migration/human trafficking in Part II of the series next week.


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