It is shameful that in the 21st Century the evil crime of servitude lurks in every corner of the globe. Of the estimated 46 million people living in modern slavery across the world, Nigeria is believed to have a large chunk of them, who had been trafficked, coerced, or forced into terrible exploitation, labour, and domestic vassalage. In this report, ISIOMA MADIKE, reports the barbaric crime, a trade, which earns more for criminals than any other, apart from the illegal drug business
Steven, 32, is from Idumu Ogo in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State. He had been trafficked around the world. He was first moved across countries of Africa such as Mali, Senegal and Libya before he was taken to Eastern Europe and later to Australia, where he worked as house help and on farm lands.
As a house help, Steven was not remunerated. “The madam who facilitated my journey to the unknown said she was saving the money for me. She had made an arrangement with my masters to be paying directly to her.
In Australia, it was almost the same thing as ‘our master’, though promised to be paying us an equivalent of N50,000 per month; he never released the money to us. We were 32 from Nigeria that worked for him on his farm.
We were housed on the farm for the period of two years that I was there and never had anything to do with the outside world. He only promised to release our money anytime we were ready to return to Nigeria.
“We were given food two times in a day and made to work for 12 hours every day with a 45 minutes break interval. One day, the man called in police and alleged that we were stealing his farm produce and secretly sending same back to Nigeria.
He also alleged that we connived to steal about $240,000 he kept on a safe in the farm. That was how we were bundled into a lorry used in carrying farm produce straight to the airport and deported back. What we went through was worse than the slavery we read in our elementary history.
It was horrible to say the least.” With what he went through, Steven has vowed to one day challenge the cultural acceptance of human exploitation for young Nigerians, who often end up trapped in abusive trade.
“I would also challenge families who continually encourage their children to risk their lives in search of money and a better future,” he said. There are some like Steven who were taken to other Nigerian towns and villages to work where they were being paid peanuts.
Others were taken to a town in the South West to work on farms as labourers and as house helps. There have also been reports of many in a remote jungle of Ondo State. They have been labouring away for years in an expansive cocoa plantation.
They could neither read nor write except to communicate in their native dialects. Though, some of them managed to speak Pidgin English as well. The boys live from the handouts offered by their “masters” who have arranged for their departures to the “Promised Lands”.
“Now the land is cursing us, and we want to return home, but it is becoming increasingly difficult,” said one of them, amidst sobs, through an interpreter. These hapless children, adored in the African tradition and seen as a great asset to the family and the community, have been trafficked internally, becoming labourers in another man’s empire. Yet, what Steven and others were made to go through, starts with the promise of a better life.
The parents are taken in and the children are persuaded. When they leave home they do so willingly, with some excitement, not fear. The traffickers often promise a good job, schooling, and regular income. But that is not how it works out.
But the boys are not the only ones taken in as slaves in this modern time. For the young girls, the word on the streets is “hustling”. When they land in their destinations, they are taken to the sex markets and sold to bosses or madams. From testimonies of some of the “freed slaves”, according to Joseph Famakin, Zonal Commander, National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Lagos, they are not paid; they are the ones that are indebted to their madams.
Those that were trafficked to Europe for instance, were bonded to the tune of $60,000 to $65,000 before they could regain their freedom, Famakin said. By a simple arithmetic, $60,000 to $65,000, means that such a girl, trafficked to Europe is bonded to the tune of over N20 million, which she has to pay with her body.
For those trafficked to Dubai, they are bonded to the tune of about $30,000, which is over N10 million; same for those in Russia, Oman, and other oil rich Arab countries. However, most of the girls prostitute on the rented portions of roads, and their clients often make love to them in the bush or in their cars.
They make daily returns to their bosses or madams who usually employ the services of cult members to enforce compliance. Also, the girls are expected to pay certain amount of money to their madams per month to rent the roadside spot where they wait for clients in extreme weather conditions.
They are equally expected to contribute certain amount each on a weekly basis for their feeding and buying of provocative clothing. “When we don‘t earn the money our madams want, they would press a hot iron on our chests,” one of the rescued victims was quoted to have said. Others died on the streets of these foreign lands while prostituting. Another of such “freed slave” who does not want her name mentioned, said her case was very complicated. She wept profusely when narrating her ordeal to Saturday Telegraph with tears sliding down her cheeks.
More than 10 years ago, she said, she was offered a job in Holland. She signed a paper in which she would repay the fare. She left two children with relatives and said she would send money frequently based on the promise of those who sold her out.
When she got to Holland, she was imprisoned in a flat and forced to work as a prostitute. She was paid nothing and had a terrible time. But she was worried about her children too.
After some time, she escaped and lived for a while as a homeless prostitute on the streets. She later found she was pregnant. By the time she returned to Nigeria she discovered she had contracted the deadly Human Immuno Virus (HIV).
She has been managing to stay positive with the attendant discrimination from relatives and friends who now treat her like an outcast. Meanwhile, over 4,723 of these “slaves” returned to from different countries to Nigeria since January, according to Famakin.
Of this number, the Lagos NAPTIP boss, said 459 were taken to his agency’s shelter. He also gave a breakdown of victims’ statistics. He said that 417 comprising 91 males and 326 females were literally set free from captivity in 2015.
For 2016 it was 502, with 19 males and 223 females while as at September it was 581, making a total of 1, 500. From investigations, it was discovered that the root cause of the phenomenon of trafficking into slavery is poverty, ignorance, greed and in some cases the incidence of child rejection.
A few days back, a Nigerian girl, who was sold in Mali for N450,000 called for help. The 25-year-old lady, Ogechukwu Okonkwo, made a frantic telephone call from Mali, to her uncle, Ndubisi Okafor, in Nigeria to come and rescue her.
Okonkwo made the call from Mali after discovering that one Helen, who came to pick her in Nigeria to Mali, had actually sold her to bondage. The girl had further urged her uncle to do everything to ensure that police got Helen arrested. Okafor, who was worried and unsure of what to do, run to a Non- Governmental Organisation, Welfare Peace and Universal Human Rights Initiative, located in Anambra State.
After listening to his story, the rights group petitioned the Zonal Commander, NAPTIP, Enugu State. A representative of the NGO, Comrade Chris Chidiadi, said: “We received a report from Okafor on September 2, in which he said his friend, Akunwata from Ukpo Dunukofia Local Government Area of Anambra State approached him that his brother needs some girls that will work in a restaurant and that the girls after working for six months would be settled to start their own restaurant business.
“Okafor went to Okonkwo and told her about the business. She accepted. He then took her to Akpo, where he met Akunwata and a woman.
They both introduced her to Helen. Okonkwo was told that Helen had been assisting people to Mali, and was subsequently handed over to Helen.” Chidiadi said three weeks later, Okonkwo called him, complaining that she was suffering in Mali. She urged him to do everything possible for her to return to Nigeria, that where she was, there are too many girls packed into a room.
“Okonkwo said that every day people will come to pick one or two of the girls and that none of the girls had ever returned. She further informed Okafor that Helen sold them at the rate of N450,000.
Okonkwo said that she was in big danger in Mali. She further said that she suspected that the girls, who were taken out, were taken out for ritual purposes. She then begged Okafor to arrest Helen.” Since Okafor received the frantic telephone call from Okonkwo, he had tried calling Helen on her international and Nigeria lines, but none went through. He finally was able to get through to Helen on October 4.
When he asked her where she was, she said in Edo State with some girls she wanted to take to Mali. That prompted him to alert the police who arrested Helen. Chidiadi said: “Okafor informed us that since the day she was arrested, he has received a lot of telephone calls threatening him that he should release Helen or they would harm him.
They also told him that if he allows the police to release Helen that they would release Okonkwo. It would useful if NAPTIP could as a matter of urgency institute a proper investigation into the case as those calling are suspected to be members of Helen’s syndicate. Helen should be made to reveal where she kept those she recently got from Edo State, which she wanted to transfer to Mali before her arrest.”
The Rights group had also petitioned the Anambra State Commissioner of Police, asking that Helen’s case file, which is with the police, should be transferred to NAPTIP. The petition, signed by Chidiadi, stated: “We shall be grateful if your office will authorise the Police Area Command Nnewi to transfer the case with the suspect, Helen, who is currently in their custody at Nnewi for further investigation by NAPTIP as victims involved are more than 10, who are held by Helen’s syndicate.” International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that approximately 80 per cent of girls arriving in Europe from Nigeria are potential victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
The numbers, however, soared from 1,454 in 2014 to 11,009 in 2016, according to IOM data. According to latest figures, 875,000 Nigerians are living in modern slavery worldwide, including in the UK. According to the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, June, 2009, Nigeria is believed to be a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.
Within Nigeria, women and girls are trafficked primarily for domestic servitude and commercial sexual exploitation. While boys are trafficked for forced labour in street vending, agriculture, mining, stone quarries, and as domestic servants. Each year, more than 200,000 Nigerian children are said to be forcibly taken from their homes to be put to work. Some go with the permission of their parents, while others do not.
Many, especially boys who may be as young as five or six, end up as household slaves far from home, or as agricultural workers, where they earn little or nothing. Some, especially the younger ones, die as a result; others end up with terrible scars, both physical and psychological.
The girls who are taken may end up in domestic service, but many become prostitutes, perhaps in Cote d’Ivoire or Gabon, but increasingly in Europe, particularly in Italy, where a well-organised criminal network distributes them to major cities like Rome, Florence and Turin. Those are the lucky ones, who reach their destinations safely. But they often do so after encountering untold hardships on the way.
- Additional reports from Juliana Francis and Mosunmola Adeyinka.
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