The practice of slavery is one with a long and ignoble history across nationalities, cultures, and religions. It occurred in ancient civilisations in places Egypt, China, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Israel, Greece, India, and the Roman Empire.
Although some forms of slavery existed as punishments to pay off debts, a symbol of conquest, and also a source of economic gain for centuries, the barbaric practice was abolished in many countries between the 19th and 20th centuries.
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which officially ended slavery, yet the bestial practice has resurfaced and is still thriving in modern forms seven decades later.
A United Kingdom-based organisation, Anti-Slavery International, defines modern slavery as “When an individual is exploited by others, for personal or commercial gain. Whether tricked, coerced, or forced, they lose their freedom. This includes but is not limited to human trafficking, forced labour, and debt bondage.”
During the yearly colloquium of Epiphany Azinge Foundation held in Abuja on November 13, the Director-General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, Prof Fatima Waziri-Azi, disclosed that Benue State has been ranked Nigeria’s epicentre of human trafficking between 2021 and 2022, with Ondo, Edo, Delta, Kano and Imo following closely and respectively in the infamous list.
“For the years 2021 and 2022, Benue State had the highest number of rescued victims of human trafficking, followed by Ondo, Edo, Delta, Kano and Imo. There is a reduction in the number of victims from Edo State. However, Edo indigenes are the highest perpetrators of human trafficking within and outside Nigeria.
“In 2022, we received 1,464 reports, which was a 31.9 per cent increase from 2021. In terms of prosecution, 80 convictions were secured in 2022 – the highest in a single year since NAPTIP’s inception,” Waziri-Azi was quoted to have said.
At another event held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of NAPTIP in July, Waziri-Azi noted that about 1.6 million Nigerians are living in modern slavery daily.
She said, “Only recently did the 2023 Global Slavery Index opine that globally, it is estimated that 50 million people were living in modern slavery on any day in 2021, an increase of 10 million people since 2016.
“What this narrative indicates is the urgent need for a more strategic and deliberate global response to these problems. As of May 2023, 1.6 million people are living in modern slavery in Nigeria, according to the Global Slavery Index.”
A hydra-headed monster
Modern slavery operates as a ‘hydra-headed monster’ in the form of human trafficking, which involves the use of violence, threats, or coercion to transport, recruit, or harbour people in order to exploit them.
Trafficked victims are often forced into prostitution, labour, criminality, marriages, or have their organs harvested.
It also exists as forced labour, which has been defined as any work or services people are forced to do against their will, usually under threat of punishment.
Modern slavery also occurs in the form of debt bondage or bonded labour.
In this case, people trapped in poverty borrow money and are forced to work to pay off the debt, thus, losing control over both their employment conditions and the debt.
Child labour is another form of modern slavery. It occurs when a child is exploited for someone else’s gain. This can include child trafficking, child soldiers, child marriage, and child domestic slavery.
Following 14 years of insurgency in Borno, Benue, Niger, Kano, Bauchi, Adamawa, and Kebbi states, among others, there have been many reported cases of forced child marriage and child sexual exploitation.
450,000 victims in 18 years
In its 2022 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Report, drawing upon the largest existing dataset on trafficking in persons indicated that there have been 450,000 victims and 300,000 suspected offenders detected worldwide between 2003 and 2021.
“For the first time, the number of victims detected globally decreased by 11 per cent. This reduction is largely driven by low- and medium-low-income countries and due to lower institutional capacity to detect victims, fewer opportunities for traffickers to operate and some trafficking forms moving to more hidden locations less likely to be detected.
“Notwithstanding, some regions such as western and southern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Central and South-Eastern Europe, as well as North America, recorded an increase in detection. This global tendency was verified in Nigeria as well,” the report stated.
NAPTIP statistics from 2019 to 2022 indicate that 61 per cent of human trafficking in Nigeria happens internally, while 39 per cent is cross-border.
Internal trafficking often takes the form of recruitment and transportation of children from rural areas to urban and city centres for different forms of labour under exploitative conditions.
On the other hand, external trafficking prey on vulnerable women who are sold false promises of working in well-paid jobs in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Italy, Libya, and Lebanon, among others.
When they arrive in these countries, many of them are forced into sex work and their passports are often confiscated by their traffickers.
To regain their travel documents, and especially their freedom, the women are told that they must pay their employers huge sums by engaging in sex work.
‘Displaced people are more vulnerable’
In 2017, the United Nations International Organisation for Migration noted that there had been nearly a 600 per cent increase in potential sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy since 2014 and it was estimated that 80 per cent of them were Nigerians.
A report by the UNODC in 2020 cites the data provided by NAPTIP showing that sexual exploitation remains the first form of exploitation with 460 cases against 279 cases recorded for forced labour.
It added that forced displaced populations are more vulnerable to traffickers and most victims detected come from the zone in conflict regions, mainly Sub-Sahara Africa and the Middle East, which are the most exploited.
A social worker with an Abuja-based non-governmental organisation, Mr Olaide Ajayi, in a chat with Sunday PUNCH lamented the rise in trafficking of Nigerian girls into various global destinations despite the interventions by agencies.
He said, “The trafficking of many women and girls to various countries where they are forced into prostitution and child labour presents a very disturbing situation occasioned by many young people looking for greener pastures outside the country.
“With the rate of unemployment, insecurity, lack of access to opportunities, low level or lack of education and unfavourable economic conditions, many people want to move to other countries. Some of them are pushed into it by a lack of financial support and the desperation of wanting to leave the country by all means.
“They are usually deceived with mouth-watering promises of better working conditions, higher pay and opportunities to use their vocational skills to gain favourable employment, but once they get to their destinations, the picture changes. They are subjected to sexual assaults, robbed of their freedom, locked up in rooms, enslaved by fear and made to swear by voodoo oaths that they would not escape. There needs to be more awareness, more victims to be rescued and returned home and given the necessary support.”
Commenting on how survivors of sexual assaults could be helped, a mental health expert at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Calabar, Cross River State, Dr Victor Essien, advised, “They need help to cope with the trauma they may be undergoing. They may need time to heal from the horrible experience, so it’s not something that has to be so prompt.
“The victims may have flashbacks of agonising events, so therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy may come in handy. Every survivor is unique and the support they need may vary, so it’s important to respect people’s choices and provide a safe and non-judgmental environment for them to seek help and heal adequately.”
Community advocacy needed – Group
Speaking with Sunday PUNCH, the Olori of Omolukas, an Ekiti-based civil society group, Oluwatobi Ogunleye, explained that human trafficking and child labour can be tackled by advocacy starting from the grassroots.
“Tackling human trafficking and child labour must start from the communities. The criminals who perpetrate these acts usually go to the grassroots, the suburbs, and rural areas to recruit vulnerable women and children. They seek girls who lack access to education and boys whose parents are struggling to raise them and bring them to cities or other places where they subject them to abuse.
“That is why we emphasise community empowerment because we believe these initiatives reflect our dedication to community empowerment, leadership development, and meaningful service, pillars upon which our group stands. We have visited several towns and communities in Ekiti to this effect.
“We have committed ourselves to improve the standard of education because when you educate a community and create vocational opportunities for residents, you provide them with tools for a good future and you also make it more difficult for them to fall for the seductive charms of traffickers and other heinous persons,” she explained.
The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Nasir Sani-Gwarzo, said 10,005 suspected traffickers have been arrested so far, and that between 2022 and 2023, there have been 623 convictions.
“Others include 260 ongoing cases in various courts across the country; the rescue of close to 22,000 victims of human trafficking,” he added.