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Nigeria: Anguish, poverty confront trafficking survivors

27 August 2019

End detention in shelters, provide more support says Human Rights Watch

Many survivors of sex and labor trafficking struggle with unaddressed health challenges, poverty, and abhorrent conditions upon their return to Nigeria. Nigerian authorities have failed to provide the assistance that survivors need to rebuild their lives and have unlawfully detained many of the already traumatized women and girls in shelters.

The 90-page report, “‘You Pray for Death’: Trafficking of Women and Girls in Nigeria,” provides detailed accounts of how human trafficking operates in Nigeria. Human Rights Watch found that the nightmare does not end for survivors who manage to return home. The Nigerian government should take steps to address the serious health conditions, social exclusion, and poverty faced by survivors, and stop further traumatizing survivors by detaining them in shelters.

“Women and girls trafficked in and outside Nigeria have suffered unspeakable abuses at the hands of traffickers, but have received inadequate medical, counseling, and financial support to reintegrate into society,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “We were shocked to find traumatized survivors locked behind gates, unable to communicate with their families, for months on end, in government-run facilities.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 76 trafficking survivors in Nigeria, as well as government officials, civil society leaders, and representatives of donor governments and institutions providing support to anti-trafficking efforts in Nigeria.

The frequent trafficking of Nigerian women and girls to Europe and Libya has led to international headlines in recent years and to action by the Nigerian government. Many women and girls are also held in slavery-like conditions inside Nigeria.

Adaura’s story

Nigerian authorities have taken some important steps to address the country’s widespread problem of trafficking, including establishing shelters, assisting with medical care, and creating skills training and economic support programs for trafficking survivors.

However, the authorities rely too heavily on shelters, as opposed to community-based services, as the primary means of providing services to survivors. Nigerian authorities have also detained trafficking survivors in shelters, not allowing them to leave at will, often for many months, in violation of Nigeria’s international legal obligations. Protection should not be an excuse to arbitrarily detain women and girls and deprive them of their liberty and freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said. Such detention conditions risk their recovery and well-being.

“I have been here for almost six months…. I eat and sleep and shout. They do not open the gate…” said an 18-year-old woman at a National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) shelter. “I told NAPTIP I do not want to stay here; I want to go home. They said they will allow me to go. I do not feel okay being here. I cannot stay here doing nothing.”

The journey into being trafficked is harrowing, and relief is hard to come by. Human Rights Watch documented how traffickers, most known to their victims, deceive women and girls, transport them within and across national borders, and then exploit them in various forms of forced labor.

Women and girls often believed they were migrating for high-paying overseas employment as domestic workers, hairdressers, or hotel staff. They were shocked to learn they had been tricked and were trapped in exploitative situations, with high “debts” to pay. They said their captors subjected them to forced prostitution and forced domestic work for long hours with no time to rest, and without pay. Traffickers made them have sex with men without condoms, and often compelled them to undergo abortions in unsanitary conditions, without pain medication or antibiotics.

A woman who tried to make her way to Europe sits with her child in a shelter in Benin City, Nigeria. Nigerians who attempt the journey to Europe often end up enslaved, beaten, assaulted, and trapped in Libya. March 2018.
 © 2018 Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage

Survivors described horrifying experiences leading to long-term trauma. Another woman said she was 18 when she was trafficked into forced prostitution in Libya and held for about three years. While in Libya, she was abducted by people she said were the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). She witnessed executions and bombings, and was sold from one trafficker to another. She became pregnant but lost her newborn baby during a bombing. She described her life after trafficking: “Sometimes I don’t want to see people. Sometimes I feel like I am going to kill myself. I don’t sleep well.”

Some women and girls said they suffered long-term mental and physical health problems and social stigma upon returning to Nigeria, where they struggled to get support and services. Many women and girls said they lacked money to support themselves and their families. Survivors described feeling deeply stressed and desperate.

Survivors said service providers generally did not actively involve them in decisions about their own assistance, and that service providers gave them insufficient information about services. Some reported long waiting periods without assistance after they contacted service providers to ask for help.

Outside of the government’s use of shelters, a network of nongovernmental organizations provides services to trafficking victims, including shelter accommodation, identification and family tracing, as well as rehabilitation and reintegration. However, representatives of some of these groups said they are poorly funded and are unable to meet survivors’ multiple needs for long-term comprehensive assistance. 

Rehabilitation and reintegration efforts in Nigeria are also plagued by an over-emphasis on short-term skills training that also reinforces traditional gender roles, weak government efforts to identify victims, problems with funding and coordination, and poor oversight.

Nigerian authorities, including NAPTIP officials, should work urgently to improve assistance and services for internally identified and repatriated human trafficking survivors, including by ending the practice of denying freedom of movement to survivors housed in shelters. The Nigerian authorities should ensure that shelter policies and practices respect survivors’ human rights, ensure that no one is detained in shelters, and assess the impact of its “closed” shelter approach.

“Nigerian authorities are struggling with a crisis of trafficking, and working under challenging circumstances, but they can do a better job by listening to what survivors have to say about their own needs,” Odhiambo said. “To end trafficking and break cycles of exploitation and suffering, survivors need the government to help them heal from the trauma of trafficking and earn a decent living in Nigeria.”

This is a press release by Human Rights Watch.

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