Few would question the need for foreign intervention on behalf of those thousands of African migrants victimized by human trafficking in Libya. Since their horrific plight in Libyan detention camps was broadcast to an outraged international community three months ago, the Nigerian government has flown some 7,000 of its citizens back from the war-ravaged country, largely in response to international pressure.
But these Nigerian migrants are being forced to return to often-deplorable conditions, the same ones they risked their lives to escape.
“The unfortunate reality is that most migrants, including survivors of sex trafficking, are actually being re-acculturated back to the exact same conditions that left them vulnerable in the first place,” said R. Evon Benson-Idahosa, a native Nigerian and leading expert on modern-day slavery in Africa. Benson-Idahosa is the founder and executive director of PathFinders Justice Initiative, an international nonprofit based in New York working to eradicate sex trafficking and the exploitation of women and girls in the developing world. For the past three years, the organization has worked with and advocated for Nigerian girls and women in Edo State.
“What we are seeing are a lot of migrants returning with physical needs,” reported Benson-Idahosa, noting “many of the women are pregnant,” with both males and females in need of medical treatment for physical and sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and excessive consumption of salt water. She pointed to the psychosocial implications as well. “I’d say upwards of 95 percent of the migrants we work with, including survivors of sex trafficking, are traumatized, having endured what they have in Libya.”
Back at home, they will endure more. Many are returning to Benson-Idahosa’s home state of Edo, its Benin region being the epicenter of the Nigerian sex trafficking industry where an estimated 94 percent of the trafficked girls and women come from. Despite the country’s emergence as Africa’s largest economy, swaths of Edo are prominent examples of how such economic growth has primarily served to increase disparities between rich and poor and exacerbate existing inequities.
Poverty, unemployment, and corruption have facilitated the state’s sizable sex market where, for decades, Edo women have either resorted to or been forced into prostitution for their survival and that of the families depending on them. Many are trafficked both voluntarily and involuntarily by way of the precarious route to Europe, via Libya, where, if they make it, they send monies back home to desperate families commonly involved in their trafficking. Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, which has rescued almost 12,000 reported victims since 2003, revealed that over 40 percent of convicted traffickers are women, most having been trafficked themselves.
“A lot of them are returning back to extremely vulnerable conditions because they didn’t have the job or economic opportunities prior to leaving Nigeria,” said Benson-Idahosa, explaining that most “were living in abject poverty. So there is a lack of education and training that would render them employable since they don’t have the skills, and they are ultimately going to seek ways of being able to support themselves, one way or the other.”
In November, the state government of Edo established a task force aimed at rehabilitating and assimilating returnees to the region through skills training, along with granting them three-month stipends. It also made a call for help from the international community given the impact on and complicity of entities like Libya, Italy and the European Union for their immigration concerns and their underground illegal markets.
“We solicit for support from the European Union, the Italian government as well as other countries affected by this menace to be able to sustain the structures we have set up in the state,” stated Edo governor Godwin Obaseki, at the International Conference on Women Empowerment and the Fight Against Trafficking in Persons. “All parties affected by the menace of human trafficking, both the countries of origin and the destination countries, stand to benefit from the system we have set up in Edo State to engage these youths, which would give them no reason to contemplate migrating illegally. So, we want to strengthen these structures in Edo State to make staying back and working gainfully the preferred choice.”
Some feel such politically-based gestures are largely reactive and fall far short of effectively addressing the issue.
“A lot of the returnees that have been repatriated have complaints,” said Omolola Adele-Oso, founder of Diaspora RiseUp!, a Maryland-based campaign to raise funds for emerging humanitarian crises and development issues in Africa from those living outside the continent. The Nigerian-born organizer is also the co-founder and executive director of the Maryland-based Act4Accountability, a nonprofit promoting civic engagement and social change on behalf of the continent. “They are basically returning to ground zero, and they are given a little bit of money and support from the Nigerian agencies,” acknowledged Adele-Oso. “But, in general, most feel despair when it comes back to the question ‘So what’s next for them?’
“Their situation hasn’t changed, and there really hasn’t been any support that they’ve received from their government, or state and local governments, on how to actually build their lives,” stressed Adele-Oso, noting this “is why they left in the first place.” She referenced cases where people have scraped together the equivalent of $1,600 American dollars, desperately needed funds for their families, to be smuggled along the treacherous path to Europe “because they want to create a life and bring income in for not just themselves, but their families.”
To make matters worse, the smugglers themselves, who commonly live in the same communities as their clients, cannot always be trusted. Returnees have regularly reported that these paid guides — either along the way or once they reached Libya — sodomized and raped them, or took them captive and made them call back home to ransom them for more money. Adele-Oso referenced a recent case where one migrant had been detained in a Libyan prison where he was hung upside down by his feet with wire and then ransomed by both his Libyan jailers and his Nigerian smugglers.
“So you’re basically talking about bringing people back into a situation where you haven’t really given enough supportive services to help them deal with the trauma,” said Adele-Oso. “And what’s to keep people from attempting to try this again?” she begged. “That piece is still not there.”
It is a critical piece that Benson-Idahosa’s organization has committed to provide. “We are both prevention and rehabilitation focused,” proclaimed Benson-Idahosa. Her PathFinders Justice Initiative, while working to prevent sex trafficking through outreach, advocacy, skills training and judicial reform in Edo, collaborates with all of the relevant public agencies, nonprofits and community-based organizations to demand these institutions serve and protect survivors of gender-based violence.
The initiative has served, trained and advocated on behalf of thousands of girls and women over the past three years, providing free medical, counseling and legal services, along with skills training and educational scholarships. “PJI utilizes an interdisciplinary methodology which combines economic development with a human rights approach,” clarified Benson-Idahosa. “In that regard, we are not just providing rehabilitation for survivors, but we’re also ensuring they are empowered with ways to develop long-term sustainable economic and financial independence.”
Such independence would not only prevent widespread sex trafficking in Edo, but would also deter thousands of desperate Nigerians from leaving home in the first place. Adele-Oso believes that building around these types of forward-looking efforts represents a positive and viable road forward.
“Oftentimes, the only stories we hear out of Africa are the negative ones, and we seldom hear about organizations like PathFinders Justice that are doing amazing work in the midst of all the mess,” said Adele-Oso. “So now the question becomes how can we support these entities so that they can do more with their interventions?”