We were trafficked. Now we are illegal migrants
The UN general assembly adopted the international convention on the protection of the rights of migrant workers and members of their families on December 18th, 1990.
On December 4th 2000, 10 years after the convention was adopted, December 18th was set aside by the UN General assembly as the International Migrants Day.
This day is observed by countries, civil society organizations and individuals by disseminating information on the human rights and fundamental political freedoms of migrants and the effects of illegal migration.
As a peer educator on Illegal Migration Awareness and Alternatives to Violence with the Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) a non-governmental organization based in Nigeria, I have had the opportunity of speaking with survivors of child trafficking and illegal migration.
The stories of three young women have remained with me for over a year now.
*Christy was 12 when an aunt visited her hometown, Benin City from Spain. The aunt who was very impressed with the way she looked and how she has developed physically expressed her interest in returning abroad with her, promising to adopt her upon her arrival.
Christy was excited; finally, she would fly in an aeroplane, meet a Caucasian man and have children with long silky hair. Her parents were beside themselves with joy. Christy could finally bring them all out of poverty going back five generations and take her other siblings to Europe too.
As per the aunts request, Christy would live with other girls about the same age as she was with an agent in Lagos for a certain amount of time. She will be ‘polished’ and socialized into behaving, speaking and dressing to fit the profile of a European girl. She would not have contact with her parents or anyone from home; this was necessary to prepare her for a life of focus and independence abroad.
When it came time for them to depart Lagos, they did not leave by aeroplane. Instead, they used back roads to neighbouring countries and waited in makeshift tents till night fall to cross international borders. Exposed to the elements, hungry, thirsty, she just wanted to go back home to her family, but there was no going back.
Six months into their journey, their guardians and escorts – six men announced to the 12 of them, the need to ‘begin practicing’ the trade they would be doing in Europe. They were subsequently gang raped night after another night.
At 13, Christy already knew how to stuff her Vaginal with cotton wool. This, she was told could prevent pregnancy and HIV. “The only thing that kept me alive and sane was the thought of reporting the animals who continually raped me to my aunt. I knew my aunt would deal with them. I held on to that. I was going abroad to meet my aunt.” She said.
She was the youngest of the five girls who survived the ordeal and journey by road and then by boat to Europe.
One year after she first met her dear aunt in Benin City, she arrived Spain looking twice her age, dirty and broken. There was no aunt to welcome her, clean her. There was no aunt to tell her sordid tales. Instead, she was immediately taken to a ‘spiritualist’ who administered some oaths on her and thereafter taken to a brothel were she began working as a commercial sex worker.
Completely alienated from her family in Nigeria and feeling betrayed by her aunt who sold her into the sex trade, continuously subjected to torture and inhuman treatment, she escaped the brothel and made it to a side street where a police car was idling. She was taken to the police station where she narrated her ordeal and expressed her desire to return home
Christy was on a plane back to Nigeria the next day. She was a fifteen year old who had experienced in three years, much more than any woman should bear in a lifetime.
Thirteen years after first being trafficked to Europe, Shehad obtained a Bachelors degree from a federal university in Nigeria. Unable to secure a job and earn a living, she voluntarily set out for Europe a second time - as an illegal immigrant to become a commercial sex worker.
She was deported two years later following a police raid of the brothel she lived in.
*Suzanne, 14 had just had a baby by a boy who denied being the father when her aunty suggested she comes to Italy to be a nanny. Her aunt had just had a baby and needed someone to babysit for her while she worked.
This seemed like the perfect rescue. The shame of dropping out from school after becoming a teenage mother was too much for her and her family to bear, without second thoughts, she set out for Italy with false travel documents arranged and provided by her aunt, and an altered physical appearance. She wanted to do right by her 2months old son. She had the blessing of her family.
Though her journey to Italy was smooth and easy, life there was a different story. She immediately began work as a commercial sex worker upon her arrival. “I told my aunty one day, I begged her and told her, aunty you are a woman like me and you have just had a baby like me, you know the pains I am still feeling, and you know I have not yet healed, please give me some time to heal before I begin this work. It is too painful for me to be sleeping with many men a day…” Suzanne said as tears streamed down her face.
“I had to pretend that I am now enjoying the work when it became clear there was no way out. I would tell her I needed more clients daily, she was very proud of this and began to allow me run little errands around the neighbourhood. That was when I began noticing that police were always around. One afternoon, i made up my mind to approach a police officer. I was taken to the police station then to the deportation camp where I endured poor living condition, sickness and cold. Nine months after voluntarily turning myself in, I was deported to Nigeria.” Suzanne narrates.
Arriving Nigeria, she says this about the welcome she received “My family was not happy to see me. They wanted me out of the house; they preferred the money they were receiving from my aunty. They were not surprised when I told them what I did to make the money. They just wanted the money, it didn’t matter how it was made.”
When asked what her plan was for the future, she responded “I am doing all I can to save some money for down payment to a sponsor to take me back to Italy. I need to go back. I was making so much money there. I regret coming back to Nigeria. I am older and wiser now. I know better now. I have to make a living so that I can look after myself, my son and my family, so that they can be proud of me again…”
*Tonia left her husband with two of their four and two year old children in pursuit of greener pastures in Italy. She was led to believe that as a hair stylist in Nigeria, she would earn ‘big’ money in Italy, enough to build houses and send for her husband and children in less than 6months.
She set out for Italy, holding on to this ‘ambitious dream’.
What awaited her on the other side of the planet was a debt of over 7000 Euros and life as a commercial sex worker.
For five years, she was allowed to neither make phone calls to her family back in Nigeria nor send money to them. Every penny she made was taken from her. She could never pay the debt she owed.
When asked how she escaped the brothel and came back to Nigeria, she responded: “I was allowed to work the streets after some years of gaining their trust. One night, I met a man who looked nice, I explained to him about my children and how I wanted to see them again. He gave me some money, drove me close to a police station and left. I was deported 6months after and here I am in Nigeria.”
Although Tonia is very happy to be with her kids again, she says she is waiting to return to Europe. Someone had advised her to attempt returning after 10 years, four of which has past when we spoke. “Nigeria is too hard. No work anywhere, I cannot wait to return and start making money. I now know all the tricks on how to make and hide cash so that your pimp would not find it. I also know how to hide telephone numbers of family back home so that it would not be seized. When I return to Europe, I can call my family as often as I like and send them money, it won’t be difficult to live without them as it was the first time.”
Trafficking in Girls and Women, A Global Phenomenon
The stories of these young women are only a tip of the trafficking/illegal migration iceberg as trafficking in children and young persons are continually on the increase.
According to International Labour Organization (ILO) statistics, 200,000 to 250,000 women and children are trafficked annually in Southeastern Asia alone.
In South-eastern Europe, 90 per cent of foreign women working in prostitution are alleged victims of trafficking and 10-15 per cent of these women are girls under the age of 18. Younger children, both boys and girls, are being trafficked for forced labour.**
Almost 6 in 10 identified trafficking survivors were trafficked for sexual exploitation. ***
Women and girls make up 98% of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. ****
Back to the Basics; the Root Cause of the Problem
There is a reoccurring theme with these three stories: exploitation. Also, note how these young women who were victims of exploitation by close family members and friends internalized their experiences and began ‘looking forward to a life and career around it.
Survival and self-preservation are basic instincts, so potent that people often are ready to ‘do anything’ to stay alive and provide for their families and those they care deeply about.
Tonia looked at me for a long time and asked: “What could be more basic than a mothers love for her children?” in response to my question about why she desperately wants to return abroad.
Nigeria currently has a youth unemployment rate of 56 per cent. It is no surprise that women and men are ready to risk everything and sell personal and family properties for a chance to go abroad in search of better economic opportunities.
Sadly, while child trafficking and illegal migration are broached on national debates, the root causes of these phenomenon goes widely unaddressed.
For example, this years United Nations International Youths Day Celebration had as its theme: Youths and Migration; Moving Development Forward. This event hosted by Amuwo Odofin, a local government in Lagos Nigeria highlighted the efforts of the state and the local government towards economically empowering young persons but it failed to mention, even in passing, the root cause of en migration – legally or illegally. As the event closed, some of the most important questions like: Why are youths migrating en masse from Nigeria? How can the Government and Civil Society better the lives of youths in Nigeria and what opportunities are there for the Nigerian youth who is passionate about change and nation building, were left unanswered.
Effects of Trafficking and Illegal Migration
The damaging effects of child trafficking and illegal migration cannot be overemphasized.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), defines sex trafficking a form of sex discrimination and a human rights violation. Trafficking for sexual or other purposes is a violation of the basic human rights of the individual. This includes the rights to bodily integrity, equality, dignity, health, security, and freedom from violence and torture.
Survivors of sex trafficking tell stories of daily degradation of mind and body.7 They are often isolated, intimidated, sold into debt bondage and subject to physical and sexual assault by their traffickers. Most live under constant mental and physical threat. Many suffer severe emotional trauma, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and disassociation. They are at greater risk of contracting sexually transmissible infections, including HIV/AIDS. Many become pregnant and are forced to undergo often-unsafe abortions.*****
Illegal migration causes brain drain and loss of human capital in the home country.
Crime rate in the host country can potentially increase as illegal immigrants in an effort to make a living often resort to violent crimes and fraud.
The hazards involved in reaching their final destination has reportedly resulted in death and disabilities of countless scores of young person, there are unclear statistics as many of these go undocumented because of lack of legitimate identification papers as narrated by *Tony, a survivor of illegal migration.
As we join in the international migrant’s day celebration today, collectively, we can begin taking responsibility for the spate of child trafficking and illegal migration by sharing information with everyone we come across. We must also self reflect on these questions:
How have I contributed to the demand for trafficked children;
What have I done/am I doing to do my tiny giant bit in ending child trafficking, slavery and exploitation today;
How can I better engage the government and civil society organizations to ensure that every citizen is guaranteed equal access to basic facilities and economic opportunities, thereby reducing the number of illegal migrants;
How have I contributed to the discrimination and stigmatization of survivors of child/human trafficking and illegal migration?
*All names were changed
**UNICEF, UNOHCHR, OSCE ODIHR, Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe, 2003, p. XIII
***United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 2012, p. 7.
****International Labour Organization, Minimum Estimate of Forced Labour in the World (April 2005) p. 6.
*****National Bureau of Statistics,
******Global Sex Trafficking Factsheet.
My gratitude goes to the Committee for the Support of the Dignity of Women (COSUDOW) and these brave women for sharing their stories with me and the world.