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Human trafficking: Illicit trade that thrived despite COVID-19 restrictions

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Some trafficked victims rescued recently in Port Harcourt by NAPTIP officials

Twenty-year-old Agnes Fubara had looked forward to a career as a news presenter. From an early age, she joined the editorial club in her school to prepare her for journalism. She dreamt of studying broadcast journalism at a university in Nigeria.

With excellent high school results, Fubara was on course. But tragedy struck just two weeks after her results were released. Her father, the breadwinner of the family, died, leaving a devastated daughter wondering how to raise money to accomplish her career in broadcasting.

Determined to succeed, she did menial jobs until a fateful day when she reconnected with an old school mate who would later mislead her. That schoolmate was, at the time, also trying to secure university admission but she had other ideas about how to achieve her goal.

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Before long, Fubara, like her old schoolmate, began to trade sex for money. Those escapades ended in a pregnancy and have now left her in an even more vulnerable position. She accepted a neighbour’s suggestion that after having her baby, she could migrate to Europe where she could still actualise her dreams.

Fubara and her neighbour raised the needed money to embark on the first journey from Port Harcourt to Sokoto, despite the COVID-19 lockdown in Rivers State. Traffickers had scheduled their departure via a truck conveying food items, which were officially cleared for interstate travel during the lockdown.

According to her, the second leg of the trip was to be from Sokoto to Niger Republic and then to Libya, where she would be smuggled to Europe. However, she did not know that following a tip-off, an official of the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), had monitored and trailed them to Sokoto.  She was rescued in Sokoto but her neighbour and other traffickers were arrested while trying to get to Libya.

Similarly, 17-year-old Mercy Ihuoma had lived with her parents in Obite in Ogba/Egbema Local Government Area of Rivers State. When she finished high school, her aunt convinced her parents to send her to Port Harcourt, where she would assist her to learn a skill.

Mercy’s unsuspecting parents agreed and released their excited daughter. According to Mercy, they paid their way through, bribed the police and arrived at Rumokwurishi axis of Port Harcourt on March 27, 2020 but her aunt’s home turned out to be a brothel.

She was also rescued by NAPTIP officials but not until Sunday, June 21, 2020. She had been a sex worker for three months. After being rescued, she disclosed that she paid N3, 000 weekly for police fees and N1, 500 daily to her madam but noted that during the pandemic, she paid N5, 000 weekly to her madam, as well as N500 for sweeping and N1, 000 daily for fuel. It also became apparent that her ‘Madam’, known as Emilola Ajayi, had some police officers on her pay roll, who were ‘settled’ weekly to protect the facility.

Nyeche Evans was 18 when she left her home in Emohua Local Government Area of Rivers State. She moved to Port Harcourt on April 10 during the COVID-19 lockdown, hoping to find a job to help her poor parents and young siblings.

However, without a University degree, she struggled to find a good job. Even menial jobs were difficult to get due to the lockdown. After searching for so long, she thought herself lucky when a woman in Rumokwurishi in Port Harcourt offered her a waitress job. She joyfully welcomed the opportunity but things took a bad turn after one week.

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According to her, “The employer held us for weeks in a brothel, turned us into sex slaves and we were forced to do whatever the client wanted to pay our bills. Before NAPTIP rescued me, I was given bills to pay on a weekly basis or face torture. I was mandated to pay N1, 500 daily for police fees, N1, 000 for fuel, N500 for sweeping and later N5, 000 weekly due to the pandemic.”

Pathetic stories also abound of some girls living in Rivers State, who attempted to search for greener pastures in and outside the shores of the State, notwithstanding the COVID-19 lockdown. Law enforcement agents and anti-trafficking activists found it surprising that during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, the illicit trade in humans thrived in Rivers State despite the closure of land, sea and air borders by the Federal and State Governments.

The stories of Fubara and her colleagues indicate that the menace of human trafficking in Nigeria has continued unabated and despite efforts by various government agencies to fight it.

Reasons For Trafficking
Over the years, poverty, corruption and ignorance have been traced as the root causes of trafficking. However, many couples that trafficked their babies during the lockdown period said they faced unbearable poverty during the period. They particularly blamed their actions on hunger.

According to the latest poverty and inequality report released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Nigeria has an estimated population of 200 million and over 82.9 million people in the country are poor.

The Bureau’s unemployment figures released on August 14 revealed that Rivers State came second in the South South region after Akwa Ibom with unemployment rate at 43.7 percent and underemployment at 19.8 percent. Anti-trafficking activists believe that to reduce the increasing rates of crimes, especially human trafficking, poverty eradication and job creation should be given serious attention.

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Some of the victims of trafficking were given out by their parents out of ignorance and deception, with the promise that the traffickers would train them in various skills or send them to school. There are also instances where parents or guardians willingly offered their wards for trafficking. Sadly, the traffickers are seldom caught and even when they are, they buy their way out.

Health And Social Implications   
Trafficking leads to terminal diseases. It can also expose more citizens to criminal acts. Findings revealed that trafficked victims suffer from a range of physical and psychological health issues, including HIV/AIDs, pelvic pains and rectal trauma. Urinary difficulties resulting from working in the sex industry and chronic untreated sexually transmitted infections that lead to infertility, cardiovascular or respiratory problems are also part of the consequences of sex trafficking. Infectious diseases like tuberculosis, substance abuse problems or addiction to drugs among several others, equally affect the community and society at large.

Increased corruption is a likely fallout and situations where the police allegedly collect bribes and release suspects, rather than ensure that traffickers are brought to justice, should be tackled.

Complicity Of Police Officers
Some police officers that have been found culpable of compromising the process of prosecuting trafficking suspects, have been arrested and made to face disciplinary actions while some of them were reprimanded, the State Police Public Relations Officer, Nnamdi Omoni, has said.

When reached for reaction, Omoni confirmed that there was increase in trafficking during the COVID-19 lockdown period, adding that the command was able to crack down of merchants of the illicit trade following a tip offs and cooperation by the public.

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He said, “I can tell you that during the lockdown, between March and May, we recorded high rise in cases of trafficking. We were able to burst some facilities and the syndicates arrested. Some who were not closely tied to the offence were released unconditionally.”

Omoni also confirmed that the command received reports that police officers posted to the borders during the lockdown were collecting money and allowing people to come in or go out while others compromised in other forms.

“We investigated such activities and discovered that actually, some officers were compromising the process. Most of them have been arrested and have faced disciplinary actions while some of them were reprimanded.”

Omoni said using hunger and hardship as excuse for such bizarre act is not justifiable. “There is no justification for committing an offence. In the case where a father conspired with medical workers to sell his one-day old baby, it is a big offence.”

The police spokesman said human trafficking is not only a criminal offence but also a moral offence, assuring that anyone caught would be made to face the law.

Although some police officers aid trafficking, others are committed to eradicating the menace from the society. The Rivers State Police Command has rescued several victims and arrested some traffickers in the State. Just recently, a 23-year-old child trafficker, Chinedu Nwachukwu, who kills mothers and abduct their children for sale, was arrested by the police on stop-and-search post at Omerelu in Rivers State while on his way to sell a six-month-old baby.

NAPTIP Reacts
Though NAPTIP said it is not relenting in its zero tolerance to bringing trafficking to an end, more still needs to be done. In Rivers State for instance, there is no sustained awareness and sensitisation for the public. Remarkably, given the strategic nature of the State, there is a need for intelligence units and office facilities, rather than the existing liaison office at the Obio/Akpor Local Council of the State, which has no space for protective custody for rescued victims.

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The South-South Zonal Commander of NAPTIP, Mr. Nduka Nwanwanne confirmed that the agency arrested some traffickers and rescued some victims during the lockdown. Agnes Fubara and Ihumoma Mercy were among the rescued.

Nwanwanne said: “During the COVID-19 lockdown, some operatives of NAPTIP made use of some indicators designed to identify traffickers and victims. They were able to detect the suspects and followed them until they were arrested and the victims rescued.

Speaking also, the NAPTIP Head in Rivers State, Gloria Chinda, said the confessional statement of some of the victims showed they were lured out of ignorance.

Chinda, however, stressed the need for individuals, organisations and governments to support the fight by creating more awareness in the State and taking the campaign to the rural areas where the traffickers go to lure their victims.

State Government Weighs In
According to a United Nations report, traffickers earn $33 billion annually, making quick money, a situation that has caused a spike in the ugly trend.
To curtail the menace, however, The Guardian’s findings revealed that the state government has built a facility where rescued victims are kept for rehabilitation, skills acquisition and reintegration into the society. The State government is also working to achieve speedy prosecution of trafficking offenders to serve as deterrent to others who are in or plan to perpetuate such acts.

The State Commissioner for Social Welfare, Mrs. Inime Aguma, while reacting to the growing trend, said the order 6 of the COVID-19 restrictions of the State government made it possible for the Ministry and its partnering agencies, NAPTIP and the security operatives to raid several homes and hotels to rescue victims and arrest suspects during the lockdown.

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Aguma, who is the immediate past President of the International Federation of women Lawyers (FIDA) and a lawyer of over 30 years, said she has established relationship between the Attorney General of Rivers State and NAPTIP to expedite action on trafficking cases in the State High Courts.

“We are pushing for speedy prosecution of trafficking cases to serve as deterrent to others who are in or plan to perpetuate such act,” said Aguma.

Civil Rights groups, who blame the rise in trafficking cases on government’s non-compliance, urge police to exhibit diligence in handling cases of trafficking.

Some non-governmental organisations in the State have blamed the rise in trafficking cases to non-compliance of government to work with them to ensure adequate sensitisation and effective training among the youths.

The Executive Director of Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre, (YEAC), Fyneface Dumnamene, said, “Government is not responding to calls to tackle the menace of trafficking. We have written to them severally to partner with us to sensitise the youths and train them on the dangers of this trend but all the letters were ignored. We are resolved to doing the work alone due to lack of funding.”

On his part, the Chairman, Civil Rights Council in the State, Prince Wiro, however urged the police to diligently prosecute traffickers and desist from acts tarnishing the image of the police.

“There is the allegation of police aiding some of the traffickers. Most times the buyers and traffickers escape judgment due to compromise from the police. The police should spread their drag net and if any officer is involved in such act, he/she should be prosecuted to serve as deterrent to others,” said Wiro.

Way Forward
Trafficking is a serious case in Nigeria and is capable of attracting 14 years jail term. Unfortunately, backlog of such cases in the judiciary has made it impossible to bring the needed justice that would tackle the menace.

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NAPTIP, in its 2019 data, revealed that efforts in combatting human trafficking has resulted in the rescue of over 13,000 victims and secured convictions of close to 400 human trafficking offenders. But the above figure is very insignificant compared to the numerous cases in the country. It is therefore, pertinent to ensure that offenders, irrespective of their backgrounds or positions, face stiffer and timely punishments to serve as deterrent to others.

A constitutional Lawyer, Angus Chukwuka, explained that there are various reasons for low prosecution. He noted that for a case to proceed in court, it should have available evidence, the victim’s willingness to prosecute, and NAPTIP’s capacity to pursue the case in terms of funds and manpower.

He said, “Law enforcement agencies need to be properly trained and well funded to be able to carry out their task. But because corruption has become a menace in Nigeria, even when the funds are provided, it is not properly utilized. Sometimes, the funds are diverted due to lack of integrity on the part of officials who are supposed to execute it.”

Chukwuka also pointed out that some NAPTIP officials and the police also affect prosecution due to compromise. He, however, called for proper understanding and synergy between the police and the agency, adding that after arrest, the matter should be handed over to NAPTIP for investigations and prosecution.

This report is facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check Project.

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