Alarming rise in underage human trafficking – Punch

Mesmerised by the allure of grandeur abroad, in contrast to the misery at home, vulnerable Nigerian minors are leaving the country in droves. Nigeria’s Ambassador to Burkina Faso, Ramatu Ahmed, underlined the scourge afresh when she revealed that many teenagers were being deceived into taking the hazardous journey by the false narrative of greener pastures overseas. Mostly underage girls, they are lured by crime syndicates promising them jobs in Europe. With thousands of victims stranded in transit camps dotting the West and North African landscape, the three tiers of government have to work harder to stop the traffic.

Ahmed said that no fewer than 10,000 underage Nigerian girls had been forced into prostitution in Burkina Faso, with some working as slaves in mining sites across that country. The syndicates woo them by pretending that these transit camps across the Sahara Desert are temporary arrangements on the route to Europe. Often, that promise never materialises.

Instead, the girls are trapped in those camps, where the traffickers subject them to sexual molestation, prostitution and forced payments to those that recruited them. It is a heavy price for those sucked into the web. Two hundred of such girls have voluntarily surrendered themselves for repatriation this year, although some of them are pregnant, Ahmed said. The rest are reluctant to return home for reasons ranging from shame to the despair of returning empty-handed.

These are Nigerian teenagers, who ought to be at school or learning a trade. In June, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons lamented that about 20,000 girls, mainly from Edo and Delta states, were engaged in prostitution in Mali, being a major transit centre for the human trafficking gangs. Captivated by stories of employment in Europe, they are also to be found in Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad. By operating there as prostitutes, they dent the image of Nigeria.

From West Africa, the traffickers smuggle the surviving ones to Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Sudan, preparatory to crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. It is a treacherous trip filled with landmines, both legal and fabricated. In lawless Libya, and other North African countries, they are forced into inhabitable camps, raped and detained under notorious conditions. Those reluctant to play by the set rules have to buy their freedom or are married off.

The others, as the International Office for Migration (a United Nations agency) says, are sold off as slaves. Walk Free Foundation, an Australia-based charity, said that, of the 29.8 million trapped in modern slavery as of 2013, 2.9 million were Nigerians. One of them is Precious Nwaigwe who was kidnapped by a trafficking gang in Ogun State on her way to school in 2014. She ended up in Agadez, Niger Republic and later Bra, Libya, where her tormentors demanded a ransom of $100,000 from her parents. To regain her freedom, she had to work as a sex slave for about a year. According to her, about 1,000 underage Nigerian girls were involved in prostitution in Bra.

Indeed, the Anti-Slavery International, a British charity, estimates that there are currently 40.3 million entrapped in modern slavery. Out of this figure, 4.8 million are victims of sexual exploitation. This trade generates a huge amount of illicit money. ASI, the IOM and DoSomething, another charity, estimate human trafficking generates global profits of up to $150 billion per annum, $99 billion of which comes from commercial sexual exploitation.

That is not all. The ultimate plan by the traffickers is to smuggle the girls to Europe, particularly Italy, Spain and Greece, through the Mediterranean Sea, which links North Africa and Europe. In this process, sometimes, their boats capsize, leading to high death tolls. In March 2018, Italian authorities recovered the bodies of 26 Nigerian teenage girls from two shipwrecks. They had drowned close to the port city of Salerno. A post-mortem revealed that two of them were pregnant.

It is time for Nigeria to halt the dangerous drift of its susceptible youth – the hope of tomorrow – into modern sex slavery. As a society, we have to wake up to the enormity of the trafficking crisis. As the Federal Government beefs up the operational capacity of NAPTIP, the state governments should launch and intensify efforts through well-coordinated programmes to resettle the victims.

Most of these underage citizens are eager to embark on this journey of no return because educational and work opportunities are grossly limited at home. To bring change, governments should invest massively in education, offering free and quality schooling up to secondary school level.

Good governance is paramount, as it is the sure panacea for economic boost, which will generate jobs and effectively deter our impressionable youth from undertaking the dangerous flight abroad. Government should boost infrastructure renewal, electricity, health services and secure the country from banditry, robbery and terrorism. The Federal Government should tighten its immigration operations, making it difficult for traffickers to procure travel documents for victims so easily.

In collaboration with NGOs, our governments should institutionalise awareness campaign that warn of the dangers of migrating without proper documentation and lacking the skills to cope in a modern continent like Europe. Through intelligence, government should infiltrate and burst trafficking rings and prosecute offenders.

With our value system having broken down, the fad to get rich quickly has consumed the youth, but the reality is different. Parents, guardians, faith-based organisations and communities have a duty to guide their children and wards into taking the right path. They should teach the ideals of hard work, honesty and lawful conduct at all times to the young people under their care.

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