“When an acquaintance told me there might be work for me in Austria, I jumped at the opportunity. She told me how good Austria was so I figured I would just get there, find work and settle in. They told me the journey was easy so I decided to give it a go.”
These are the recollections of Sara, one of thousands of Nigerian women who have been fooled by traffickers and sent to Europe, West and Central Africa and the Middle East for domestic labour or sexual exploitation.
For the past three years, the majority of people arriving in Italy by sea were Nigerian. Fifty nine per cent of all victims of trafficking (VoT) assisted by IOM, the UN Migration Agency, in 2016 were Nigerians; the Organization estimates that a staggering 80 per cent of Nigerian women and girls arriving by sea that year were trafficked for sexual exploitation.
In addition to paying large sums of money to their traffickers, Nigerian VoTs often submitted to a voodoo rite which bound them by ‘contract’ to their traffickers. The so-called contract, among other things, prohibits victims from revealing the names of their traffickers and other details that may lead to the identification of exploiters — victims are too scared to break it because they are made to fear that “bad things” will happen to them and their families if they do.
As IOM Italy reported last year, this voodoo bond is an obstacle to the protection of VoTs. Some like Precious, a seventeen-year-old Nigerian girl who was assisted by IOM in Italy, often cannot sleep because they are afraid the voodoo rite will kill them. So powerful is the bond that Precious would often run away from the centre where she was sheltered by knotting sheets together to climb out the window.
Most of the female victims of trafficking (94 per cent) are from Edo State in southern Nigeria. From the records of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Edo state had the largest share of the victims of trafficking in 2017 with 19.6 percent out of the total number of victims. Out of 353 victims, 295 were women.
This is why the decision in early 2018 by Oba Ewuare II, the traditional ruler of the Kingdom of Benin in Edo State in southern Nigeria, to revoke the curses placed on victims of human trafficking and to curse human traffickers instead is a step forward in the protection of vulnerable migrants.
Fear of breaking the voodoo oath is an element of subordination which deeply affects the victims of trafficking. The hope is that the Oba’s decision will empower victims to come forward and seek assistance which the federal and state governments work to provide with the support of partners, including IOM.
The Iyase of Benin Chief Sam Igbe, who is the Oba’s Prime Minister, recently said in an interview with IOM in Benin City (Edo State): “Everything that considers itself juju (spiritually negative) is under the power of the Oba. It will not work if the Oba says it will not work. When it became a problem for everybody, the Oba decided to make it plain to everyone, the traffickers and the trafficked and their families, that the juju threats should stop and if they do not stop, anyone who engages in it will have himself to blame.”
It is also expected that by putting a curse on traffickers, fewer people will be willing to engage in the dangerous albeit lucrative business that is human trafficking.
The Oba’s intervention is also a good example of the role non-state actors can play in combating human trafficking, as well as safeguarding and protecting victims. IOM has noted that traditional leaders hold considerable moral authority in societies where traditional beliefs are prevalent.
Indeed, victims of trafficking are often more willing to speak with non-state actors such as NGOs, civil society actors and religious organizations who provide them with safe spaces to externalize their feelings.
The Edo State government has also been involved in fighting against trafficking. During a recent advocacy visit to Godwin Obaseki the Edo State Governor, he revealed the plans of his government to ensure the eradication of human trafficking and irregular migration affecting the region by 2020, mainly through its new Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants (TiP/SoM) Taskforce — established in 2017 in a bid to provide home-grown solutions to “the menace which has bedeviled the society”
Hopefully Oba Ewuare’s efforts, as well as those of state and non-state actors, will lead to a reduction in incidents of trafficking. However, potential migrants choosing to migrate irregularly still have to be informed about the possibility of being trafficked.
“The Oba is saying, rather than get trafficked, try and go [abroad] properly,” concluded Chief Igbe. “If they take you in, then go in. If you don’t have anything you have to do there, then don’t go. But if you want to go, apply properly to the authorities and you probably might be given a proper certificate to go.”
This story was written by staff members in IOM’s Regional Office for West and Central Africa in Dakar.