When Sarah (not real name) was five, her father died after a prolonged battle with HIV and AIDS. At 15, her mother was killed during an attack on their compound in north-eastern Nigeria by Boko Haram militants. The same group returned to the compound a year later, seized Sarah and eight of her friends, and took them to Sambisa Forest, the sect’s main hideout, where they took turns raping the abducted girls. The girls escaped after 21 days in captivity and ended up in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Madinatu, near the north-eastern Nigeria city of Maiduguri.
In Madinatu, Sarah, like so many girls in the town’s main IDP camp, became a target of a sex trafficking ring that often approaches young girls on their way to fetch water, firewood or food, promising them a better life abroad. A middle-aged woman working for a trafficking cartel told Sarah that she will be taken across the Sahara Desert, and across the Mediterranean Sea, to Italy where she would be given a job as a hairdresser.
“She first asked about my parents and I told her I had lost them,” Sarah tells Equal Times. “Then she said she wanted to help me because I was an orphan.” The teenager eventually got trafficked out of the camp but was abandoned in Niger, following a Nigerien government crackdown on smuggling gangs in the central city of Agadez.
“When the police arrived at the connection house where people waiting to go to Libya stayed, everybody ran away,” Sarah says. “It was the last time I saw the woman who took me to Niger.”
Sarah found her way back to the IDP camp in Madinatu where approximately 1000 displaced persons are taking refuge, including over 100 orphaned children whom human traffickers prefer to target.
“This first thing one man who said he wanted to give me a job in Niger asked me was: ‘Do you have parents?’” Falmata, age 17, tells Equal Times. “When I said yes, he walked away from me.”
A huge and difficult task
Nigeria is facing the huge and difficult task of combating human trafficking. Every year thousands of Nigerian women and children are trafficked out of the country, mainly to Europe and the Middle East. Most of these women and girls end up as sex workers or domestic workers in conditions of modern slavery which often include extreme violence and forced labour.
For many years, Nigeria’s southern state of Edo has been the hub of most trafficking cases, but in recent years, the Boko Haram insurgency has seen trafficking in persons become more prevalent in the country’s north-east.
The 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report published by the United States Department of State noted that more than three dozen women and children were exploited “in sex trafficking among seven IDP camps in Maiduguri” and that government officials managing the camps are alleged to be complicit in these activities.
Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), which is responsible for fighting human trafficking in Nigeria, says its officials have been “working seriously” in IDP camps to protect women and children from exploitation that amounts to human trafficking, and that it recently arrested and charged two persons with sexual exploitation.
“We are currently collaborating with camp managers, camp officials and actors to combat trafficking in IDP camps,” Mitika Mafa Ali, commander of NAPTIP’s Maiduguri office, tellsEqual Times. “We have given them our toll-free numbers and have told them that if there are any cases of human trafficking, they should call us.”
“If my parents were alive, this would never have happened to me”
The vast majority of victims of trafficking out of IDP camps are orphans who unaccompanied by close family members. Of the dozen or so cases of human trafficking out of open camps around Maiduguri in the last 18 months, about 80 per cent involve children without families, according to activists campaigning against trafficking in the region.
“The trafficking of displaced women and children is a problem, not just in and around Maiduguri, but across Borno State,” says Yusuf Chiroma, a member of the Borno Community Coalition, a group of aid workers assisting survivors of the Boko Haram insurgency through skills acquisition programmes. “These traffickers take advantage of the fact that orphans are desperate to make money, and they have no one to open up to.”
About 50,000 orphaned children, the majority of whom are girls, live in IDP camps in and around Maiduguri, according to the Borno State government. Child rights campaigners have warned that unless children are moved away from these camps and raised in families, they may continue to be victims of exploitation.
“Decades of research has shown that children in institutions, which includes IDP camps, suffer not just physically, but also emotionally and intellectually,” Dollin Holt, director of Caprecon Foundation which supports vulnerable children in north-east Nigeria, tells Equal Times.
“These kids need to be moved away from these camps to families or to a community-based system of care.”
This January 16-year-old Fatima returned to Maiduguri after spending in a year in Niger. Her trafficker had told her that she would be trained to become a tailor, but she ended up working without pay as a cleaner on a Nigerien poultry farm. Fatima says that she was often sexually harassed by men, including those she worked for. Now, she regrets ever making the trip abroad.
“I didn’t want to travel, but my friends pressured me to go and become a tailor,” says Fatima, who lost her parents during an attack by Boko Haram in Bama. “If my parents were alive, they would never have allowed me leave with a man I knew nothing about.”
Fatima is now one of the growing number of campaigners calling on the Nigerian government and civil society organisations to take action in moving orphaned children away from IDP camps and allow them to be raised in families.
“I once had parents and I know that no-one protects children better than they do,” she says. “Having a family is the best way children can be protected from traffickers.”