We have doubled prosecutions of human trafficking
New bill stipulates a minimum of five-years imprisonment for traffickers.
Julie Okah-Donli, Director General, National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), discusses the challenges of human trafficking in Nigeria and the federal government’s interventions, headlined by the achievements of NAPTIP. She was interviewed by Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria.
Jide Akintunde (JA): Human trafficking has become a sad reminder of slave trade, if not its reiteration. But specifically, what are the key issues for Nigeria regarding trafficking in persons?
Julie Okah-Donli (JOD): Human trafficking has become a big industry. It is reported to be the third-largest crime industry in the world, behind drugs and arms trafficking. But I want to believe that it’s the largest crime industry. You cannot really put an accurate figure to the number of people who are trafficked on a daily basis, especially because of the clandestine nature of the organised crime. But there is a substantial amount of money in the industry and the risks are low relative to drugs and arms trafficking.
Human trafficking is a crime that often takes place in the shadows. What I mean is that the victims are put in brothels and in people’s homes. Your next-door neighbour might be harbouring someone who has been trafficked.
In Nigeria, some girls are taken from their homes and brothels in rural communities, and forced into prostitution in urban areas. It will even interest you to know there are victims of sex trafficking in almost all the states in Nigeria.
We also have the serious issue of child labour, where under-aged children are used as housemaids. Also, a lot of the children you see hawking and begging on the streets are victims of human trafficking. Even adults that are employed as domestic servants are sometimes subjected to very poor working conditions akin to slavery.
Then, there are those who are forced into prostitution abroad. A lot of people have this misconception that Nigerians who are forced into prostitution overseas know beforehand what they are travelling to do abroad. This is not true. Most of the victims are deceived. They are told they will be given befitting and well-paying jobs. But when they arrive the countries of destination, their passports are seized and they are forced to go into prostitution.
While young boys are sent into forced labour, we also know for a fact that some of the trafficked individuals are victims of forced organ harvesting. These are the issues generally relating to human trafficking.
JA: Human trafficking is heinous, and this is so regardless of the number of people affected by this act of forced migration. But what is the scale and dimension of the problem that warranted government’s intervention, which includes the founding of NAPTIP?
JOD: Some years ago, it came to the attention of the Federal Government that 80% of the girls that were forced into prostitution in Italy came from Edo State in Nigeria. The founding of NAPTIP in 2003 was partly a response to this disturbing finding as the government was determined to end the trafficking of Nigerian girls
JA: So, what is the breadth of the intervention by NAPTIP?
JOD: NAPTIP is the Federal Government agency that is mandated to tackle all forms of human trafficking in Nigeria. The agency has the powers to seize and confiscate property that is used in human trafficking. We also rescue, rehabilitate and give medical and psycho-social support to victims.
Right now, we have three former victims who are working with NAPTIP full-time. There is a fourth person who will start working with NAPTIP in the next two weeks. This is part of the empowerment the agency is giving to them, following their rehabilitation.
JA: What achievements have been made by the agency, especially under your leadership?
JOD: NAPTIP, in the last two years, has doubled the number of human traffickers who have been prosecuted. This has led to several arrests and convictions. Under my leadership, the agency has dismissed six officers who were found aiding and abetting traffickers. We needed to make it clear that our officers are not accomplices in human trafficking and we are going to deal decisively with any bad apples found among us.
We’ve set up a Rapid Response Squad, whose response time is maximum of one hour. The aim is for us to respond quickly to cases we are called to investigate and promptly rescue any victims.
We also hosted, in conjunction with Interpol, the international conference on trafficking in Nigeria. The 6th INTERPOL Global Conference on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling brought together people from over 45 countries, the first of its kind in Nigeria. Also, we have set up task forces in three states. We hope to replicate these task forces in all the 36 states of the federation. The idea for setting up the human trafficking task force is to achieve easier coordination between the local, state, and the federal governments. Edo State set up its Task Force earlier making a total of four States.
We are also engaging with other government agencies and the organised private sector. We’ve carried out massive sensitisation exercises in collaboration with faith-based organisations, traditional rulers, schools, you name it. We’ve successfully completed the curriculums on human trafficking for primary and secondary schools.
We’ve carried out a successful joint-operation with the National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom at the London Heathrow and Gatwick airports. We’ve also carried out similar joint-operations with the Spanish police, German police, and various law enforcement agencies abroad.
NAPTIP is a model that is being emulated by West African countries, in Europe and the rest of the World. The agency has moved Nigeria out of Tier 2 watch list on the United States’ ranking of countries in terms of their compliance with minimum standards in the fight against trafficking in persons. Nigeria has been upgraded to Tier 2. I’m sure that by next year, we’ll be on Tier 1 of the ranking.
JA: Public awareness of human trafficking and its perils are still quite low, perhaps the more so among the targeted vulnerable population. What are the challenges NAPTIP faces in executing its mandates?
JOD: In the last two years, we have carried out massive public awareness. That is why we’ve had a lot of reported cases of suspected human trafficking and the number of prosecutions has doubled. We’ve taken public awareness to churches, schools, various organizations, border communities, transport owners; we’ve gone to the airports, in fact, we’ve taken public awareness everywhere. We’ve identified and targeted endemic areas in terms of human trafficking. However, awareness has to be an ongoing process until we eradicate human trafficking completely. We will continue our awareness campaigns on television, on radio, and everywhere you can think of.
In terms of our challenges, sometimes, people do not want to report suspected cases of trafficking. But, thanks to our awareness campaigns, Nigerians are beginning to shun the culture of silence and they are beginning to speak out. We believe we are going to win the war.
JA: What is the full weight of the law in Nigeria and the key destination countries of human trafficking for the merchants of this obnoxious trade?
JOD: The punishment for trafficking nowadays is much more effective than it was some years ago. But it has to be more stringent. The new bill, which was proposed in 2015, stipulates a minimum of five-year imprisonment for traffickers with no more option of a fine.
We shall be working assiduously now with the National Assembly to ensure that the Law is reviewed and very harsh punishment is served to serve as deterrence.
JA: We may as well explore the vulnerability of the targets of human trafficking. Why is Nigeria a fertile ground for the origination of human trafficking, and what is the government doing to make Nigerians less vulnerable to trafficking?
JOD: Human trafficking takes place in all countries. There’s human trafficking in every single country of the world. In Nigeria, you can attribute one of the factors of trafficking to a cultural element, which sometimes fosters the crime. It is commonplace for Nigerians to send their children to live with relations for various reasons. These relations sometimes end up exploiting the children in their care.
Many Nigerian families, especially the poor who mostly live in rural areas, have yet to imbibe family planning. They have as many as seven, eight, nine or more children with no plans whatsoever for the children’s education and other needs. These children become vulnerable because they are left to fend for themselves or look for other people to provide for them. Another challenge is that a lot of our youths have this misconception that there are greener pastures anywhere outside Nigeria. Anyone with such a mindset is likely to become a victim of human traffickers.
There are different factors that make human trafficking to thrive, not just in the countries of origin but also in the destination countries. In countries where the demand for cheap labour, sex workers and human organs is high, traffickers will thrive by exploiting vulnerable people. Therefore, governments in Nigeria and in the destination countries need to tackle the factors that enable the environment for human trafficking merchants to thrive.
JA: What is your outlook for forced migration in Nigeria? How significantly would it reduce over the next decade?
JOD: Human trafficking is indeed a form of forced migration because the movement of the victims is by both coercion and deception. People who are trafficked across international borders become forced immigrants in other countries.
People can be forced to migrate during wars and other conflicts like we have in the North-Eastern part of the country where the Boko Haram insurgency has displaced many people from their homes. As we speak, there are a number of makeshift camps in some parts of the country where internally displaced persons (IDPs) are still residing. The government is doing all it can, with the support of the international community, to resettle these people in their homes as the fight against terrorism is proceeding successfully. Apart from conflicts, natural or environmental disasters have also forced some people to migrate across the country and across international borders.
Let me say here that people can migrate to other parts of the country or even go overseas in search of economic and other opportunities. However, this should not be done in an irregular manner. There are legal channels by which they can achieve regular migration.
But people who are victims of forced migration should be accorded due protection. We should accommodate our brothers and sisters from other tribes and communities. Foreign governments also need to provide protection to Nigerians who face xenophobic attacks in countries like South Africa. It is understandable that some of these countries are concerned about an immigration crisis on their shores, but there are international laws that protect refugees and asylum seekers.
As for Nigeria, like I said earlier, the government is doing all it can to tackle the factors that lead to irregular migration through its social investment programmes and youth empowerment schemes.