The new ways of Nigeria's human traffickers

Thousands of young people move from the Nigerian state of Benue in the east to the country's southwest every year. They are promised a good education and well-paid jobs. But they end up in modern slavery.

Judith Akuha, 18, sits on a small wooden bench in rural eastern Nigeria with a blank stare. She now and then shoos away a few chickens which have come to pick melon seeds from a small bowl. She then returns to the bench and continues staring into the distance. She doesn't show any emotions. 

This apathy is typical for those who came back from Nigeria's southwest. Judith is haunted by her memories from the past three years. Her ordeal started when her now-deceased uncle promised to help her.

"He said he wanted to send me to school in Yorubaland. He even paid for the trip," she recalls. 

But that couldn't have been farther from the truth. Her uncle had teamed up with human traffickers. She doesn't know why he decided to arrange for Judith to be sent there or if he was given a reward.

Instead of going to school, she had to go work on the fields.

Read more: Nigeria: Fighting hunger and Boko Haram

Judith was forced to work on a field all day long - she was promised a good education

"I had to get up at 6 in the morning and was brought to one of the fields. In the evenings, I was brought back," she says with a monotone voice.

She talks about the hunger and the shortage of everything. She was only given some money to buy a few cookies.

She said the only thing more degrading than the lack of food was her torn and dirty rags. "I didn't have a second set of clothes."

Human trafficking and slavery

When people here in Benue refer to "Yorubaland," they refer to the southwest. For decades, people have been flocking to the region for work. In the 1980s, farmers came to Benue and negotiated wages that were actually paid after the work was done.

Farmers from the opposite end of the country came to look for workers here due to the similarities in agriculture.

What was once merely an offer people could decide on has now turned into something else entirely, says Valentine Kwaghchimin, who works for Caritas in the provincial capital Makurdi.

He's collected data in the past year and says the voluntary approach is no longer. "The process of moving them to those locations is purely a trafficking arrangement," he says, adding that conditions there translated to modern slavery.

Forced into prostitution

Workers were denied basic rights, according to Kwaghchimin's research. They are trapped on farms and are only allowed to leave when being supervised. They are not allowed to keep their cell phones. They sleep on the floor in crowded rooms. Often, they don't have access to toilets.

That's what Judith describes, too. Other women recount rape and forced prostitution. Those who don't do as they are told are denied the little food rations they were given before.

Kwaghchimin estimates about 11,000 people from Benue are living under these conditions in the southwest.

The real figures are probably much higher.

Sylvester Udam Ugbede has observed a similar trend in Naka, a small town of around 30,000.

The pensioner has seen many people leave for the southwest.

"The figures depend a bit on how many workers are needed at the moment. Especially young men are at risk; those who have no one to pay for their schooling," he says.

While girls are lured with the promise of a good education, boys are promised good wages - about 30,000 to 40,000 Naira (70 to 93 euros; $81 to 108). The minimum wage in Nigeria is 18,000 Naira.

No chance for justice?

But most of them will never see that kind of money.

"Initially they say the harvest was bad," Ugbede says. "Then the harvest needs to be sold. They are always put off."

Still, most of them don't go to the police. "Now and then someone manages to demand full payment. But more often than not this doesn't happen. Because you have to pay the police to take on the case."

Police demand money before they start taking your case, says Ugbede

The National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) has become aware of the system that's organized just like international human trafficking and forced prostitution. Daniel Atokolo who heads NAPTIP's regional office in Makurdi says they are trying to raise awareness for people to stay home and form cooperatives to work the fields.

"If you want to farm, please bear in mind the food basket of the country is in Benue," he says. 

Traumatized and alone

Judith who now lives with friends in Naka says she has never heard of NAPTIP. She also doesn't know of another organization that is offering therapies for victims of human trafficking. She received help from a woman whose name she doesn't know.

"She approached me and said 'Judith, if I give you money for transportation, will you go home?' I said yes!"

She wouldn't have had the money to flee, had it not been for that woman.

Many return like Judith after years, feeling traumatized and with nothing to show for. All they have is shame - shame that they didn't make it - and their reclaimed freedom.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

Fleeing poverty

Our investigation began in Benin City, capital of Edo State. Almost everyone we spoke to has at least a friend or a family member in Europe. More than three-quarters of illegal prostitutes in Italy are from this region. Due to high unemployment among the youths in Edo state, many young women see fewer prospects here. They seek for a better life in Europe instead, not fully aware of the dangers.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

False promises

Catholic Sister, Bibiana Emenaha, has tried for years to warn young Nigerian women before they ended up in Europe. "Many are lured with false promises," she told us. The traffickers promise jobs such as babysitting or hair dressing, but that quickly turn out to be a lie. Once the young women are in Europe, they end up on the streets.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

"The people are greedy"

After long negotiations, a trafficker agreed to an interview with us. He called himself Steve and claimed he has already transported more than 100 Nigerians all the way to Libya. He wouldn’t speak about the people behind his business. He said he was simply a service provider. "The people here in Edo State are greedy. They are willing to do anything for a better life," Steve said.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

Dangerous Sahara journey

For 600 euros ($666) per person, Steve organizes the journey from Nigeria to Libya. "Most people know how dangerous the journey is through the Sahara," the human smuggler told us. Many people die very often along the way. "That is the risk," Steve said, who brings the migrants personally to Agadez in Niger. A colleague then takes over from there.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

Agadez: A hub for human traffickers

The desert town of Agadez was the most dangerous part of our research trip. The town thrives on human and drug trafficking and foreigners are often kidnapped for ransom. We could only move around with armed guards and had to wear traditional head cover to be less visible.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

Solving the migration crisis

Like many others in the desert town, Omar Ibrahim Omar, the Sultan of Agadez, sees human trafficking as a problem that cannot be solved in Agadez. He is asking for more money from the international community. His argument: If Europe does not want more migrants to keep coming through the Mediterranean Sea, Europe should give more support to Niger.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

The "Monday Caravan" to Libya

For months now, several trucks with migrants from Agadez set out every Monday shortly before sunset towards the north. The crisis in Libya has contributed to human traffickers being able to reach the Mediterranean Sea without the usual controls. And we soon learned that the authorities here in Niger have little interests in their activities.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

"The girls are getting younger"

Many of the migrants from Nigeria land on the streets in Italy. Social worker Lisa Bertini works with foreign prostitutes. "They are coming more and more," she told us. According to official figures, about 1,000 Nigerians went to Italy across the Mediterranean in 2014. In 2015, the figure climbed to 4,000. "And the girls are getting younger," the social worker said.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

Looking for a "Madam"

With help from a Nigerian colleague, we discovered an alleged "Madam" in northern Italy. A Nigerian host in Italy is referred to as "Madam," she is at the top of a smaller trafficking network. The madam we found lived in a suburb of Florence and one victim made serious accusations against the her: "She has been beating us and forced us into prostitution," the victim said.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

'Madam' and her girls

As we confronted the supposed "Madam" about the accusations, she admited accommodating six young Nigerian women in her house, but denied forcing them into prostitution: "It's just something young Nigerians here do." After our interview, we handed our research to the Italian public prosecutor's office.

Tracking Nigeria's human traffickers

Cheap sexual satisfaction

Sister Monika Uchikwe has long been criticizing the inactiveness of the Italian authorities. For eight years, she has cared for victims of human trafficking. She explained in rage as we asked about the customers. The men always want cheap satisfaction – sex with a Nigerian woman on the streets costs only 10 euro. "Without this possibility, this problem would not exist," she said.