When 20-year-old Isoke Aikpitanyi was offered a job in Italy in 2000 she leapt at the chance. She knew that she would have to enter the country illegally, but being a nanny or a maid in Europe seemed better than remaining unemployed in Nigeria.
It was only after her arrival, she told Al-Jazeerah television in 2008, that she was told that “foreigners without permits can only do one job in Italy — work the streets” as a prostitute.
The men who smuggled her into the country demanded payment of $20,000. “The week before, they killed a girl who slept in my bedroom because she refused to pay” she said. “I was a sex slave. They deceived me to come to Italy for a job that didn’t exist.”
This illegal trade in people through trickery and violence is now a global, multi-billion dollar business known as “human trafficking” and Ms. Aikpitanyi story is all too typical.
Indeed, the only thing unusual about her ordeal is its happy ending. After months of brutality she finally broke free of her captors and started an aid organization for African trafficking victims, the Association of Benin City Girls.
So far, she noted, more than 300 women have sought help.
But according to the UN human rights commissioner’s special rapporteur on human trafficking, Joy Ezeilo, the vast majority of Africans lured into trafficking never leave the continent.
“In Africa we have trafficking of people into domestic work, farm labour and construction, in addition to sexual exploitation. We have focused a lot on trafficking for sexual exploitation outside Africa, but these other forms are there within Africa’s borders and they are there on a very large scale,” she told Africa Renewal.
A recent report by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime bears her out. The study, found that trafficking within Africa is widespread -- fueled by local economic conditions, seasonal demands for labour, military conflicts and environmental degradation that disrupt livelihoods, and cultural practices and gender and ethnic discrimination that limit economic opportunities for women, children and minorities, and make abuses of their rights more acceptable to society.
In Mali, the government reported that 119 children (81 boys and 38 girls) were known to have been trafficking victims in 2006. Nearly two-thirds were sent to locations inside the country.
Most of those taken outside Mali were discovered in surrounding countries. In 2005, notes a report of the special rapporteur, Malawian authorities arrested a trafficker trying to smuggle 15 children, including a 10-year-old, into Zambia for use as farm labourers.
In southwest Nigeria, as many as a thousand children from neighbouring Benin were used as forced labour in the region’s gravel quarries, despite efforts by the two governments to halt the practice.
According to the non-governmental Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Children, the victims, some as young as six, were forced to dig and transport stones eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, without pay and without adequate food or accommodation, for as long as six years.
Exploiting poverty, tradition
The scope and diversity of the human trafficking problem in Africa, combined with the region’s open borders and weak law enforcement institutions, make it particularly difficult to stop, notes Ms. Ezeilo. Globally, she says, it is usually possible to classify states according to their use by traffickers as source, destination or transit countries.
“Our problem in Africa is that most countries are all three, including my country, Nigeria,” Ms. Ezeilo explains. “It can be very hard for governments to know what to tackle and where to focus their attention.”
Traffickers also try to exploit certain customs and traditions, including the common practice of placing poor girls in the homes of wealthier families to work as domestics in exchange for accommodation and education.
Many never see the inside of a school. “Most families don’t know” how their children are treated, notes Ms. Ezeilo. Trafficking victims are often approached with bogus job offers by people in their communities who win the trust of victims and their parents.
Victimizing the vulnerable
For all the complexity and variation of Africa’s human trafficking problems, observes Ms. Ezeilo, there are some common threads. “Look at Africa.
You have poverty, wars and political crises, bad governance, discrimination against women, inequality, a lack of education and illiteracy.
These make people vulnerable and the traffickers exploit them…Among women, gender inequalities are a major ‘push’ factor. Others are running away from forced marriages and abusive husbands.”
But the traffickers are not having things entirely their own way. Burkina Faso, for example, adopted a law in 2003 criminalizing the trafficking of anyone under 18 and created a separate police unit to enforce it.
Ethiopia adopted anti-trafficking legislation and a national action plan in 2004. The government investigated 37 cases of trafficking in 2007 and won 18 convictions — eight of which resulted in prison sentences of 10 years or more.
Ms. Ezeilo singles out Ghana and Nigeria for their efforts to fight trafficking. Both countries have passed tough anti-trafficking laws and established specialized police units, she says, and aggressively investigate and prosecute cases.
In Nigeria, the National Agency for the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons coordinates anti-trafficking units in both the national police and the immigration department. Convictions increased from eight in 2007 to 24 in 2008.
The government also provides medical and psychological services and temporary visas, work permits and financial aid to victims. The African Union has also joined the fight, launching a pan-African campaign against trafficking on 16 June, the day of the African child.
“It shows what political will can do,” Ms. Ezeilo concluded. “Governments that are determined to crack down on trafficking can be successful.”
Michael Fleshman is a writer for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.