Thousands of women and girls fleeing from Boko Haram end up in camps where they are exploited by sex traffickers. Now, they are standing up against human trafficking.
By Philip Obaji Jr.
It was just a few minutes past midday in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Madinatu, near the Borno state capital city of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria, and Abdul, a member of the town’s main vigilante group, had arrived to speak to children about their challenges and experiences in the camp.
After having conversations with two male kids, Abdul stopped at the tent where two teenage girls, Glory and Blessing, were taking refuge and discovered that they had packed their belongings into bags made out of nylon canvas in preparation to leave the camp.
“Soon we will to be free from the hell in this camp,” Blessing, who turned 17 in February, said to Abdul at the start of the year, after he asked why they had packed their bags. “We are leaving this country for good.”
Both girls had met with an agent for a trafficking ring based in southern Nigeria that recruits girls for the cartel to traffic to Europe. The agent had assured them that they will be given jobs as hairdressers in Italy, and had arranged for them to travel to Benin City to meet with the leader of the gang who will be responsible for transporting Glory and Blessing to Europe through Niger and Libya.
“She is not real,” Abdul said to the two friends. “I’ve read about women like her. She and her colleagues are going to turn you into slaves in Italy.”
Abdul is well informed about the way traffickers operate in IDP camps in the northeast. Last December, he read an epic story I had written about sex trafficking in the region and understood that in most situations girls who are promised jobs in Italy usually end up on the streets of the country as sex workers.
In the article Abdul read, he learned that 17-year-old Sarah—whom he was very close to—was forced by a woman running a trafficking ring to undergo an oath-swearing ritual in Benin City that ensures that she does not disobey her trafficker when she gets to Italy. The teenage girl, who used to live in Madinatu, had been approached by an agent working for the trafficking cartel in the same way Glory and Blessing were spoken to in January.
Like Sarah, the two girls now hoping to get to Italy were kidnapped from their homes in northern Borno and raped by their abductors before they found ways of escaping from captivity on separate occasions. On their own, they made it to the camp in Madinatu where over a thousand displaced persons are taking refuge, and where girls are often exploited by security personnel who demand sex before they can distribute food and other relief materials to them.
“Travelling to Italy is the best thing that can ever happen to us,” Glory, who will be 18 years of age in June, said to Abdul. “Since we got to this camp we’ve moved from one hell to another.”
After Abdul had listened to the two friends talk about how excited they were to be offered jobs in Europe, not only did he remind them of the story of Sarah, he also narrated the ordeal of another teenage girl who went through a torturous journey to Europe by land and ended up as a prostitute in Italy. She was deceived by her benefactor into believing that there was a job as a hairdresser in Europe waiting for her.
The “little girl” was introduced to a trafficker by her neighbour not long after she and her family had fled Maiduguri to Benin City following an attack by Boko Haram that destroyed a shop they owned. Once she accepted the trafficker’s offer of a job in Italy, the woman took her to a shrine in Benin City to swear an oath. The priest made her undress and then cut off a small part of her areola on her left breast to extract blood for the ritual.
The teenage girl travelled for months with a bandage pasted close to her nipple, and with so much pain in the affected breast. She bled throughout the journey and had no means of getting medication to ease the pain. At some point in the Sahara, when it became extremely hot, she had to leave her left breast bare to feel comfortable not minding the male migrants in the vehicle who kept staring at her and making fun of her wounded breast.
After nearly 11 months working as a prostitute in Italy, the young girl returned to Nigeria empty-handed following her deportation by Italian authorities. She got married less than a year after her return, but was unable to feed her child using her left breast due the pain in it and the keloids that had developed as a result of the ritual.
“I don’t want you to end up like this girl and Sarah who were forced to swear oaths that hurt them,” Abdul said to Glory and Blessing. “If they make you undergo their ritual, you’ll both end up as slaves in Italy if you are even lucky to get there.”
After Abdul’s brief speech, the girls thanked him for the “important information” he had given them but couldn’t assure him that they would no longer continue with their travel plans. As he left them, he kept imagining how two more girls he knew would be exploited by traffickers taking advantage of the desperation and vulnerability of women in IDP camps.
Abdul and I have known each other since 2013 when I began to cover the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast. He is one of the many members of a vigilante group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force. I often rely on the group for information about Boko Haram whenever I’m pursuing a story about the sect. He too reaches me from time to time to report incidents around him.
A day after he had spoken to Glory and Blessing without getting any necessarily getting them to cancel their trip, Abdul reached out to me with details about his meeting with the girls. I quickly put together all the stories on trafficking I had written and sent to the vigilante with a request that he makes sure the girls read the articles or have the stories explained to them.
After going through the articles, Glory and Blessing decided to end their Italy dreams. They later informed the agent who had earlier arranged for them to travel to Benin City that they were no longer interested in making the journey because they believed they were about to be trafficked. The agent was caught unaware, and had no real explanation to give. She only promised to get back to the girls, but hasn’t done so since then.
“We regret not reporting the agent to the police,” Glory told me when I made another visit to Madinatu a month later. “It would have been the best lesson to teach her.”
The month Glory and Blessing were approached by the agent from Benin City was when I started the ‘Up Against Trafficking’ movement (the campaign was officially launched at the weekend) to draw the attention of women and children in northeastern Nigeria to the dangers of human trafficking, and to educate them on how they can detect and report the scourge to authorities.
The teenage girls had never heard of the movement until I informed them about it during my February visit to Madinatu. Now Glory and Blessing have joined tens of other girls in IDP camps around Maiduguri in educating others about the dangers of human trafficking.
“We don’t want you to end up as a slave outside Nigeria,” Glory said to a group of women in the IDP camp in Madinatu during an outreach. “When anyone talks to you about giving you a job in a far place, just go report to the police.”
Glory and Blessing are not just educating women and girls about human trafficking in organized events, they are making use of other opportunities they have to reach out to those around them on the dangers of listening to strangers who offer them paradise in distant places.
“Don’t let these people [who offer jobs in faraway places] take advantage of you,” Blessing said to some of her friends, as they fetched water from a borehole just by their camp. “No one has any right to turn us into a slave.”
The impact of the advocacy girls like Glory and Blessing are carrying out in the northeast is already being felt in IDP camps.
In Madinatu, where the girls live, none of the nearly 100 women and children I interviewed between February and March said that they had been approached so far in 2018 by people offering them jobs outside the area, unlike in the final quarter of last year where 25 percent of about the same number said some persons had made them offers to work outside their state.
“It shows that traffickers are scared of coming close to Madinatu because women and children in the camp are now aware of their tricks,” Yusuf Mohammed, coordinator of Borno Community Coalition, a civil society group in the state, told me. “The girls standing up against trafficking have brought change in Madinatu.”
Note: The girls mentioned in this article are victims of rape. For this reason their names have been changed.
Philip Obaji Jr. is a Nigerian journalist, children’s rights activist, and initiator of the Up Against Trafficking Campaign in Maiduguri. His work on human trafficking out of IDP camps in northeast Nigeria has appeared on numerous publications including The Daily Beast and Ventures Africa.