By Tobore Ovuorie
In this report, TOBORE OVUORIE shares some interactions with trafficked children in Lagos while experts reveal how they can be recognised in the society and warn they risk contracting COVID-19 amongst other deadly diseases.
TRAFFICKED BUT CONTENTED?
I took interest in them from September 2019. Before then, I simply noticed them from afar or whenever I was passing by. From dawn- to -dusk, they remained in the same place by the highway with two men who were visually impaired, begging for alms. There were days they arrived and settled in at the usual spot in the afternoon. Sometimes, it would be in the evening.
Amina and Rakiya (not their real names) would later tell my friend and I they are not blood relations. Neither do they have blood ties with the two men they lead around. I had requested my friend who understands Hausa language to accompany me so she could tell me what the girls were saying.
I never told her what I was up to while asking “just street beggars”- as she described them, questions. My previous interactions with them had been unsuccessful. No thanks to our language barrier.
“My mummy’s friend said I should take Baba around,” Rakiya tells us looking away, stealing shy glances at us once in a while. The two girls were a few meters away from the two men who had all their attention on the passers-by whom they were begging for alms. It appears the girls were on something like a break that sunny afternoon in February 2020 when I approached them again. They had recognised me so followed us few meters away from the men.
Rakiya remembers she is from Kano state and arrived Lagos at the beginning of 2019. She cannot tell the exact month. She doesn’t know the months of the year for she has never been to school all her life and doesn’t even know her age. But she remembers it was not long after the celebration when Christians throw fireworks. Christmas, I guessed.
Her mother’s friend had come for her, two of her siblings and other kids in Kano promising to take good care of her. Her father has four wives and many children, so taking them away was a relief for her parents. She hasn’t seen her brothers since they all arrived Lagos. They were taken elsewhere. She doesn’t know where she is.
I tell her she is at Iyana-Ipaja, in Lagos. She appears contented with her new life. She gets to eat in the morning and late in the night. She sleeps on the bare floor with several other kids at night in a place Hajia- her mother’s friend- provides for them.
“It is better than back in Kano. Baba gives me food in the morning after people give us money. And, at night after he counts how much he was given. Alham dullilahi,” she continues, taking her eyes away when she tries stealing another look at us but notice I have my gaze on her.
Amina, like Rakiya, does not know her age. She has never been to school all her life. I guess she cannot be more than 10 years old. She is from Kaduna and was brought to Lagos by the same Hajia that brought Rakiya to Lagos.
She says Hajia is taking the burden of care off her poor parents who are farmers in Lere, a suburb in Kaduna state. She is happy she is in Lagos, has food to eat (after collecting alms) and a place to lay her head in the night.
She sleeps on the same bare floor like Rakiya alongside other numerous kids. They do not know the address of the place. “You are too beautiful to come visit us where we sleep,” Rakiya tells me. “The place is nothing when compared to you,” Amina chips in. The two girls begin to giggle. They look so contented with their lives.
“You can always come here,” Rakiya tells me. I had told them I would love to be their friend and visit them at home.
They miss their families. But prefer being in Lagos. They are never given a dime from the money they beg for every day. Rakiya and Amina, as well as their families, are unaware that they have been trafficked. Though they are still within the country.
National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking In Persons (NAPTIP) says in Nigeria, the two most reported human trafficking cases are foreign travels, which promote prostitution and employment of children as domestic workers and inflicting grievous harm on them.
Most of these victims are women but children and men these days, now comprises larger shares than they did 10 years ago. In an earlier report in 2014, NAPTIP says children comprised 28 percent of detected victims, and men, 21 percent.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a 2006 report, indicates child trafficking as the third most common crime in Nigeria after drug trafficking and economic fraud.
Child labour is a cancer in Nigeria with children engaged in domestic labour, forced begging, quarrying gravel and armed conflict. Nigeria remains a source, transit and destination country when it comes to human trafficking.
The UNESCO highlighted Nigeria’s gross poverty, corruption, conflict, climate change/resulting migration and Western consumerism as factors which increase vulnerability to being trafficked in the country.
JOURNEY FUELED BY POVERTY
No fewer than 98 percent of Nigerian child trafficking cases occur within the country. Seun Akojenu, now 19 and a citizen of Benin Republic, is a part of this statistics. In 2010, her aunty approached her mother offering to assist her by taking two out of the latter’s eight children to Nigeria so they could have better lives.
The widow, who had been struggling to cater for her four males and four female children, agreed. She trusted her younger sister that she means well for her. Seun, who was then nine, her elder sister and aunty embarked on the journey to Nigeria.
“I was happy I will continue my education in Nigeria because I stopped schooling after completing primary one. My mother could not afford to keep me in school,” she tells me one late afternoon in February 2020.
But on arriving Nigeria, Seun was not taken to the home of her aunt in Lagos. Rather, they headed to Sango-Otta, Ogun state to a complete stranger’s house where she, for the first time, was told she would be a servant cleaning the house and taking care of the woman’s children.
“I was not sent to school and was not made to step outside of the house to walk. I was strictly in the house doing domestic chores and taking care of their baby,” she narrated in an emotion laden voice.
Days rolled into weeks, months into three years with Seun inside the house working her then tiny frame from dawn to dusk. There was a payment for her services. A dime never went to her. Her aunty claimed she was sending the money home to her mother.
Later, Seun would discover that to be a great lie. The aunty kept the N360, 000 that was paid for the three years Seun worked as a servant in Sango-Otta.
“I don’t know how much was being paid because I was not told. My aunty was the one collecting the money. She claimed she was sending the money to my mother but it’s later on I learned she never did.”
Though quite young for the kind of work she did in that household, she also had no freedom. She was often in trouble with her madam over perfection of house chores. The woman verbally and physically tormented her.
“I was not free. There was no freedom. I couldn’t breathe the way I would have done if it were my mom’s place. And, whatever I am not told to touch, I dare not touch it. And, whatever domestic chores I don’t do, I will be in trouble. I was not okay like how I would be at my mom’s place. I subsequently heard that the woman I worked with at Sango-Otta was paying my auntyN10, 000 every month.”
Seun got fed up with the place and the life she was living. Subsequently, she told her aunt she wanted to leave the place.
“My aunt was angry when I had to leave there. She didn’t take me home. She simply dropped me by the roadside and told me to find my way home. My father’s friend whom I met on the road assisted me to get back home. Since then, I have not seen my aunty.”
PARENTS, ADULTS, IGNORANT ABOUT CHILD TRAFFICKED
“Human trafficking is when someone is taken from Nigeria to another country to be a prostitute. Or, to do other illegal jobs that are not good for humanity.”
This is Mr. Kingsley Chidiebere, a commercial motorcycle rider in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos. He is one of about 50 Nigerians I have so far interviewed who think human trafficking is when someone is taken from Nigeria to another country for prostitution. Although he is a father, he has no knowledge about child trafficking, so doesn’t know how to recognise trafficked children or those about to be trafficked in order to help them.
He is not alone. Mr. Charles Eruka, a renowned Nigerian broadcast journalist and father, is very honest about not knowing exactly what to watch out for to recognize a child who has been trafficked. “I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know what they (trafficked children) look like,” he tells me in a telephone interview.
For other Nigerians like Ms. Onyinye Kawa, a brand consultant and content creator, the phrase: Child trafficking is merely a guess work. “It is about taking children, taking human beings, especially women and children that do not have too much advantage; taking them illegally to places to do things they are not supposed to do,” she stutters on.
HOW TO RECOGNISE TRAFFICKED CHILDREN
Mr. Daniel Atokolo, Lagos Zonal Commander, NAPTIP, describes how to recognize children who have been trafficked.
“They look withdrawn; are not connected with their environment; look fearful and don’t communicate well. Even if you want to talk to him/her, he will be looking over the shoulder to see if someone is watching for they are always under surveillance; they are not allowed to speak with strangers. They do not have their freedom; not vibrant as a child of their age should be and are often in a group with an adult in control.”
Medical experts say children often have emotional connections with their mothers but in the case of those who have been trafficked, Atokolo says the opposite is the case. Theirs is a life full of fear, he further narrates. There are basic denials such as body marks indicative of constant beating.
“That way, the child will not be able to coherently tell you his/her story. Such kids don’t even remember their ages and have no biological links to the homes they live in. He/she was simply taken from the village; are often not allowed to go to school; but if they do, they often arrive late due to much workload at home, and do look shabby,” Atokolo adds.
Experiences on the field reveal that when such children are engaged in discussions by other people, the adults monitoring them turn up demanding why the child is being spoken to. Such adults demand he is to be asked whatever questions, not the child. He even replies on behalf of the child.
Emeka (not real name) fits Atokolo’s description. I met Emeka during school hours in March, 2020 hawking rat killer on the highway at Iyana Ipaja. He looked withdrawn, not connected with the environment, fearful and confused. I walked up to him. Again, with a friend, and started a conversation by asking for the price of the items he was selling.
He didn’t understand a word of what I was saying. A bigger boy in his late teens, who was hawking plantain chips turned up to answer all the questions I was asking. My friend too had started asking questions for she was surprised someone in Lagos who is hawking items does not know the prices and could not communicate at all.
At a stage, I asked the bigger boy why he was speaking on behalf of Emeka. “He just arrived Lagos. And, today is his first time selling,” he explained in pidgin English.
I was not satisfied. I asked for Emeka’s age. The bigger boy speaks Igbo language to Emeka, who in turn said “10 years.” My friend and I retorted that he looked older than 10. Unknown to them, I was secretly recording the conversation. All Igbo translators who watched the video told me the bigger boy was the one who told Emeka in Igbo that he should claim he is 10 years old!
The bigger boy claimed Emeka had completed primary school. When I take him up on why Emeka couldn’t communicate, even in pidgin English, he alleged Emeka understands English but could not speak.
The bigger boy negotiated and decided the prices of the items Emeka was carrying. The latter only looked on confused and smiling sheepishly intermittently.
Atokolo says children like Rakiya, Amina, Seun and Emeka, while traveling do not know where they are being taken to and what they will be doing where they are headed. Such kids are moved around too often while the money paid (in the case of child labour) is routed through another person supposedly to the child’s parents.
He however emphasises: “Parents are complicit. There are many families that base their livelihood on their little children being taken around and at month’s end they (the parents) are given miserable money.”
RECYCLING OF TRAFFICKED CHILDREN
Seun’s story did not end with her being reconciled with her family in Benin Republic. Her mother moved to Egbeda, another suburb in Lagos, while Seun also joined her. Like the NAPTIP Lagos Zonal commander emphasised, Seun’s mother became complicit in the subsequent trafficking of her 12 year old (at the time) daughter.
She negotiated with recruiters who took Seun from home to home across different states of Nigeria, engaged in domestic servitude. She has been a servant in five different homes since her servitude journey began in Nigeria. All money- paid for her services, went to her mother who had started a cooked food business in front of the compound where she lives.
Seun was never sent to school by any of the women she was a servant to. Luck however shone on her in 2017 while in Port Harcourt, Rivers state. The Madam she was serving enrolled her at a hairdressing salon where she learned hair styling. Her mother asked her to return to Lagos on hearing she had been empowered with hair making skills.
Seun hawks Ofada rice on the street of Lagos for another Madam who runs a food- hawking business. She is not satisfied with the life she is living as she hawks every Monday to Saturday and carries out domestic chores in her Madam’s home every Sundays.
Though 19, Seun knows what and how she wants to live her life. Her utmost desire is to establish a hairdressing saloon business of her own. But she fears this may not happen as she continues to face the hazard of hawking ofada rice on the streets of Lagos. She is exposed to all forms of harms.
EXPOSURE TO DANGER, DISEASES SUCH AS CORONA VIRUS
Mr. Tayo Jet Elegbede, Media Lead for The Migrant Project, says trafficked children are exposed to even much more danger than trafficked adults because as children they are more vulnerable and prone to all sorts in the society.
He says such children lose the sense of living as a child and their psychological peace. They also lose their hope for the future and a whole lot is taken off the child. He noted that trafficked children get exploited too often.
“Children do face a whole lot of risk if they are trafficked. Trafficking itself is bad how much more having a child being trafficked. Trafficked children are exposed to a lot of dangers such as being used for forced labour.
“They are pushed into being sexual objects or sexual slaves. And this we find really appalling to think that anyone in his or her right senses would have a child as a sexual partner. It is just really disturbing and really mind-blowing.”
Elegbede however warns that children who are trafficked risk contracting various diseases, even the coronavirus Nigeria and the rest of the world are battling with.
“Trafficked children are exposed to a lot of diseases. The immune system of a child is just very young and vulnerable. As such, a child that is trafficked is not given enough healthcare or warm parental and social support. The child is vulnerable and just at the mercy of whatever happens to him or her. The child is prone to whatsoever disease.
“For those who are being exploited sexually, they are exposed to a lot of sexually transmitted diseases. We have the case of VVF (Vesicovaginal Fistula) happening to them and even coronavirus as we speak. Children are also prone to that (coronavirus) because when children are trafficked, they can be moved from one place to the other.
‘’If a child is trafficked from Lagos at the moment, to Italy, China or the United States of America, where they are currently battling high cases of coronavirus, it certainly means that the child is vulnerable and could also have contacts with affected persons and test positive to the corona virus
“It shows the child is very vulnerable and could experience whatever negative thing that could happen in the society,” he further explains.
He called on demanders for and suppliers of trafficked children to desist from the inhuman business and turn a new leaf.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in her 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, says more than 500 different trafficking flows were detected between 2012 and 2014. Forty-two percent of detected victims between 2012 and 2014 were trafficked domestically, while 21,251 total victims were detected.
The UNODC reports 69 countries reported to have detected 21,251 victims from Sub-Saharan Africa between 2012 and 2014. Nigeria had 1030 detected trafficking victims. Of these, 322 were adults (61 males, 261 females) and 708 were children (458 boys, 250 girls).
NAPTIP’s April- September 2018 report indicates most male victims are age 11 and under with females being the overwhelming majority of identified victims in Nigeria. Most rescued victims, the report indicates, are from Kano with Edo state following.
The 2018 Global Slavery Index Report reveals Nigeria ranks 32nd out of 167 countries with the highest number of slaves. The report indicates Nigeria produces no fewer than 1,386,000 slaves. According to NAPTIP, the average age of trafficked children in Nigeria is 15.
The Nigeria’s government agency responsible for tackling trafficking in the country, in 2016, reported that 75 percent of children trafficked within the country are trafficked across states while 23 percent of the kids are trafficked within states. Only two percent of those who are trafficked are trafficked outside the country.
STOP ENDANGERING YOUR CHILDREN!
Barrister Julie Okah-Donli, Director General, NAPTIP, says parents who give their children away as domestic assistance are endangering the kids. She warns such kids end up in the hands of human traffickers.
“If we catch anyone employing little kids as their households we will arrest them and we will take the child away from such homes.
“I am advising parents not to release their children to just anyone lest they get trafficked. If not careful, the child may get killed because human traffickers have no conscience; they are veil and don’t care about people’s upkeep.
“Parents should stop releasing their children to anyone anymore,” she further warns.
This story is produced with grant and visualization support from Code For Africa through its WanaData Community Initiative