Why is Nigeria a Hub for Human Trafficking?

11 October 2018

Rune Henriksen  | Deputy Director of Rhipto – Norwegian Centre for Global Analyses
Sasha Jesperson  | Director of the Transnational Challenges Practice, Aktis Strategy

Nigeria is a key source country for human trafficking for sexual exploitation. The country is widely viewed as a hub for sex trafficking facilitated by organized crime, driven by success stories from some who have migrated to Europe as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of some in Nigeria who are willing to profit from exploitation. Benin City, to the East of Lagos, has become a hub for the recruitment of women to be trafficked to Europe.

Although reliable figures are difficult to come by, the International Organization for Migration estimates that 80 per cent of Nigerian women and girls arriving in Italy across the Mediterranean are trafficked for sexual exploitation. These numbers peaked in 2016 with 11,009 women and 3,040 unaccompanied children arriving on Italy’s shores from Nigeria. And the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and other Related Matters (NAPTIP) reports that around 1 million people, the majority of whom are women and children are trafficked each year in Nigeria.

But human trafficking in Nigeria goes beyond sex trafficking into Europe. Boko Haram, the jihadi insurgent group affiliated with the Islamic State, traffics boys for use as soldiers or porters and has kidnapped young girls, usually Christians, converting them to Islam and forcing them to marry its members. Women and girls displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast are also at a greater risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

The barriers to becoming a trafficker or smuggler have also become much lower; a phone and a trusted network is enough to become a node along the trafficking route, and each node operates mostly autonomously.

Domestic servitude and forced or exploitative labour on plantations, in brick factories and within the fishing industry is common, both in Nigeria and across West Africa. However, it is the trafficking of Nigerian women to Europe that has received the most attention, even though NAPTIP reported in 2016 that only 2 per cent of those trafficked are trafficked abroad. The heightened attention is due, in part, to the fact that street-based sex work in Europe is more visible.

Nigerians are trafficked to Europe primarily for domestic servitude and sex work. The main source of sex trafficking victims is Edo State in southern Nigeria, and the main destination is Italy, where in 2003 there were at least 10,000 Nigerian sex workers. As trafficking has increased, destinations have expanded to include France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK, Scandinavia and even Russia.

Shifts in the regional context, from enhanced border security at Lagos airport to the governance vacuum in Libya, have influenced how criminal networks execute their trafficking activities. In the early 2000s, trafficking was much more organized, with criminal networks moving women and girls through the Lagos airport into Europe, identifying and exploiting immigration loopholes, which required more sophisticated methods. However, with the opening of the overland route via Libya, trafficking networks have become increasingly cell-based—rather than using a hierarchical mafia structure. The barriers to becoming a trafficker or smuggler have also become much lower; a phone and a trusted network is enough to become a node along the trafficking route, and each node operates mostly autonomously.

Lagos, Nigeria
Lagos, Nigeria. Unsplash/Joshua Oluwagbemiga

The overland route from Nigeria has become the primary journey for both migrants and trafficking victims. Because of the free movement agreement enacted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), transporting people through the region is relatively straightforward, with transporters and connection houses lining the route to Libya. To address the growing problem, anti-smuggling legislation was introduced in Niger in 2015 to criminalize the movement of people from points north of the city of Agadez towards the Libyan border. Consequently, numerous transporters have lost their livelihoods, while more clandestine, risky operations continue to move people to the border, with less regard for their safety.

The Libyan crisis initially “opened the road”, but fighting between different militias has made the Libyan part of the journey to Europe increasingly dangerous and prone to exploitation. Any agreement that was made in Nigeria as to the cost and conditions of the journey become irrelevant once the border is crossed. Women and girls are bought by each node in the network and then have to work, generally as sex workers, to repay that cost and cover their expenses while they lodge with a “facilitator”. The length of time in Libya has also grown, particularly as it has become more difficult to cross the Mediterranean, leaving women and girls even more susceptible to exploitation.

The movement of women and girls from Nigeria emphasizes the blurred line between trafficking and smuggling, as many victims believe they are travelling for legitimate employment or further education. Others, often with family or community pressure, willingly travel to engage in the sex trade, as they can earn more money than in Nigeria. In both cases women and girls are exploited, forced to repay large sums to cover their transportation, and they only receive a small amount of their earnings. Madams that facilitate this exploitation were all previously sex workers who had been trafficked from Nigeria, and the aim of many women and girls is to eventually become madams themselves.

Sex trafficking of Nigerian women is, in its most basic sense, an economic opportunity. For onlookers around the world, the trafficking of women and girls is abhorrent, not least because the product is not things, but human beings. Yet for the community that the girls and women hail from, it is about business and opportunities for social advancement, even with the foreknowledge of what hardships these women can expect to endure.

As the women and girls being trafficked, as well as their families and communities, believe they have a stake in the industry, whether from remittances, or the belief that they will eventually become a madam and be able to profit from the exploitation of others, they are reluctant to share the details of their traffickers or exploiters with authorities, making it much harder to disrupt.

Dr Rune Henriksen is the Deputy Director of Rhipto – Norwegian Centre for Global Analyses.

This article has been prepared by Dr Rune Henriksen and Sasha Jesperson as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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