By Debbie Ariyo
As far back as the 1980s during my undergraduate years at the University of Benin in Benin City, Bendel State (now divided into Edo and Delta States) Nigeria, female students were leaving the university to migrate to Italy for work. During this period, Nigeria was experiencing a terrible economic downturn. There were national debates whether Nigeria should take on a huge IMF loan and the consequence this would have on citizens, as the government introduced “austerity measures” to address the crumbling economy. Many people lost their jobs and families struggled to cope. Therefore it was no surprise that many young people were quitting their education in search of a better life in Europe to be able to support their families back home in Nigeria.
Many years later as I myself returned to live in the UK after my undergraduate degree, I established the charity AFRUCA addressing human trafficking from Africa to Europe. As the issue of human trafficking from Edo State became more prevalent and the reality of sexual exploitation became better understood, only then did I fully consider the possibility that perhaps the young girls leaving my university in the 1980s to work in Italy were probably being trafficked for sex work by known criminal syndicates, without a full knowledge of the circumstances under which they would work or even the type of work they would engage in, the attraction for them being access to better opportunities in Europe. Today, Edo State in Nigeria has the highest number of African victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Europe with many families and communities devastated by the huge disappearance, departure or absence of working age young people.
However, it would certainly be misleading to conclude that all irregular migrants to Europe are victims of human trafficking or that they set off from their point of origin as victims. The fact is that most young people embarking on the perilous journey via Libya across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe voluntarily migrate in search of better opportunities. Unfortunately those making these dangerous journeys put themselves at risk of criminal activities, which makes them vulnerable to human trafficking, rape, slave trading or kidnapping for ransom. On the East Sudan and Libyan routes to the Mediterranean Sea, there are proven cases of migrants kidnapped or sold to traffickers by smugglers. Kidnapped migrants unable to pay their ransom are raped or killed for their body organs which are then sold. Stories about the slave camps of Libya are too well known – majority of the enslaved people are migrants who were unfortunately captured on their journey to Europe and ended up being sold in slave markets.
In this sense, my view is that lack of opportunities for legal and regular migration and safe passages to Europe and other safe countries is to blame for the plight of migrants and the perilous journeys they are forced to undertake in search of better opportunities as they flee from conflict situations, natural disasters, the effects of climate change or poverty and deprivation.
It is interesting to observe the European Union’s varied and perhaps misdirected approaches to tackle the issue of irregular migration from Africa into Europe. The primary methodology is that of strong deterrence – that is significant efforts are made to stop migration into Europe via the Mediterranean sea as part of a policy critics have referred to as “Fortress Europe”. As part of this process of externalisation, countries like Malta have signed agreements with Libya to intercept migrant boats and have them returned to Libya where the migrants are then held indefinitely in detention camps. Italy has even gone a step further by enacting laws to make it illegal for migrant rescue ships to access Italian waters, drawing the ire of many across the world. For migrants who make it to Europe, the policy of detention is at play in countries like Greece, where tens of thousands are detained on different islands for months, even years in very inhumane conditions. In all of these cases, the focus is to deter illegal or irregular migration at all costs, and most often than not, genuine victims of trafficking have been caught up in these very sad and ugly scenarios.
Even when specific country laws and policies are made to protect victims of trafficking, government action regards victims first and foremost as irregular migrants. The UK is a good example of this where trafficked victims have been trapped in the UK government’s “hostile environment” policy targeting irregular migrants. Even when victims of trafficking have been recognised as such – for example through the government’s National Referral Mechanism, they are still subjected in many instances to years of mental torture waiting for decisions on their asylum cases, without being able to work and earn an income. In Italy, experts have criticised the lack of protection for victims of trafficking in the open reception centres, which makes it accessible for traffickers to identify and force victims into exploitative situations.
Therefore across Europe, the focus has been to deter and discourage irregular migration, even when this places identified victims of human trafficking at further risk of harm.
However, the approach is different in relation to Europe’s intervention in Africa itself. Here anti-trafficking and anti-migration interventions are at best intertwined or focused mainly on “fighting human trafficking”. This has entailed the pouring of funds into countries like Niger or in Nigeria where, as discussed above, many of the victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in European countries originate. The bulk of these programmes like those provided by the Nigerian Anti-Trafficking agency – NAPTIP with funds from EU countries are focused on short-term interventions which do not provide returning victims with long term support.
There are hardly any major programmes established in affected African countries to provide long term and coherent solutions to the causes of irregular migration including the creation of well paid employment opportunities or high level skills building programmes which will improve young people’s financial well-being and reduce the need to migrate. In Niger which is a transit country to Libya, the EU Emergency Trust Fund has provided millions of Euros in funding to the government to help stop the flow of migrants. This coincided unsurprisingly with the enactment of a new law in Niger forbidding anyone from facilitating the movement of migrants into or out of the country. The EU Trust Fund resources for a social re-integration programme for those formerly in the “migration business” is however seen as grossly inadequate, in comparison with the huge income previously derived from transporting the mass number of migrants passing through the country to Libya. Therefore, Niger in particular is a victim of the EU’s deterrence by externalisation approach because of the lack of alternative income generation opportunities for many of the people, a huge negative for one of the poorest countries in the world.
In Nigeria and other source countries like Senegal, the devastation caused by mass migration in specific towns and villages, especially the impact on the elderly relatives of young migrants who are left alone without care and support is hardly being addressed.
In a poignant reminder that irregular migration has many victims, the African Faith and Justice Network in Benin City talked about members’ visit to a town in Edo State where they learnt that 95% of families in the town have at least one member who has migrated to Italy or another European country via Libya, and that of all the young migrants, only 10% are still in contact with their families. The remainder have not been heard from for many years.
What then is the position of African NGOs in helping to address the challenges of mass migration and human trafficking?
The point is that as discussed above, there are few funds in place to address the human aspects of mass migration to European countries. There are few exceptions, of course: the EU-IOM Assisted Voluntary Return Programme which provides moderate support for migrants from Nigeria and Senegal rescued from the detention camps in Libya. Aside this, the bulk of European funding directed at African countries is to address human trafficking and not migration as a long term problem. Hence NAPTIP, the Nigerian anti trafficking agency has received funding in recent years from the UK, Italy, Germany, Belgium and other countries to provide a range of support services for victims of human trafficking and build its capacity to prevent human trafficking.
The capacity of local NGOs to tackle both subjects is very much reduced due to significant underfunding, lack of capacity as well as lack of financial support from government. Again, using Nigeria as an example, where NGOs are funded in the short-term for anti-trafficking work, this is as a sub-contractor to NAPTIP to provide shelters for victims or to conduct community awareness programmes. Experts have therefore questioned the need to fashion donor funding via a third party when it could have been directed to those performing the role on the ground.
The use of donor funding to tackle social or development problems determined by foreign governments without taking account of the real needs and priorities on the ground has been criticised by experts. This is what Victoria Nwogu referred to as the “principal-agent aid relationship”. In this instance, not only are NGOs underfunded, they also have to contend with a top-down approach to addressing issues which may or may not even be a priority for the cohort of beneficiaries they support, to attract some income. In this instance, the lack of wider efforts to fund comprehensive anti-migration programmes should be queried.
Due to the dearth of funding, many NGOs struggle to provide services and where present, of a lower quality for victims. Such services include public education programmes, shelters for victims, employment and vocational training programmes, counselling and psycho-social support as well as policy advocacy. In this instance NGOs can claim some success in helping to raise awareness about the plights of migrants or victims, pushing for government action while drawing attention to the dangers of mass migration and human trafficking.
With time, the wider impact of migration and human trafficking from major sources like Edo State will become more apparent. As mentioned above, this would be in the devastation caused to many communities whose young people have migrated and lost contact with their families, as well as the impact on the elderly relatives left behind to mourn the lost children who probably will never return having perished en route to Europe in the search of a better life. This would be the real task for NGOs to take on board. Whether these young people were trafficked or they voluntarily migrated, the aftermath of their departure is the pain left behind.
Debbie Ariyo is CEO of AFRUCA – a UK based charity addressing human trafficking from Africa to the UK. www.afruca.org. August 2020.