Nigerian trafficking survivors who escape a life as sex workers or slaves are not getting enough support from their government, Human Rights Watch says.
A 90-page report shows that women and girls are being held in slavery-like conditions inside Nigeria, and reveals accounts of unlawful detentions in shelters. However, officials from Nigeria’s anti-human trafficking agency condemn the report.
Six years ago, a Nigerian woman named Adaura was lured to Libya to work as a domestic servant when she was 18 years old. Once there, she says she was forced into prostitution, then abducted by Islamic State terrorists and held captive for three years.
“They took us to an underground prison,” Adaura said.
With the help of Libyan soldiers and the International Organization for Migration, she escaped and returned to Nigeria.
But in Nigeria, she faced another set of problems.
Human Rights Watch says Adaura was detained by Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, or NAPTIP. The federal government agency is tasked with helping trafficked victims, but Adaura says she was not allowed to leave one of its shelters, and she struggled to fend off thoughts of killing herself.
Like Adaura, thousands of Nigerian women and girls have been trafficked within Nigeria and to other countries in the past three decades.
Nigeria is routinely listed as one of the countries with large numbers of trafficking victims overseas, particularly in Europe, with victims identified in more than 34 countries in 2018, according to the U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
Adaura is one of the 76 trafficking survivors in Nigeria whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in a report released this week, called “‘You Pray for Death’: Trafficking of Women and Girls in Nigeria.”
Girls as young as 8 years old are included. The report accuses Nigerian authorities of not doing enough to take care of repatriated women and girls, and claims they are kept in slavery-like conditions after they’ve escaped exploitation as sex workers or slaves.
Human Rights Watch says the survivors struggle with issues like anxiety and depression, insomnia and flashbacks.
Agnes Odhiambo, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, spoke at a press conference this week in Abuja.
“The national anti-trafficking agency is locking, detaining many of these survivors in its shelters,” she said, adding that the detained women were not allowed to communicate with their families for months on end.
A 24-year-old woman named Gladness, who is featured in the report, said she was kept in a NAPTIP shelter for about three weeks.
Gladness was quoted as saying she was not told when she would be going home.
Another woman, 18-year-old Ebunoluwa, said there were too many rules at the NAPTIP shelter and that her phone was confiscated.
“We are forced to wake up with a bell to pray. I have not been told when I will go home,” she said in the report.
Abdulganiyu Abubakar, director of the Save the Child Initiative in Nigeria, says NAPTIP should make sure that the shelters are comfortable and that people are not being held against their will.
The director general of NAPTIP, Julie Okah-Donli, denied the accusations when speaking to journalists this week.
“The entire report is a mere figment of the imagination of the writers, as the narratives fall below the standards of the operations of our shelters,” she said.
The shelters are supposed to be temporary spaces to help trafficking survivors with their basic and immediate needs like medical care, skills acquisition and financial assistance, all part of the NAPTIP’s victims’ support assistance program.
However, Human Rights Watch says NAPTIP relies too heavily on the shelters which, with their high walls and manned gates, trigger painful memories for some trafficking survivors.
Today, Adaura is learning how to be a hairdresser, with NAPTIP paying for her training. The agency also helped her go to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with an ulcer.
NAPTIP was set up in 2003 to address the scourge of human trafficking and help repatriated victims settle back in Nigeria.
Human Rights Watch is calling on Nigerian authorities to do more, like make it easier for survivors of trafficking to access community leaders, social workers, educators, health workers and religious leaders. It also encourages community-based rehabilitation and reintegration programs, as opposed to sub-standard shelters.