Using a silo approach to counter the crime of modern slavery is foolish. Slavery spans a journey – whether at source, in transit, or at destination, exploitation is extensive. Each part of the journey requires a unique, coordinated response and through the work I am developing, with a range of Nigerian agencies and organisations, this is something I am determined to see delivered.
Modern slavery and human trafficking are gross injustices on modern society. With an estimated 13,000 enslaved in the UK, 45 million around the world, there is much to be done. One victim is one victim too many, and overcoming these crimes cannot be overlooked.
In fighting against this evil trade in human life, one must first consider action at source. Countries of origin bring a supply of victims, and depending on the country, the supply can be shockingly high. Nigeria, for example, provides one of the most persistent global trafficking flows of victims to Europe, with the trafficking of Nigerian women and girls now at crisis level.
Despite the scale and volume of human trafficking originating from Nigeria, a significant proportion of it is a highly localised phenomenon. In fact it is estimated that 94% of Nigerian victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation rescued outside of Nigeria are from one single place – Edo State.
I have visited Nigeria on a number of occasions and spent most of my time in Edo State. I have seen the suffering, witnessed the deception and heard of the abuse. The numbers are alarming, and yet the population of Edo is estimated to represent less than 2% of Nigeria’s total. There is much to be done.
Through community engagement in Edo State, I want to see attitudes changed and awareness increased. If individuals become aware of what lies ahead, it is my hope that they would not fall for the lies of the trafficker. We must then create opportunities through sustainable development – opportunities that ultimately protect the vulnerable from being enticed by traffickers. With the right projects leading to real prospects, local work could become the number one choice for those looking to build their life. Finally, we must improve the capacity of the criminal justice system to crack down on trafficking gangs at source. We need to pursue perpetrators and punish proportionally if we ever hope to provide more than a band-aid solution.
Upon leaving home, victims of slavery find themselves in transit – another significant area of focus to be fought. I have heard numerous accounts of women being raped in so-called ‘connection houses’ in Libya, kept in prison-like conditions whilst they wait to be crammed onto boats to make the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean. Others face abuse and threats as they embark on what they believe to be their journey towards freedom.
I met one mother in Edo who told me that her eldest son was murdered by traffickers in Libya. She then had to sell all of her possessions to secure the release of her younger son. Her one wish was for others to know about the true dangers of the journey, in order to prevent them going through the same heartbreak.
The suffering inflicted on the vulnerable in transit cannot be underestimated. We can focus efforts on origin and destination countries, and this is essential, but we must not miss the misery that takes place in the midst.
Protection measures in transit need not cost vast sums of money. Small interventions carry immense influence. Emergency relief programmes can incorporate anti-trafficking awareness raising; for example, an understanding of slavery risks can be included in the training of emergency response workers; information on false employment offers can be shared in food banks; those at border posts can be informed of slavery indicators. These are simple ideas that will bring safety to many.
Finally, we must better understand the situation in destination countries, addressing demand, criminality and support for victims. A large number of victims originating in Nigeria and travelling through Europe end up exploited in the UK. Well established criminal networks are in operation and need to be pursued and punished accordingly. We cannot allow perpetrators to operate with impunity. If we do, victims who are rescued will simply be replaced with an ever growing supply of vulnerable people, and the cycle of abuse will continue.
I recently met with border officials at London Heathrow airport, who had been part of an operation to sentence a 38-year-old trafficker to 22 years in prison. To combat slavery, the pursuit of offenders who commit these abhorrent crimes of abuse has to become common place, as we improve our response to this increasingly prevalent crime.
Any area where victims originate must be a core focus if we ever hope to hinder the efforts of the criminals behind human trafficking and modern slavery. Nigeria must therefore remain at the top of the agenda. Traffickers target the vulnerable and so must we, but in completely the opposite way – to provide them with opportunity, and not rob them of it. We need to play these perpetrators at their own game; whether at source, in transit, or at destination, we must win the race to reach the vulnerable so that we can protect men, women and children from the evil of slavery.
Read the full article, and other blogs by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, here.