How strong family ties play a role in sex trafficking in Nigeria

Nigerian former sex worker “Beauty” at a social support centre for trafficked girls near Catania in Italy. Reuters/Tom Esslemont

Discussions about human trafficking between Africa and Europe are frequently blurred by generalisations about villainous traffickers and their naïve young victims who have been misled into prostitution. But the world of sex trafficking is far more complex.

For example, several studies have shown that Nigerian sex trafficking rings are dominated by women, known as madams, and use of black magic rituals, known as juju, to keep their victims captivated. But little or no work has been done on other important dynamics. Two in particular are important.

The first is the active role that extended families play in helping women secure work in Europe. The second is the fact that women themselves are nowadays increasingly aware of the work that awaits them, even though they cannot imagine how brutal and miserable it actually is.

The lack of research has resulted in an incomplete understanding of the much more complex reality of the circumstances under which victims fall into the hands of traffickers. This has also compromised the effectiveness of prevention and rehabilitation projects in Nigeria, which seldom take into account the involvement of family members.

As part of my doctoral research I recently conducted interviews in rural communities outside Benin City, the capital of Edo State in southern Nigeria. Recruitment of women for work in Europe is rife in the area.

Many of the young women I interviewed knew that prostitution lay behind vague offers for work as hairdressers, cashiers or domestic workers in Europe. Nevertheless, out of desperation, some are prepared to take up the offers driven by the need to provide a better life for their families.

In rural Nigeria, widespread emigration aspirations are often fuelled by the high levels of joblessness, corruption, poor infrastructure and family struggles to make ends meet.

My interviews with communities members and NGO representatives indicate that many young Nigerians see the opportunity of finding work abroad as their best, if not their only, means to a better future for themselves and their families. The dire economic situations which their families face, combined with a sense of obligation, is an important factor in the decision making process. Added to this complexity is the fact that extended family members often act as the link between human trafficking syndicates and their victims.

The Nigeria/Europe nexus

Nigerian sex traffickers have developed a highly organised and wide web of criminal contacts throughout Europe. Over the years this has grown as they have found new ways of overcoming logistical and law enforcement obstacles.

Italy serves as the primary gateway for Nigerian migrants entering Europe. In 2016, almost 38,000 landed on Italian shores. Just under 10,000 were women.

This number represents the largest jump in the yearly total of Nigerian women arriving in Italy in the last 10 years. In August 2016 the International Organization for Migration reported that 80% of the Nigerian women who arrive in Italy would ultimately be trafficked for sex.

The role of the family

There is high awareness of sex trafficking in Nigeria thanks to the work of international organisations, local NGOs and the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons.

But women continue to leave in large numbers to seek a brighter future in Europe. This is exacerbated by pressures put on them by their own families.

Family pressure is often the deciding factor in their leaving home. The struggle to make ends meet often leads families to view sending young women off to Europe as an investment, leading to future income for the household. Thus family members are involved in the recruiting phase of trafficking.

Women migrants – unlike their male counterparts – don’t have to finance their own trips to Europe. They are sponsored by their future “employers” and once in Europe are forced to work until they repay the debt incurred for passage. This can take years as the inflated sums can amount to as much as €60,000. This indebtedness also means that women are less likely to report their situation to the police.

Extended family members often mislead women into believing that their migration process will be different as their contact in Italy is a trusted one.

Unlike the Western “extended family”, Nigerian families are tightly knit through ancestral ties. This makes the closeness of the biological connection irrelevant in determining the importance of the relationship. This creates a very profound sense of moral and financial obligation among family members, a factor which has great importance in the dynamics of sex trafficking.

In Nigerian families, for instance, the wealthier family members are both expected and feel obligated to provide financially for those who struggle. Nigerian “madams” use this to their advantage. For example they allow women to keep a small sum of money to send back home occasionally.

These remittances become a double-edged sword. They provide a financial incentive to the family in Nigeria to do whatever they can to discourage the women from escaping.

As long as the woman keeps sending money home, neither the community nor the family is likely to question the source of her income. Being unable to find success abroad and to live up to her financial responsibility to her family would be perceived as a failure and the source of significant shame and dishonour on a personal, family and community level.

Fighting sex traffickers

Several major international police operations and intelligence gathering projects funded by the EU and various EU member states are in place to fight Nigerian transnational sex trafficking.

But the increasing number of Nigerian women arriving in Europe suggests that their success is limited. The Nigerian criminal groups have proved to be very adaptable and to be able to quickly reconstitute themselves when put under legal pressure.

Law enforcement operations should be combined with prevention and rehabilitation strategies for a more effective and holistic approach to address the Nigerian sex trafficking problem.

In Nigeria, projects to reintegrate the women back into their societies are often focused mainly on the re-empowerment of victims through either work training or access to micro credit grants for business start-ups. Too often little or no attention is given to the reintegration of the women in their families.

It’s undeniable that families play an important role in the sustainability of external sex trafficking. But the power of strong family ties could also be a great asset in preventing the women from joining the sex trade in the first place. Family based interventions and family counselling could play a pivotal role in the success of reintegration strategies for the victims as has been the case in addressing other issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, bullying and gambling.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.