Study shines light on how vulnerable children are trafficked in Nigeria

Trafficking is a very real threat for kids in Nigeria. Paschal Okwara/Shutterstock/Editorial use only

The international trafficking of children has received much attention in recent times. But, little attention has been paid to how it plays out and its unique dynamics in Nigeria.

Child trafficking is one of the most flourishing organised criminal enterprises in Nigeria. In Oyo State alone (Nigeria has 36 states and a federal capital), the Nigerian Immigration Service rescued 464 trafficked children and arrested 101 traffickers and 120 end-users between 2016 and this year.

Nigeria is a source, transit spot and destination for human trafficking. Close to 1.4 million Nigerians live in slave-like conditions.

An investigation into the recruiting strategies of traffickers and their networks could be helpful in arresting this menace.

With this in mind, I conducted research in which I examined the recruitment strategies of trafficking networks. I interviewed drivers, domestic servants, those who employed domestic servants, and trafficking agents in two communities in Ibadan, Oyo State where the crime is endemic.

Research findings

My research found that traffickers have established markets where they supply trafficked children who are younger than 18. Their clients include plantation agriculturists, brothel house owners, and middle-class urban households. Based on their needs, the farmers, brothel owners and urban households contact traffickers to obtain children to work for them.

The brothel managers demand children for sexual exploitation. Farmers, meanwhile, use the trafficked children for cheap labour on plantations.

Households demand child domestic servants to lessen the burden of executing domestic chores while at the same time engaging in paid work. In deciding whether to hire domestic servants, households adopt the so-called “make or buy strategy”. Under the “make strategy”, households devise a plan to split housework and home management between family members. The “buy strategy” is adopted only when the activities go beyond what households believe they can manage – then, they “outsource” to a domestic servant.

If they decide to go this route, the household specifies the age and sex of the preferred domestic servant. For most employers, sex is considered alongside age.

Other required qualities include the ability to communicate in the employer’s language or pidgin English, good character, history or place of origin, and the ability to work under stress.

Recruitment strategies

Traffickers can recruit from child trafficking endemic communities in Oyo State or other states. Our respondents adopted two major strategies in recruiting children as domestic servants and child prostitutes. The first involves the use of relatives, coworkers, religious associates, club members and neighbours to lure children away.

The second strategy relies on recruiting agents or traffickers. The traffickers use field agents. Here, trust is vital. Without trust, it’s difficult for prospective employers to get to the traffickers. The agents ensure that prospective employers are genuine and not part of the security apparatus.

For traffickers who are indigene (that is, from the communities where the children are recruited from), the method is usually deception. They trick parents into releasing their children for supposed training in the city. A 16-year-old domestic servant affirmed:

It was my uncle who came to Igede to tell my people that he wanted me to assist him with his business that was booming. He took me from Benue to Benin and dropped me with a woman at a brothel house. I was expected to sleep with men and pay money for the house I slept in every morning. I cried throughout the three days I stayed there … I ran away … I went back to Igede.

Another strategy is to use people from the recruiting community to get children to work in town. A trafficker stated:

I have one Alhaji (meaning a Muslim who has completed the holy pilgrimage to Mecca) in Benue State. We got to know each other through wheat trading. Any time I need people to work here (in Ibadan) … I will just call on him and since we have been able to establish trust and confidence, it is not difficult for him to get some of these children for me.

Trafficking season

My research participants who recruit from Igede community in Benue state told me they are more likely to get more children during the New Yam Festival when people of Igede extraction return home to thank their communal deity for a bumper harvest before officially eating the new yam.

The traffickers and agents use this period to entrap new children. They come to Igede with lots of money to attract attention. I found that traffickers set out on the recruitment journey towards the end of the year and returned early in the year with newly trafficked children. A female domestic servant said all Igede indigene who live or work elsewhere were expected to return home to join in the Christmas festivities. Most of the traffickers can be seen in the community at this time, as often they bring the children home and then return with them to the city.

The traffickers or agents engage in house-to-house canvassing, asking and persuading people to release their children to them, usually on agreed terms. Once this is settled, the local community agent either transports the children on his or her own, or awaits a vehicle sent by an associate in Ibadan to transport the new recruits.

A private vehicle is usually hired from Ibadan, which is more than 500kms away, to avoid suspicion.

Combating the scourge

To combat trafficking, it’s important for the Nigerian government to understand and deal with the factors that predispose children to being trafficked. These include rural underdevelopment and poverty, for instance. The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons needs to strengthen its campaign aimed at fighting the trafficking of people within Nigeria.

A good place to start would be to target festival periods to educate the communities from which children are sourced about the scourge of child trafficking. Such education needs to expose the gimmicks traffickers use to lure vulnerable children. The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons may also need to revisit its current strategy and leverage more on inter-agency collaboration.