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Boko Haram: Spotlight on Human Trafficking

By Keshar Patel

Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram is right: There is a market for selling humans. This is perhaps the only truth the terrorist organization’s deranged ringleader spoke in a video released on May 9th, in which he stated he would sell 276 Nigerian girls into slavery. Boko Haram’s recent kidnapping of schoolgirls from the state of Borno in Nigeria, has brutishly underscored the most basic violation of human rights—human trafficking. The kidnapping has awakened the global public to the fact that slavery still exists. As the world focuses on Nigeria’s stolen girls, we must understand that girls, often starting at the age of 11, are kidnapped and sold every day and in every region of the world. Girls being sold like chattel is nothing new.

Globally, women and children constitute the majority of human trafficking victims worldwide, and this trend was confirmed by UNODC’s Global Report on Human Trafficking. In an interview with World Policy Journal, Pierre Lapaque, regional representative of UNODC for West Africa, said “Trafficking for sexual exploitation remains the most frequent form of slavery, accounting a 58 percent of all cases worldwide.”

Unfortunately, victims often receive minimal sympathy from those in their communities due to lack of awareness. Leonard Territo and George Kirkham indicate in “International Sex Trafficking of Women and Children: Understanding the Global Epidemic,” that a lack of empathy for those enslaved persists due to patriarchal attitudes toward women in prostitution, which blame the victim for crimes committed. And in cases of labor and domestic servitude, many people mistake trafficking for migrant working or illegal immigration, and have little to no sympathy for victims. These views ignore the harm and abuse victims suffer.

Difficulty in defending Nigeria’s extended borders has allowed traffickers and pimps, as well as groups like Boko Haram, to exploit this weakness and cross borders unimpeded; hence the fact that Nigeria serves as a capacious hub for human trafficking. The country is a source, transit, and destination for women and children subjected to forced sex and labor. Every year, thousands of Nigerian women and children are trafficked abroad to Italy, Malaysia, and various European nations to serve as prostitutes and drug mules for their traffickers.

Shekau’s public video put the spotlight on human trafficking. The clandestine nature of trafficking allows traffickers to operate using fake or underground businesses, such as massage parlors, to sell women and children as slaves. Traffickers are well aware that their business violates every order of international and human rights law, and their business practices reflect that. For this reason, data on how many women and girls trafficked in and out of Nigeria, as well as globally, are estimates at best. They do not indicate an accurate representation of the number of girls sold into slavery.

If Nigeria is going to live up to being Africa’s largest economy, and its claim to be the ilk of rising economies, such as those of the sub-Saharan region, then President Goodluck Jonathan must address the root causes of trafficking. Terry Fitzpatrick, communications director of a global anti-slavery nonprofit Free the Slaves, states that, in Nigeria, instability, graft, inequality, and inadequate awareness have aided and abetted human trafficking. However, poverty, above all, remains one of the main reasons for trafficking's ubiquitous foothold in the country.

Over 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than one dollar per day, and traffickers use this to dangle false promises of employment and vocational training in front of girls to entice them into the arms of traffickers. Unfortunately, some parents are so desperate for alternative means of survival, that they actually encourage their children into the trade.

Despite the fact that Nigeria is a populous oil-rich state, a majority of the population does not receive benefits from oil revenues due to corrupt officials who squander profits. Oil production has created an immensely wealthy elite; an estimated nine-tenths of economic benefits from oil revenue go to this 1 percent.

The validity of such illicit behavior is evident in the removal of Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s former central bank governor. It is no coincidence that President Goodluck Jonathan recently dismissed Sanusi after the governor repeatedly charged that roughly $20 billion dollars in oil revenue went missing over an 18 month period.

However, to the credit of Nigerian government, officials have taken some initiative to address human trafficking in past years. Increased law enforcement, convicting traffickers, and an implementation of provisions that specializes anti-trafficking training for officials has shown a modest increase in Nigeria’s effort to combat slavery.

Despite such efforts, Nigeria is still ranked as a Tier 2 country by the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report. Furthermore, one-third of convicted traffickers are given fines instead of prison time. The government has failed to pass legislation counteracting this huge loophole. Restricting judges from offering fines in lieu of prison time when sentencing would prove effective in the fight against trafficking. Needless to say, Nigeria’s government must do more.

Fitzpatrick suggests educating impoverished and marginalized communities about the threat of human trafficking will help, in his words, “slavery-proof” entire communities. Many Nigerians are unaware that human trafficking victims are coerced into sexual slavery. Awareness will provide protection against an ignorance that has perpetuated a lack of empathy to the plight of sex-slavery victims.

While the nation is primarily focused on returning the 276 schoolgirls home to Chibok, it must begin to aggressively address poverty and graft concerns as well. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that those who are even freed from slavery will not slip back into the hands of traffickers, or, that others will not fall prey to traffickers. This remains true for all nations, as there are 21 to 30 million people around the world in forms of slavery today. Fitzpatrick, states, “We can’t solve a problem that big with rescues alone.” It is possible to fight human trafficking on a global scale, but first individual countries must “reduce the supply of vulnerable people into systems of slavery.”

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Keshar Patel is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Not For Sale Campaign and UNODC]

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