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Witness: No Reprieve for Trafficking Survivors in Nigeria

Government Should Provide Victims With Better Support

Adaura C.’s life has never been easy. She has dealt with abandonment, neglect, forced abortion, and kidnapping by ISIS. She managed to escape after being trafficked to Libya, where she was repeatedly raped and exploited. Now, back in Nigeria, she is anxious about her uncertain future, but still wants to chart a new path for herself. To do so, she needs more help from her government.

Adaura now lives in an orphanage, with high walls and gates, despite being 25. She previously stayed in a shelter in similar conditions, alongside other trafficking survivors. The shelters are secluded, far away from the city or other neighborhoods. The women are not allowed to go home to their families or have visitors. The anti-trafficking agency in Nigeria says that this isolation is to keep them from being taken again – that this will prevent them from being lured and trafficked again. But the women say these conditions feel similar to how they were locked up by the people who stole their freedom.

Adaura thought that things would be better once she returned to Nigeria. But escaping trafficking was just one hurdle. Now she is facing many more.

For years Nigeria’s media has been awash with stories of women and girls who were trafficked for labor and sexual exploitation, and of Nigerians trapped in Libya in slavery-like conditions or dying while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. Trafficking is a large and, according to some reports, increasing problem in Nigeria. But few talk about what happens to trafficking survivors once they are repatriated back to Nigeria. A new Human Rights Watch report, “You Pray for Death”: Trafficking of Women and Girls in Nigeria, shows how the government’s efforts to protect and assist these women too often fail to respect their rights.

Six years ago, a woman approached Adaura with an offer of earning 150,000 Naira (US$417) a month as a domestic worker in Libya. For Adaura, it seemed like an honest way to make some money while she planned her life after she escaped abuse at home. Her mother had abandoned her as a toddler, and although she eventually took her back in, her mother pretended Adaura was a domestic worker to appease her new husband. Adaura left home at 18 to escape escalating violence. Libya was a chance to better her situation, but she instead she suffered physical and emotional scars that she’s still nursing.

After an arduous journey across the Sahara Desert, Adaura reached Libya. She arrived only to be given to a “madam,” a woman who was part of the trafficking ring and who was controlling her. She kept her locked up for four days without food and threatened to kill her. The madam told her she would have to work to pay off her travel and accommodation expenses, which was calculated to be US$4,000, and made her swear a fetish oath to never run away. Adaura was then handed over to men who had sex with her without condoms. Adaura was terrified of getting pregnant or sick, and she told the madam so.

“We were told we would be house helps,”Adaura said. The madam responded, “This is house help.”

After one month, Adaura was pregnant. The madam told her she would help her get an abortion, but that this would be an extra cost added to her existing debt. She got a backstreet abortion and was sent straight back to work – while she was still bleeding. The madam put wet wipes inside her vagina to ‘prevent pregnancy’ and bleeding from the forced abortion. The madam then sold Adaura to a Nigerian man in Libya who continued to exploit her sexually.

Even after these horrors, Adaura found the spirit to escape and move in with a man who promised to marry her.

“But soon after we were abducted [by ISIS] and they killed my boyfriend and others. They spared me because I was pregnant, ” Adaura says. The tears that welled up during the conversation flow freely when she speaks about her pregnancy and the baby she had in captivity.

A 24-year-old Nigerian woman in a shelter in Benin City, Nigeria. She went to Moscow in 2013 knowing she would be obliged to sell sex, but she was unaware that the debt she would have to pay—56,000—was in US dollars, not Nigerian currency, which which would have amounted to just US$350. After four years she managed to pay off her debt; she decided to return to Nigeria in 2018 because she was pregnant. Her family is ashamed of her because she came back empty-handed. March 2018.    © 2018 Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage

Her baby boy was just a few days old when he was killed during an ambush. She remembers ISIS fighters taking her to an underground prison after this ordeal, and forcing her to marry a man who raped her. She developed a stomach ulcer and was scared of the fighting, bombings, and gunshots that rang out all night and day.

She was held in captivity for three years before being rescued by Libyan soldiers who took her to a camp run by the International Organization for Migration. Soon after, she was brought back to Nigeria.

Adaura was initially relieved to return home, but then became disturbed when she was held by Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) in a shelter and, again, not allowed to leave. The high walls and the gates manned by security guards reminded her of life in captivity. She was later moved to the orphanage, but the conditions remain the same.

Today, Adaura is being sponsored for hairdressing training by the NAPTIP, but she doesn’t know whether there will be further support to help her set up and run a hair salon after her training. Every day, Adaura and the other trafficking survivors at the orphanage have to go for hairdressing training, but do not receive enough bus fare to get there. Sometimes they walk for 45 minutes, all the way to the hair salon and back, and do not get to each lunch. She said she has not received adequate counselling and medical care, and that the food is inadequate.

A Nigerian woman sits in a center in Benin City. After spending a year and three months in captivity in a run-down brothel in Turin, Italy, she was arrested by Italian security forces, and deported to Nigeria. Women lured by traffickers into leaving Nigeria sometimes flee violent conflicts; others are desperate to escape dire economic hardship or abusive family environments.  © 2018 Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage

Many of the women living with Adaura were convinced to go abroad for work by people they knew. A friend or a relative introduced them to someone who offered a job opportunity in the Middle East or Europe, only to plunge them into crippling debt that kept them in the tentacles of their traffickers for months, or even years, on end. Others were lured with promises of education and training in Nigeria by people they saw as benefactors, only to be abused and exploited.

In general, Nigeria has done well in warning its population about the dangers of trafficking, legislating against it, and creating an agency to support survivors who return. However, survivors like Adaura require more assistance to help them through the physical and psychological trauma they have endured. Psychological help is essential in making sure survivors are equipped to engage and cope with their new realities when they return home. Shelters are not prisons, and no one should be detained in them.

Sometimes Adaura thinks of killing herself. She is startled by loud noises and can’t sleep well as she keeps dreaming about her dead child, and recalling seeing people get killed. She thinks that maybe if she rejoined formal education, she would have a chance at securing her future. But she still worries about her health. She knows that spicy foods trigger her stomach ulcer, but she does not have options regarding what she eats at the shelter.

For all the suffering she withstood, Adaura hopes to find peace. The government can help her on this journey by providing support on her path towards healing and rehabilitation.

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