The plague of human trafficking and illegal migration is a national disgrace. It should keep us up at night wondering at the horrors many of our fellow human beings are facing at the exact moment we lie comfortably in bed. Though different by definition, as while illegal migrants pay smugglers to assist them cross the borders, victims of trafficking are forced, coerced or deceived for the purpose of exploiting them, both are illegal and oftentimes have disastrous consequences for both the trafficked and the illegal migrant.
My first encounter with smugglers and illegal migrants occurred during one of my desert expeditions and that experience completely traumatized me. I still recall it like it was yesterday, when I stood on the deck of a ship I had boarded to transport my car, which I had earlier driven across the desert through Europe to London on a second solo voyage.
There were possibly over a hundred migrants on deck, many in clusters laughing and chatting. I could overhear snippets of different conversations in Igbo and Yourba so I knew a number of my fellow countrymen were on board with me. As I stood there gazing at the sky and breathing in the cool air, a security personnel with the ship walked up to me to ask for my documents. I easily presented them to him as I was always carrying them around even when asleep. After showing him my documents, I was immediately advised to return to my cabin, which I had left in search of fresh air as my roommate was bent on smoking the night away. Sensing something was amiss, I complied. Decades later, I am still thankful to the creator for my prompt obedience.
I must have been in my cabin for a few hours before stepping out after an announcement for car owners to go to their cars since the ship was about to dock. You see, not everyone on the ship had a cabin despite the 12-hour overnight journey across the Mediterranean sea due to the extra cost it attracts, so you can understand my surprise when I stepped out of my cabin to meet an empty deck. I knew the ship didn’t have enough cabins to contain the hundreds of people I had seen earlier and no one had gotten off yet since we was just nearing the port. I saw the same security man that had met me before and out of curiosity I asked about the others, his next words still causes a chill to run down my spine whenever I remember it. He replied that they had been thrown overboard and I was lucky to be alive. At first, I thought it was a joke. How could that be? Seeing my confusion, he explained to me that they had received a tip that the ship was to be raided by Spanish port authorities and would have been seized if illegal immigrants were found on it. To prevent exposure as a ship also being used by smugglers to move people without the necessary documentation willing to pay a fee across the sea to Europe from Africa, the illegal migrants had to go.
That day, hundreds of people died for nothing. They died because the crew didn’t want to lose their ship. They died because some people felt their lives didn’t matter.
This is the reality of illegal migration and human trafficking in whatever form. It is the gross disregard of human life for profit.
Factors fueling human trafficking and illegal migration in Nigeria
Ever since a CNN investigation produced footage of West Africans being sold at slave markets in Libya and a more recent report about the situation in Nigeria’s trafficking hub and one of Africa’s largest departure points, Edo State, human trafficking, a dehumanizing act, to say the least, has generated wild outrage globally.
Following calls for action, the Nigerian government has made strong statements on tackling the problem by improving the mechanisms for apprehending and convicting traffickers. The recent arrest of two officers of the Nigeria Immigration Service for attempted human trafficking through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Ikeja, Lagos, shows a certain level of commitment by the agencies involved in addressing this problem.
Yet, it will take a lot more than these arrests and curses by traditional institutions to curb the booming nature of this trade. There is need to understand why people risk their lives to embark on the perilous journey of crossing the Sahara and Mediterranean Sea. True, the most obvious reason is a depressed economy. The appeal of greener pastures on the other side is strong enough for many to risk their lives for. However, there are other areas to pay attention to. These are:
•Inability to secure legal and safe passage out of the country: The difficulties of getting visas due to lack of adequate documentation has oftentimes left many desperate, forcing them to seek alternative means of leaving the country.
•Domestic syndicate centres: Traffickers have centres for screening and engaging their victims across the country, namely Lagos, Edo, Delta, Anambra (Onitsha) and Abia (Aba). The centres serve as recruitment venues for traffickers to scout for potential victims for smuggling or for trafficking. The agents prey on the desire of the victims to fend for themselves and their families and/or escape tough situations. We need to find these centres and shut them down.
•So-called success stories: The traffickers deceitfully showcase the less than 10 per cent that actually make it across the Sahara and the Meditterrenean, people who are sending money to thei family from Italy; and
•Nigeria’s porous borders: This is one area that cannot be overemphasized. Our borders are badly exposed. People can easily get into the country, as we see in the cases of nomadic herdsmen, and, in the same vein, people can easily get out of the country. Nigeria offers passports to almost any West African national seeking one, which is not the case in other countries, so it makes it very difficult for us to know who is coming in and who is leaving, which affects our ability to accurately produce data on the true population of Nigeria and Nigerians.
The way forward: Solutions
It will take a concerted effort by the federal government, state governments and other stakeholders to cause serious damage to the multi-billion-dollar criminal industry. For starters, I believe that there needs to be a nationwide grassroot campaign to sensitize members of different communities about the ills of illegal migration. However, awareness is not enough. Government needs to look into the following suggested solutions.
•Economic empowerment: This goes without saying that we need to grow our economy or we will keep losing people to the desert and the sea.
•Safe camps for returnees: Government needs to do more than just rescue people from Libya or whereever they are to actually resettling them back home. It is advisable that this is done in a controlled space for a period of time under strict monitoring to prevent a repeat performance from many of the returnees. Plantations can be set up for them to work in and get paid for the work.
•Firmer border security: There is need to secure the borders, as most of these traffickers use the road network to move their victims. We can stop them before they even get out of the country. This needs to be the first point of control against illegal immigration.
•Reorientation of the masses: This will entail a massive nationwide campaign to educate people on the ills of human trafficking and illegal migration, the forms they take, for instance, offering fake modeling contracts in Europe, schooling, jobs, etc. The aim is to deter people, including parents, relatives from voluntarily giving up their children or encouraging them to illegally go to Europe.
Memories of my experience with immigration and human trafficking during my desert expeditions always leave a bitter taste in my mouth. For this reason, I remain vocal about my concerns as well as actively involved through Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE) Africa in addressing the issue of migration in Africa.
I will end this article like I started by reiterating that human trafficking and illegal migration should matter to everyone. No truer words capture my stance on this than a quote by the former President of the United State of America. Talking about human trafficking, he made this statement: “It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name — modern slavery.”