Trafficking survivors say their joy of returning to Nigeria from Libya is being cut short by rejection and stigmatization from family, friends and the society. They are ready to leave the country at whatever cost, again.
“If you travel and you didn’t bring money, your family won’t love you anymore. I used to support my family before leaving Nigeria. But when I returned, the first thing my mother said is you didn’t bring money but baby. No one agreed to help me”.
This is Gift Peter. She was 20 years old when trafficked by her uncle’s wife on February 5th, 2016. She is one of the 6,300 Nigerian migrants the International Organization for Migration (IOM) repatriated to Nigeria in the last 11 months. But life has been unpleasant for her since returning to Agbor, her hometown in Delta state.
Gift returned in 2017 with a baby boy she conceived during her work as a sex slave to a Nigerian woman in Libya. After so much suffering and birthing a child alone as a prisoner in Isis’ camp; caught in the war in Sirit, Libya, her efforts to begin life afresh have been fruitless. She says her joy of returning to the country has been cut short by rejection and stigmatization from family and friends. She has been jobless since arriving Nigeria. This too, has added to the depression she now struggles with.
National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking In Persons (NAPTIP) says in Nigeria, the two most reported human trafficking cases are foreign travels which promote prostitution and employment of children as domestic workers while inflicting grievous harm.
Most of these victims are women but children and men these days, now consist larger shares than they did 10 years ago. The anti-trafficking agency’s 2017 report states in the country, 0.1% of trafficked victims are men, while 25% are females. Globally, 51% of trafficked persons are females and 21% are males. The report indicates traffickers are often males but women comprise a large number of convicted offenders.
Majority of Nigerian migrants undertake the risky journey in search of jobs in North Africa and Europe. IOM’s Missing Migrants Project states 2,834 migrants died at sea on the route between Libya and Italy in 2017. The Central Mediterranean Sea is one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. IOM says 315 have already perished since this year began. Travelers are sexually abused, robbed, and abducted on the Niger’s desert to Libya route and while crossing the sea to Italy.
Notwithstanding these hazards, European statistics indicates at least one person dies for every 35 persons arriving Europe. It states the number of illegal migrants from West Africa to Europe is still rising.
February 26, 2016
They were three young ladies on the journey: Tunmininu, and two other dream chasers. They had traveled in a bus from Lagos, hoping to arrive Kano state to board the plane to Libya. They were eager to get to Libya rooted by the pursuit of their dreams: earning big bucks abroad.
They had thoroughly discussed and planned the journey in advance: Tunmininu, her mother and Iya Anjola- her mum’s friend. They had planned every phase of the journey: who was to be paid, how much and details of every stops. But Tunmininu hadn’t foreseen there was to be another bus ride after the first to Kano from Lagos. Lo and behold, on arriving Kano, they boarded another bus, instead of a plane. It began to dawn on her they could be in trouble. She only didn’t know how big the trouble was.
Hope Merchants and Preparations
It all began in February 2016 when Tunmininu at her domestic chores was singing like she always does, this time, in the presence of a visitor. Her mother’s friend. Moved by the young gospel singer’s voice, she urged her to up her game- from going around churches singing as a mere guest artist, to producing and launching a musical album. Armed with only a secondary school certificate, talents to write songs and sing, she hadn’t the financial muscle. And her mother’s best friend offered to help.
“I went to Libya through one of my mum’s friends. She is the one that told my mum I should go there to work, look for money so I can make a musical album and better my life” Tunmininu narrated, her voice a little above a whisper.
Giving hope to the alone-mother and her child, Iya Anjola assured them repeatedly N40,000 was the only sum needed for the life-changing journey. Thirty thousand Naira out of the money was given to her, while Tunmininu was to give N10,000 to Iya Anjola’s friend who would take her to Mile 12 to board the bus to Kano.
Both mother and daughter had been calmed by the mirage of normalcy after being told Tunmininu should snap a passport photo with which she would board the Libya-bound aircraft immediately on arriving Kano. “She even asked us to hold extra N5,000 to be able to use that one to eat though we would meet someone there who would give us food and other things”.
Pursuit of Reality Begins
February 25th, 2016 was a warm Thursday morning. Tunmininu woke up very excited that by dawn next day, she would be entering an aircraft for the first time in all her 20 years on earth. But first, she and two other young ladies joined Iya Anjola to Oshodi in Lagos, to meet her friend who was to take them to Mile 12- a suburb of the ever busy city, to board the bus to Kano.
The friend; Mummy Seyi, who is very light skinned, fat and in her late forties took them to Mile 12 to a Mallam named Abdulahi. Besides the N10,000 she was paid, Mummy Seyi collected the N5,000 Tunmininu was to use in feeding. “She said they were going to give us some food and money we would use in eating. When we get to Kano, we would see the plane we were going to enter. We were so happy that we were going to enter a plane for the first time in our lives.”
But, arriving Kano, the next pusher-man put the ladies on another bus. They ended at what is commonly called Nigeria bridge, and boarded a bike to cross to Niger. The riders swung their motorbikes as if possessed by legions of demons, while policemen were in hot pursuit releasing bullets into the air.
“When we got to Niger, we started asking where is the plane? Is this where the plane is? That is when we were told that they (Iya Anjola and Mummy Seyi) were lying to us, that we were going to Libya and it is by road and we were going to follow desert. I was surprised that desert? Why desert? We couldn’t go back again because that journey is not that easy.”
Then, Tunmininu’s innocence died. Hope merchants and dream chasers; all of them, rooted by their pursuit of money trudged along with the oneness of soldier-ants. .
Sold & Bought By Slave Dealers
After seeing many people raped, robbed and die on the road, Tunmininu arrived Sabha, and spent three weeks at Ghetto- a very popular camp owned by Baba Ife a Libya-based Nigerian slave merchant from Ekiti state. He attempted buying her for sex work from the slave dealer awaiting her in Tripoli . “While we were in Ghetto, the man tells us it’s not yet time for him to push us, in short, he even phoned the man we wanted to go and meet in Tripoli that he wants to buy me from the man and use me in doing prostitution.
“I was surprised and said I am not doing because this was not what they told me in Nigeria before coming here. Fortunately, due to the way I threatened him shouting that I was going to burst there, when we shout there, they are going to burst there and pack everybody to prison. The man was pleading with me and phoned the man he wanted to buy me from, then said they should be bringing me down to Tripoli.”
Without food or water, she and other desperate travelers from Sabha were heaped like loaves of bread in a hilux van traveling through the desert for five days. She was received by China (pronounced Shayi-na) another Libya-based Nigerian slave merchant who had bought her. China also hails from Ekiti state. But, he felt Tunmininu stinks- of trouble, after the stunt she pulled in Ghetto. He sold her to Shina Ayo another Nigerian slave merchant who lives in Tripoli.
Shina Ayo slammed a bondage fee of N500,000 on her which must be paid within 10 months. It’s the alleged sum used in bringing her to Libya from Nigeria. Working as a maid to Nurian, a 36 year old Libyan woman, she paid him N50,000 monthly. But after the sixth month’s payment, Shina Ayo upturned the whole agreement. He wanted a year’s pay.
Tunmininu was left to choose between two options: pay the bondage fee for a year or be forced into prostitution until every dime owed was paid. Hopeless, she continued working as a maid while handing all wages made to him.
Freedom at Last & Death Came Knocking
A year later; working all seven days of the week from dawn to dusk, Tunmininu paid the last bondage fee and regained her freedom. She decided to continue at the job hoping to save some money for her musical album and care for her mum.
Three days after regaining her freedom, while working in another part of Nurian’s house, the Libyan woman put charcoal in an aluminum container and lit it to heat Tunmininu’s personal room. It was the cold season and Nurian had refused buying a heater to provide her warmth. She made tea and gave to the young Nigerian like she had always done in the last one year. “But the only thing I know is after drinking it this time, I was feeling sleepy and I slept off in my room and by the time I woke up, I woke up in the hospital”.
Tunmininu alleges being drugged as she became drowsy immediately she drank the tea. “The fire had entered my nose and mouth and couldn’t control myself. I wanted to open the door but the door was locked at the back”. She thinks it may not be unconnected with the argument they had three days earlier over late payment of her wages. Nurian had paid her on the eighth instead of third. “We fought because of that money. I was shouting on her but we settled after that and forgot about it.
“It was the woman who called the ambulance to carry me to the hospital. She phoned the wife of the man (Mrs. Shina Ayo) I was paying money to and she came to meet me at the hospital. She was crying and shouting asking where is the (Libyan) woman. She (Nurian) said she would come check on me the next day. She never came”.
And the Exploitation continues
Tunmininu sustained various degrees of injuries in different parts of her body necessitating a skin grasp to cover the open bone in her hand. But after the initial operation, a huge part of the bone remained uncovered. More skin grasp was needed. But she couldn’t bear the pains anymore. Tired of being grounded in the no-fee-paying hospital, shuttled in and out of the theatre with surgeons grasping chunks of flesh from her laps to cover the deep wound in her hand, Tunmininu requested she be returned to Shina Ayo’s house.
Within the first three weeks she lived with the Shina Ayo household, they phoned her mother to send money for flight ticket to return her to Nigeria. The alone-mother combed the city of Lagos where she lives with her daughters hunting for cash. She eventually wired N30,000 raised from friends and family. But Mr. Shina and his wife spent the money.
Mr. Ayo again phoned her mum. And she ran around borrowing money which she wired, eagerly awaiting her daughter’s return. But the Shina Ayos spent the money as well. Many people touched by the mishap which had befallen her made generous donations. But the money were kept in care of Mr. and Mrs Shina Ayo. Tunmininu only heard about the money.
Frustrated, one day, she pleaded with the slave-master’s elder brother who had just returned from Nigeria to snap her injuries and take the pictures to the Nigerian embassy in Libya. He did. “I didn’t know there was free flight to Nigeria. One of the doctors to the IOM came to check on me and treated me for like 10 days before being told I would be returning to Nigeria May 25th, 2017.”
Hopes Dashed, Continuous Suffering
Tunmininu never paid a dime for treatment in Tripoli. Even for the surgeries. The IOM in Libya had assured her the organization would be responsible for her operation and treatment upon returning to Nigeria. But the exact opposite happened.
“I was surprised that on getting to Nigeria they did nothing. I was only given a note to go to general hospital- LASUTH (Lagos State University Teaching Hospital) Ikeja. On getting there, I was billed N150,000 and we don’t have anything.” She left the hospital feeling rejected.
Ready to Leave Nigeria at Whatever Cost… Again
Tunmininu says she has suffered so much rejection since arriving Nigeria. Her mother and sisters are the only persons who haven’t stigmatized her.
Asked if she would be willing to embark on another trip out of Nigeria, say to the United Kingdom or United State, if assisted by this reporter; without pausing to ponder over it, she said yes. “Notwithstanding all you went through in Libya?” the reporter asked again. “Yes. Not that I want to go and do job that is not good.” She was just meeting this reporter for the first time.
Our Children Will Never Marry Human Traffic Survivors
Rejection and stigmatization of human trafficking survivors are major reasons why more illegal migrants from Nigeria would flood Europe. Survivors are not rejected and stigmatized by friends and families alone. The society; particularly parents, say they wouldn’t allow their sons marry them. Mrs. Ayo Lawal, a trader in Lagos state profiles them as unsuitable for marriage.
“I will not allow my child to marry any of them because we heard it is dirty work they went to do there. Dirty work like prostitution; so many different men would have had intercourse with them. As a Christian, I can’t allow my child marry such a person”.
Mrs. Opaleye, a trader popularly known as Iya Bukky in Akute Ogun state vehemently kicks against such union. “I won’t accept it. We heard in the news and over the TV the kind of work the Libya returnees do over there. We heard they prostitute themselves with males and females sleeping with themselves; males and males have intercourse, and females do the same thing. Even dogs sleep with them. Are those the kind of persons my son should bring home as a wife? It’s not possible.
“Anyone who brings such home as a spouse should know it is a dog he/she has brought home. And they may have contracted all manner of infections before being deported to Nigeria, so, they will start spreading it all over the place. No, I can’t agree for my child to marry any of them” .
For Olamide Timothy, an undergraduate, residing in Ogun State, getting married to a survivor is an impossible mission.
“According to what I am hearing about them, I don’t think I can marry any of them. Because some amongst them may have been infected with HIV due to the kind of work they did over there before returning to Nigeria” Asked what would happen if she only got to know after the wedding, “Haaa! If we haven’t had anything in common, I can still break up the marriage”.
Trafficking Survivors as Credible Contributors to Societal Development
Mr. Festus Keyamo a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) says the returnees are already being profiled by the society. Anyone who has gone through such experience, he stated, is perceived to be damaged psychologically and won’t make good partners. He emphasized that survivors can still live normal lives. “We should ensure as a society we protect their identities and they are reintegrated back into the society gradually and they would become like us living normal lives”.
Mrs. Kehinde Akomolafe, Commander, NAPTIP Lagos, disclosed survivors in NAPTIP’s care have been able to live normal lives, are getting married and having children for their husbands.
Dr. Bolanle Ola, Head of Psychiatry, LASUTH and a Consultant Psychiatrist says human trafficking survivors are credible people who are ready to contribute to the development of the society. “If veterans of the Vietnam war could be fully rehabilitated, who says other people cannot? I mean, with full comprehensive health and policy backing, they have a very high potential to be fully rehabilitated into the community”.
He said anti-trafficking agencies should be well equipped by the Nigerian government and proper budgetary allocations be created for them. He called on the media to provide credible information to the masses so that the society wouldn’t be afraid of human trafficking survivors, but support them.
“There is nothing to really fear when all these relevant things are provided. Early recognition of symptoms in returnees to access treatment will go a long way to help. There should be campaign against stigma as that is a huge challenge in people seeking mental health care. The media also should follow the WHO (world health organization) guidelines in carrying out their reports in order to ensure they too don’t stigmatize survivors of such traumatic events” he advised.
Ms. Peter still jobless, lost her baby October 2017 while he was nine month old after a brief illness at the General Hospital, Agbor, Delta State. Devastated over the demise of her son and rejection from family, she now squats with a friend in Lagos state.
Tunmininu, is still at home without a job or money for her surgery. She lives off others buying her medications with whatever little donations she is given. She hopes to produce a gospel album and own a supermarket someday to care for herself, mum and sisters.
Editor’s Note: The gospel singer’s real name is not Tunmininu. It was changed for her privacy, while photos and video recordings of her and Ms. Peter are not used to protect them from stigmatization.
This story was produced with support from Code For Nigeria and Lagos Global Shapers.