Nigeria: Eliminating human trafficking to harness people power

Edith Onyemenam
By Edith Onyemenam

A retired Assistant Comptroller-General from Nigeria's Immigration Service. Over the span of her 35-year career, she has served in the Directorates of Migration, Passports, Visa, Quota, and several others.

Posted on Wednesday, 13 July 2022 18:32, updated on Thursday, 14 July 2022 01:48

An Immigration officer points in a direction to Nigerian returnees from Niger, who are waiting to be processed by the Nigeria Immigration service, at Damasak, Borno, Nigeria April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Today, human migration – in its connections to a multiplicity of issues good and bad – is right on the front burner of global conversation: making headline news, forming the basis of protests and influencing strategic government action.

In the UK and the USA, two countries which often top the list of immigration destinations for Nigerians, recent political discourse has featured a surge of anti-migrant rhetoric.

On the one hand, Donald Trump’s tenure as president of the US trained its focus on building a wall to hold back the steady tide of Latin American immigrants. On the other hand, the influx of European migrants in the UK was a pivotal issue in that country’s withdrawal from its nearly three-decade-long membership in the European Union.

These issues have highlighted Canada’s favourable immigration policy, which has welcomed skilled migrants through its fast-track programme for the acquisition of permanent residency. Immigration and its exponential increase over the course of the last century led to the phenomenon of globalisation, which is now reckoned with as a major catalyst for worldwide development. It is no secret then that immigration policy is at the backbone of successful governments around the world.

In Nigeria, immigration policy and its consequences have been a major contributor to the state and fate of the nation. Statistics available to the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) confirm that non-state actors smuggled in from neighbouring countries have swelled the ranks of militias who have participated in the destruction of lives and property across the country.

Domestic insecurity, despite Nigeria’s peaceful relations with its neighbours and the international community, has been a national concern since the return to democracy in 1999. In tackling these clear and present dangers, the NIS has been on the front lines and has played a crucial role in mitigating the effects of these pressing matters. But there is still a lot to consider.

Human trafficking

One rather disturbing immigration concern in Nigeria continues to fall through the cracks. A ‘Human Trafficking Fact Sheet’ published by the Pathfinders Justice Initiative in September 2020, addresses the problem of human trafficking as it affects Nigeria.

According to the publication, the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain is a multibillion-dollar global industry raking in some $150bn in profits. As with arms dealing, drug smuggling and piracy, human trafficking often takes place across international borders, circumventing immigration law and policy.

However, human trafficking does not have the same high profile because of the sordid nature of the reasons for trafficking and the fact that they occur strictly in black markets conducted by shadowy operatives. Unlike arms dealing and piracy which occur at the intersection of legitimate trade and illicit activities, human trafficking is always off the radar and very difficult to track.

Who is punished?

According to a US state department report (2020), there were only approximately 12,000 prosecutions and 10,000 convictions for human trafficking worldwide, while a very small number of the individuals trafficked were identified.

Although the overwhelming majority of human trafficking involving Nigeria occurs within our borders (an estimated 98% of those incidents happening within Nigeria’s land borders both inter-state and intra-state), the numbers are so overwhelming as to make the remaining 2%  who are taken abroad against their will, and against the law, a significant number.

It is even more horrifying that two-thirds of global profits from human trafficking are generated from the commercial sexual exploitation of girls and women. As a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking, Nigeria has been ranked by CNN as the most trafficked-through country in all of Africa. This is an economic challenge when one considers the effort currently put into forging a better reputation for the country as a location for foreign direct investment, trade and tourism.

Relocation?

Of course, there is no gainsaying the political truths undergirding the persistence of human trafficking. It is not immigration policy but rather factors such as unemployment, inflation and poverty that have left Nigerians struggling to make a living. Among young Nigerians and increasingly among middle-aged Nigerians, relocation is the premise and punchline of many jokes and conversations.

Leaving Nigeria rather than staying back to contribute to the rebuilding process is the more common sentiment. Nigerians have besieged embassies representing foreign governments all across the world with applications for visas and other migratory documents, desperate to seek better living elsewhere, outside our shores. And that is where the snake-oil salesmen of the underworld have stepped in with promises of a better life, in order to deceive Nigerians into the schemes and traps that are crucial to human trafficking.

Therefore, it is easy to conclude that the first defence against irregular migration and, by extension, human trafficking, lies with boosting development outcomes and improving the indices that measure the standard and condition of daily life in Nigeria.

What needs to be done?

While the current administration continues in its efforts at economic and socio-political growth, the NIS must play its part in issuing and enforcing policy directives and regulations and adhering to extant laws that regulate immigration into and emigration out of the country. At present, the wide-ranging powers afforded the NIS by the Immigration Act, including to inspect, investigate, detain, deny entry or exit, and mandate conditions for migration inter alia, must be better used to verify the identities and reasons for travel of people passing through Nigerian borders.

Perhaps more important is the need to establish transnational inter-governmental ties. The UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime is an important creation of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime which, if codified through legislation, would enable Nigerian participation in cross-border policing.

Working together with agencies from all the state parties signatory to the convention, which includes some of the most powerful nations in the world, is important. The exchange of information and expertise can only help in building a more sophisticated system for regulating migration and preventing human trafficking.

The UN convention is a powerful instrument designed in particular to combat crime, corruption and human trafficking. Its second and third protocols specifically proscribe human trafficking and migrant smuggling, twin forces of the same evil. If the government follows through, Nigeria would be signalling its clear intent to overcome, through coordinated policing and common immigration objectives, the scourge of human trafficking.

Nigeria’s people are at the core of any government’s agenda and the NIS subscribes to orderly, legal migration in all its forms. Human capital development – key to unlocking a knowledge-centred economy which is vital for growth and prosperity – cannot proceed if human capital continues to leave through the front door of relocation and, especially, the back door of human trafficking.

The prevention of this illicit activity and the grave issues it raises, protection of the vulnerable from exploitation by uncivil society and prosecution of the unruly factions responsible must become pillars of Nigerian immigration policy overall.

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