COVID-19 Slows Down Battle Against Human Trafficking

    Today is World Day against Trafficking in Persons. The Coronavirus pandemic has made difficult the essential role of first responders to victims of modern slavery.

    Elizabeth, do you know how I got to the United States?”
    “My father and mother started it all when they sold me to slavery…I was 14 when one day, my father and mother called me and gave me what I thought was great news… A kind woman had offered to take me to the United States, where I would get the best of everything in this world…”
    The above is an excerpt of a conversation between two prison inmates in a collection of short stories.
    The character was confiding in her jail mate what led to her incarceration while they await the hangman’s noose.
    Her narrative was a revelation and sad commentary on human trafficking in persons which the world has been fighting against, especially today.
    Today is World Day against Trafficking in Persons. The United Nations (UN) designated July 30 every year as a day to raise awareness on the plight of victims of cold-hearted activities of human trafficking, and promote and protect their rights.
    Theme and message
    Just as in the Coronavirus pandemic has provided “frontline workers” as a common refrain for all those who provide medical care for COVID-19 patients in isolation or treatment centres, so are those who work to provide succour for victims of human trafficking are regarded as frontline workers.
    The theme of this year’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons is “Committed to the Cause – Working on the Frontline to End Human Trafficking,” which focuses on the first responders to human trafficking.
    These, according to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, are the people who work in different sectors in a bid to identify, support, counsel and seek justice for victims of trafficking. They also challenge the impunity of the traffickers.
    “The law enforcement officers, social workers, health care professionals, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), members of staff and many others working around the world to protect the vulnerable and to end the crime of human trafficking,” he said.
    In a message entitled “COVID-19 Recovery must Address New Exploitation Risks” to mark this year’s edition, Guterres noted that “during the COVID-19 crisis, the essential role of first responders has become even more important; particularly as the restrictions imposed by the pandemic have made their work even more difficult. Still, their contribution is often overlooked and unrecognised.
    “Like the frontline heroes saving lives and sustaining our societies in the COVID-19 pandemic, these providers are keeping vital services going throughout the crisis. They help in identifying victims, ensuring their access to justice, health, social assistance and protection, and preventing further abuse and exploitation.
    “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many global inequalities, created new obstacles on the path to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and left millions of people at greater risk of being trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced labour forced marriages and other crimes.
    “Women and girls already account for more than 70 per cent of detected human trafficking victims, and currently are among the hardest hit by the pandemic. With previous downturns showing that women face a harder time getting paid jobs back in the aftermath of the crisis, vigilance is especially important at this time.
    “If the world is to put human dignity and human rights at the centre of the COVID-19 response and recovery, we need to do more to protect trafficking victims and prevent vulnerable people from being exploited by criminals.”
    What is human trafficking?
    Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labour or commercial sex act. Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide. It can happen in any community and victims can be of any age, race, gender, or nationality. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.
    Ancient modes of slavery
    When slavery was a legitimate business, those sold by their willing parents were children who fell out of favour with their parents, especially their fathers. The best way of getting rid of their stubborn children was by selling them to slave merchants for paltry sums.
    Selling off their recalcitrant child or children was seen as a form of punishment. The parents and the dealers would haggle over how much to be paid on the child to be sold. Most often the desperate father who was determined to get rid of the said child did not mind if the money offered by the dealer was commensurate with the age or level of reasoning of the unfortunate child. Any amount was evenhanded so long it would make the child and his inconvenience permanently unavailable.
    The modern model of slavery
    Though the nomenclature may vary “the act of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation,” constitutes slavery or trafficking in persons.
    The Palermo Convention Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, regards human trafficking or trafficking in persons as “exploitation of the individual in the form of prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
    Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to encourage their victims or their parents to agree to their proposal of securing exciting job opportunities abroad and then lure and force them into labour or commercial sexual exploitation in the case of girls.
    Oblivious of the gloom that pervades the rosy offer, just as it was in the case of the lady in the collection of stories referred to above, the parents and the victim would willingly buy into it only to regret their actions later when the bubble bursts.
    Efforts at ending slavery, trafficking
    Historical evidence shows that “a strong movement emerged in 18th-century Britain to put an end to the buying and selling of humankind.”
    The struggle, experts say, continued until March 25, 1807, when the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act entered the statute books. That was when King George III signed into law the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, making it illegal for British merchants to enslave people throughout the British Empire.
    In Australia, a Christian organisation has also continued to lend its support to ending contemporary slavery or trafficking in persons.
    Known as World Vision Australia, the organisation works to overcome poverty and injustice among children, families and communities. It runs a campaign tagged Don’t Trade Lives.
    Information from its website indicates that “Don’t Trade Lives examines the issue of labour exploitation worldwide because human trafficking and slavery are about buying and selling of people for exploitative labour or sexual slavery.
    In the United Kingdom (UK), organisations and foundations are also part of the modern fight against trafficking in persons. One of such organisations is the Shiva Foundation, a corporate establishment that aims at tackling and preventing human trafficking and modern slavery, by facilitating a more collaborative and a systemic approach to make change possible.
    Efforts by NAPTIP
    To mark this year’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) has organised an event tagged “Human Trafficking and COVID-19 Pandemic: The Challenges Ahead.”
    According to information on its website, the event billed for 11:00 a.m., in Abuja will have the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development Sadiya Umar Farouq as a special guest of honour.
    The Agency’s Director-General Julie Okah-Donli has revealed that it secured more than 23 convictions of human trafficking offenders last year, even as she said
    749 human trafficking and other related cases were reported to the agency last year, out of which 538 suspects were prosecuted.
    Attributing the agency’s success to support it received from local and international partners, including the media, Okah-Donli stated that “the agency embarked on several programmes in the outgoing year but it majorly concentrated on awareness creation and advocacy which resulted in regional and global engagement with policymakers and other stakeholders.”
    Factors for trafficking
    Studies reveal that conflicts and natural disasters contribute greatly to millions of people leaving their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring countries and beyond, a situation that places stress on existing national systems and resources.
    Again, human trafficking is exacerbated by lack of protection, poverty, lack of access to employment and education, discrimination of minorities and cultural practices.
    Forms of trafficking
    Common forms of human trafficking, according to experts are bonded labour, also referred to as debt bondage. This form of human trafficking, they say, occurs when a person has to work to pay back an inherited debt, or when a debt is incurred as part of the terms of employment.
    Forced Labour is when a person is forced or threatened into providing labour or services without his liberty to stop at will. It often occurs when employers take advantage of vulnerable people, such as those affected by poverty, high rate of unemployment, discrimination, corruption, political conflict, or lack of education or knowledge of their rights.
    Hazardous or exploitative child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity; work that exceeds a minimum number of hours; work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and work that interferes with their schooling.
    Sex trafficking occurs when an adult is forced into (or maintained in) a situation of sexual exploitation. Any person involved in their recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt has committed a trafficking crime.
    Implications of human trafficking
    Not only are trafficked persons exposed to a range of health-related problems, but they also experience physical violence, sexual exploitation, psychological abuse, poor living conditions and exposure to a wide range of diseases.
    Nlerum S. Okogbule has noted that “while moving people is an intrinsic part of trafficking, this may occur within as well as across borders, and it may take a variety of forms.”
    Writing on “Combating the New Slavery in Nigeria: An Appraisal of Legal and Policy Responses to Human Trafficking” in Journal of African Law Vol. 57, No. 1 published by School of Oriental and African Studies, he opined that “unlike those who pay to be smuggled into another country, victims of trafficking have no prospect of making a new life for themselves.
    Confounding statistics
    According to research findings by the Global Slavery Index, 40.3 million people are victims of modern slavery worldwide, 71 per cent of whom are women and girls while children constitute 25 per cent of the figure. In terms of earnings, it is estimated that human trafficking grosses global profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers, of which $99 billion accrues from commercial sexual exploitation.
    Apart from the above global estimates which Nigeria Human Trafficking Factsheet released on February 10 lays credence to, another $51 billion results from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work and other economic activities.
    Citing the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)), it stressed that “the average woman trafficked for forced sexual servitude/exploitation generates $100,000 in annual profits, while an estimate by the United Nations revealed that the smuggling route from East, North and West Africa to Europe is said to generate $150 million in annual profits.”
    According to Pathfinders Justice Initiative, a non-governmental organisation committed to the eradication of modern slavery, women and girls represented 84 per cent of the 15.4 million people in forced marriages and 59 per cent of those in private forced labour.
    On why the dingy business of human trafficking flourishes, the Index also revealed that “the illegal trade is a high profit, low-risk business which allows traffickers to operate with impunity.
    It noted that in 2018, there were only 11,096 prosecutions (down from 17,471 in 2017) and 7,481 convictions (up from 7,135 in 2017) globally, even as it states that of all the global victims, only 85,613 were identified (down from 96,960 in 2017). This is according to 2019 US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report.
    The same report records that 1,253 prosecutions (down from 1,325 in 2017) and 1,190 convictions (more than double the 454 convictions in 2017) were made on the entire African continent in 2018.
    According to the latest Global Slavery Index (2018) Report, Nigeria ranks 32 out of 167 countries with the highest number of slaves – 1,386,000.
    The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) reports that the average age of trafficked children in Nigeria in 2019 is 15.
    The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), has revealed that there are approximately 356,000 IDPs (as of November 2019) and 636, 000 refugees and migrants in Libya (as of January 2020), the country from which a large percentage of migrants attempt the journey into Europe.
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