Awka — Interceptions and convictions of human traffickers and smugglers have risen year-on-year in Nigeria since the government passed legislation to ban the trade in 2005, but the volume of trafficking is still high and progress on convictions needs to speed up, say government officials.
"Trafficking rates have come down,,,and convictions are up," Ego Uzoezie, Commissioner of Women Affairs in Anambra State Ministry told IRIN, "but the progress is not as high as we'd like when we compare it to the efforts the government has put in."
Nigeria uses the UN definition of trafficking, which includes recruiting, transporting, harbouring or receiving people through use of force or coercion, abduction, or fraud; and exploiting a person in a position of vulnerability for forced labour or servitude.
How many men, women and children are trafficked each year in Nigeria is unknown - the only figures on record are the number of people law enforcement officers have intercepted since the National Agency Prohibiting Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) was set up in 2004.
Over 4,000 victims were intercepted between 2004 and the end of 2009, with the number rising each year to reach 1,000 in 2007 and 1,269 in 2008, according to NAPTIP.
Most children trafficked and smuggled in Nigeria are sent by families to work as domestic labourers, with a minority used as street beggars, or sold into marriage or to illegal orphanages, according to NAPTIP. Families pay middlemen to take children across the borders to West African destinations like Togo and Cameroon, or north to Saudi Arabia, said Simon Chuzie Egede, the head of NAPTIP.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) child protection specialist in Abuja, Sharon Oladiji, said poverty was still the main reason families pushed children to leave home to find work.
"I was sold by my mother because of a 20,000 naira [US$137] debt she owed a yam-seller. Later I was forced into early marriage by him [the seller]," said Grace Ikede (not her real name), from Rivers State. She was lucky - the man she married helped her trace her family when he heard her story. "We are on the look-out for the seller, but he is on the run," she told IRIN.
The government has been making progress in the fight against traffickers and smugglers, partly because the Ministry of Women's Affairs, NAPTIP, the police, immigration services, and child protection agencies such as UNICEF, have started working closely together, Egede told IRIN. Prosecutions have steadily risen since 2006, with 67 traffickers convicted between 2004 and the end of 2009, UNICEF said.
On the US State Department list rating countries' efforts to eliminate the worst forms of trafficking, Nigeria rose from tier-two to tier-one status
"This is a clear sign Nigeria has made progress in preventing trafficking, punishing traffickers and protecting children," UNICEF's Oladiji told IRIN.
In 2009 the government also set up a Victims Trust Fund, through which assets confiscated from traffickers are transferred to victims. NAPTIP said so far the assets of two traffickers in Sokoto State had been seized.
But prosecuting traffickers was still "achingly slow", Oladiji said, with dozens of cases awaiting trial. A 2009 report on Nigeria's justice system noted that detainees could wait up to nine years for conviction. NAPTIP's southern zonal coordinator, Ijeoma Okoronkwo, said it would take state-by-state reform of the prosecution system to speed up the rate.
Oladiji told IRIN that preventing trafficking would have to be stepped up in view of the sluggish prosecution service, and stressed that this must be a community effort, not a family-by-family attempt. UNICEF has been working with communities in at-risk border areas to encourage them to protect vulnerable families from turning to child smugglers.
A human rights lawyer in Anambra State, Ben Nwosu, told IRIN that punishments should be made more severe to deter traffickers. "The fines and jail terms given to those convicted and sentenced are still not enough compared to the inhumane treatment that the traffickers subject their victims to."
NAPTIP is evaluating the impact of its recent efforts - including the Victims Trust Fund, among other tools - to better prioritize its funding, Egede told IRIN.
To attract more funding for the fight, NAPTIP and all other agencies involved should develop clear action plans on prevention and prosecution, so that donors could peg funding to the initiative, UNICEF's Oladiji told IRIN.
The governments of Italy, Switzerland, Finland and the United States have recently supported anti-trafficking activities in Nigeria.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]