The Italian ambassador to Nigeria recently claimed that Nigerians constitute one of the largest African migrant groups in his country. In fact, according to various research findings, Nigerian women in particular account for about 90 per cent of all African women in Italy, the vast majority of who are engaged in prostitution.
It is uncertain how many of these women are coerced into the trade by bogus claims of well-paid jobs on the part of the traffickers and how many are aware of what they are letting themselves in for, although the increasing publicity surrounding this shameful practice by the federal government on the one hand, and non-governmental organisations on the other, would suggest that the majority are very much in the know.
In amongst all this it was also the case, at least until recently, that fully 80 per cent of these women came from Edo State. One of the main reasons given for this is that businessmen from that state developed links with Italian companies for purposes of trade when the economy was still buoyant, but as the value of the naira continued to slide and the economy worsened they gradually switched to trafficking women. Benin in particular is reputed to have the largest number of trafficking rings, most of which initially recruited young women from the city itself but have since broadened their net to encompass Delta State as well.
All in all, it is reckoned that there are upwards of 10,000 Nigerian prostitutes in Italy, although large concentrations also occur in Belgium, Holland and, to a lesser extent, France and Germany. The cost of trafficking a woman is put anywhere between $8,500 and $14,000. Once delivered, all their documents are seized and they are forced to pay back between $40,000 and $100,000, which can take up to three years. Failure to do so can lead to unpleasant consequences. In one particular case, a woman who escaped back to Nigeria was beaten so badly that she had to be hospitalised for three months. Additionally, her father's house was burnt down. That said, most women work out their time, either because, without papers, they fear deportation, or because they believe that harm will come to them as a result of the oath they were forced to take before they departed Nigeria.
Up until a few years ago, most trafficked women went by air but with the increasing difficulty of obtaining visas, especially to Europe, many are now forced to travel overland through the Sahara to Libya - at least until the recent upheavals in that county - and thence by boat to Italy. Both the land and the sea crossing are fraught with dangers. Nobody knows how many have died on that route over the years for the obvious reason that few of them travel with papers. Those that do make it complain about being raped along the way.
However, the subsequent concentration of research work in that particular area of the trade obscured the fact that the trafficking of human beings was not confined to the southern part of the country, or only women. More recent studies have shown that trafficking is rampant in all parts of the country. One practice which recently came to light was the phenomenon in the northern states of the so-called diya, where children are taken to Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to work as domestic servants, and then pushed under an oncoming vehicle by their sponsors in order to claim the $27,000 payment laid down by Saudi law. Back home again, they give the grief-stricken parents a paltry $775.
The use of children for domestic labour is certainly not a new phenomenon. What usually happens is that a relative from the city visiting their village will persuade hard-pressed parents to part with their child with the promise that they will be sent to school. The reality is that they work up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for a pittance. The majority of them are physically - and, in the case of girls, sexually - abused by their purported guardians.
Trafficking of minors for child labour in the agricultural sector is also widespread. Akwa Ibom State has reported the highest incidence of this practice, but it seems to be common in most states of the country. Reports suggest that conditions are comparable to what pertained on the slave plantations of the antebellum south before emancipation following on the heels of the American Civil War, which is an irony of sorts since many of the slaves were from the shores of Africa in the first place - many of them from what would later become Nigeria. For once the federal government is to be applauded for establishing the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and other Related Matters (NAPTIP) but the agency itself is bedevilled by the familiar problems of Nigeria, including porous borders, a corrupt police force and a criminal justice system which is hostile to the poor, this last being the reason for the trafficking in the first place.