This week, the Guardian reported that the trafficking of Nigerian women and girls into prostitution in Europe is “at crisis level”.
The trend, though shocking,is not new. Criminal networks have become established over recent decades, and the flow of women and girls from Nigeria to Europe is recognised as one of the most persistent in global trafficking. What is new is the dramatic increase in scale of this trade in human suffering.
I recently visited affected communities in Nigeria and reception points in Italy where women and girls first arrive.
I was shocked to see how easily opportunistic criminals have been able to use the migration crisis to scale-up their trafficking operations. In 2015, 5,633 Nigerian women and girls arrived in Italy, an almost fourfold increase on the number that arrived in 2014. The numbers have increased again this year. The International Organisation for Migration believes that close to 80% of these women and girls are trafficking victims who criminals plan to exploit in brothels across Europe.
Many will have already suffered violence during the dangerous journey from Nigeria and across the Sahara. There are numerous accounts of women being raped in “connection houses” in Libya, kept in prison-like conditions while they wait to be crammed on to boats to make the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean.
A large number of these victims are likely to end up being exploited in the UK. The criminal networks are embedded across Europe and move their victims to where they see the best opportunities for profits. The government estimates there are up to 13,000 victims of modern slavery across the UK (pdf), and Nigeria has consistently been one of the top countries of origin among victims identified here.
Earlier this month I met with border officials at Heathrow airport, who had been part of an operation to bring to justice a 38-year-old woman who had been trafficking Nigerians through the airport. She was found to have trafficked about 40 victims, mainly young girls, and at Isleworth crown court last week she was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Despite the scale of the issue, the UN and Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency have reported that more than 90% of girls and women trafficked to Europe for sexual exploitation are from just one state: Edo state, in the south of the country. To put this in context, Edo is home to less than 2% of Nigeria’s population.
Traffickers in Edo are increasingly targeting women and girls, and also boys, from vulnerable rural communities. They are deceived with false offers of employment in Europe, and even those who are aware that they might have to work as prostitutes have no understanding of the brutal exploitation to which they will be subjected. It is no coincidence that the trafficker convicted at Isleworth was from Edo.
This is a trafficking crisis and we must act now. The new prime minister, who as home secretary introduced the Modern Slavery Act, has demonstrated leadership by announcing a £33m international modern slavery fund.
To combat this crime, increased prioritisation must be given to dismantling Nigerian trafficking networks operating across Europe. In addition, more thought must be devoted to tackling the European demand that partly fuels the trade.
But most crucial of all is increased emphasis on strategic prevention at source, the absence of which has enabled the trade to boom over recent years.
Prevention activity focused on Edo state, as Nigeria’s key trafficking hub, must be a core focus of the government’s new fund. I have visited the region on several occasions. Local leaders want to tackle the problem. Academics there have also completed work looking at the causes of the trafficking trade and protective factors that are likely to be effective.
This work, combined with engagement with community leaders, faith groups, NGOs and government agencies, reveals three aspects of prevention on which the government should focus.
The first is to work with local communities in an effort to challenge attitudes that have normalised payments to facilitators to transport young people into Europe. The focus here should be on communicating the realities of the trafficking experience.
I met a mother in Edo who told me her eldest son was murdered by traffickers in Libya. She then had to sell all of her possessions to secure the release of her younger son. Her one wish was for others to know about the true dangers of the journey, in order to prevent more mothers experiencing such heartbreak.
The second aspect is to work with Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency, building their capacity to crack down on traffickers operating in Edo. These criminals often act with impunity, especially in remote rural regions.
Communities in Edo must also be supported to provide opportunities for young people that protect them from being enticed by traffickers. The third recommendation is therefore to work with the Nigerian government and businesses to identify and promote sustainable livelihood development that reduces vulnerability to trafficking.
Anti-slavery prevention is smart development policy. Slavery is an impediment to development, and this is certainly the case in Edo, where trafficking has robbed communities of young people who could contribute most to local development.
Effective prevention will always be the best long-term strategy, as it stops people from becoming victims in the first place. It is a smart investment for the UK. In 2013, human trafficking for sexual exploitation was estimated to cost the UK at least £890m. Yes, working in Nigeria has it challenges, and of course there must be rigorous due diligence on use of UK funds. But this issue is simply too urgent to ignore.
Failure to act will mean that thousands more victims are created, and Europe and the UK will be left to deal with the consequences. Addressing the root causes of the trafficking trade is the key to ending this decades old cycle of suffering.
Kevin Hyland is the UK’s first independent anti-slavery commissioner. He was formerly head of the Metropolitan police service’s human trafficking unit.