When night falls in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the human traffickers enter the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.
“People come there in the evening for recruiting, I can say, taking young girls, going away with them. I see it as they are going there for sexual exploitation,” said Mitika Ali, the zonal commander for Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency known as NAPTIP.
Ali says because of human trafficking, many female residents of the camps will eventually be taken away from Borno state.
Nigerian activists Philip Obaji Jr. and Yusuf Mohammed Ciroma began the “Up Against Trafficking” campaign in April to let the government know how big the problem is and to warn IDPs about the dangers of traffickers, who seduce them with false promises of employment.
“So they will carry them out and they will not even give them jobs. Then they will start selling them like slaves. And after starting this campaign, we got some victims that faced these challenges,” Ciroma, the campaign’s deputy national coordinator told VOA.
He said a woman named Ya Batu Bukar told him about her ordeal, being trafficked from Maiduguri to Niger where she says she was abandoned with no food and money.
“I don’t want another woman here to pass through the same pain, and that is why I am part of this campaign,” Bukar said, as noted in the campaign press release.
Maiduguri is where the extremist sect Boko Haram formed in 2002 and began its deadly war against the Nigerian government in 2009. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the group’s insurgency.
More than 2 million people abandoned their homes to escape the group’s wrath and many have ended up in Maiduguri, taking refuge in overcrowded camps.
Ali told VOA that NAPTIP officials have not received any official reports of trafficking in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), because it’s done in secrecy, but he is aware of the trend.
At least 200 women have joined “Up Against Trafficking.”
Nana Abdullahi, an orphan, is among them. She left the city of Bama in Borno State after Boko Haram fighters invaded. The 15-year-old found herself selling goods on the streets of Maiduguri to earn cash. A man approached her one day and said he could help her.
“I told him I would like a job so that I can take care of myself. He said ‘OK’ and he took me. I thought we were going to some place like Kano [a northern Nigerian city], but when we got there, he went all the way with me to Niger,” she told VOA.
After one month, she also ran away and managed to return to Maiduguri.
Human trafficking is widespread in Nigeria. Africa’s most populous nation is a notorious hotspot for exploiters to lure people abroad and the trend is decades old. Thousands end up in European or American cities or in detention centers. Reports of brutal treatment of Nigerians trafficked to Libya have made international headlines in recent months.
Many accuse the Nigerian government of not doing enough to stop the scourge.
In 2017, the United States government said, “the government of Nigeria does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, however, it is making significant efforts to do so.”
Ali told VOA that his team is trying its best. Law enforcement officials are being trained about anti-trafficking protocols, traffickers are now facing conviction and Nigerians are being repatriated.
NAPTIP officers distribute flyers in IDP camps, but the unofficial camps are often missed.
Smuggled to Saudi Arabia
Maryam Haruna, 35, now lives in one of the makeshift camps, cobbled together by people who found themselves homeless in Maiduguri.
A few years ago, she gave birth to twins and said she couldn’t afford to take care of them.
“I was hopeless. I suffered a lot after giving birth to them, so I started asking for help. ... I kept begging and begging until I got so tired of it,” she said.
That’s when a man gave her a job offer and she immediately took it, not knowing exactly where it was.
She was smuggled into Saudi Arabia and worked there for two years, finally making money as a domestic helper. She had to pay back the smuggler for taking her there.
She grew accustomed to the situation and was upset when it ended.
“Unfortunately, one day when I was coming back from work, I got caught and was deported back home,” she said.
Haruna said she wants to go back because life there as an illegal migrant was better than her life living as refugee in Nigeria.