By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin City
The battle to end human trafficking in Edo State is far from over following stories told by some natives who returned from Libya. About 2, 500 natives stranded in the North African country had returned home since August 2017. But despite the fact that they were helped back home by the Federal Government after their inhuman treatment in that country, the cartel involved in the illicit trade seems to have continued to sponsor natives to Europe through Libya. Sunday Vanguard gathered that even some of the victims who returned last year and were rehabilitated by the state government through the Committee against Human Trafficking may be back in Libya after they could not sustain themselves economically in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, 20-year-old Vivian Imunero, who is among the 65 who returned, penultimate week, lamented that her younger sister was recently sponsored to Libya by a kingpin, said to be a Nigerian woman residing in Italy. “As we speak, the same woman who took me to Libya sponsored my younger sister’s trip to the country and she is over there now involved in prostitution. I am not happy about it. I understand how things work there and I know it is not good because they don´t use condom there. I was raped in a place called Gatron in Libya”, she told Sunday Vanguard.
“This happened when we were going to Saba. Our vehicle parked there and they said we were going to sleep there. These Libyan men will come to the section where they keep women; they will wake us up one after the other and rape us. They will put gun to your head and you must follow them. But I thank God I did not contract any disease after all”.
Saying she became pregnant for a Libyan man, Vivian said, “He is a white man that pushes people to Italy. He saw me and told me he wanted to help me which he did even though he abandoned me later. When I went to prison, I was supposed to pay money before they freed me but I did not pay a dime because he came to free me. I travelled with the help of one guy called Biggy. He resided at Upper Sakponba Road here in Benin-City. Somebody in our village took me to him and he contacted one ‘Madam’ operating from Italy. Biggy gave me N15, 000 that day. As we speak ‘Madam’ is threatening to kill me because we took oath before I left Nigeria. Biggie and one other man took me to a native doctor on the orders of ‘Madam’ to take the oath. We were two girls and we took oath that if we got there and ran away or slept with her husband or failed to pay her money, juju should kill us. They killed a chicken and gave us the heart raw to eat. Then they gave us water to bath and asked us to go. Biggy is the one taking girls to Italy through Libya and, from there, ‘Madam’ will arrange how the girls get to their final destination. ‘Madam’ is angry that I am supposed to wait in Libya until I could make it to Italy because she wanted me to come and be making money for her through prostitution. She didn’t care how I fed while I was in Libya; she never sent me money to eat. I was even raped and she did not care”.
She went on: “I discovered I was pregnant on April 26, 2017 when I went for test. I felt bad because I knew I was young to have a baby, besides there was nobody on ground to help me. However, I decided to leave it because I remembered my mother always said a child is a blessing. I just prayed that God will help me and that is why I named the baby Treasure.
“I spent two years in Libya. I once entered a boat heading to Italy but the boat was arrested on the high seas by some Libyans who took us back to Libya. I called ‘Madam’ to inform him that they had taken me back to Libya. She started threatening that she was going to make trouble with my family and I in Nigeria. Then I met this man who was helping people to get to Italy. I had no option than to stay with him and he took care of my needs. He tried to help me to cross to Italy five times but those five times they arrested me. On the fifth occasion, May 5, 2017, when I was arrested, I was a month pregnant then. Those who arrested me took me to prison where I was ill-treated. All the guards there wanted to sleep with me even with my pregnancy. I refused. One particular man there insisted he must sleep with me but I told him that it is forbidden in my place for a man to sleep with a pregnant woman. Because of that, he starved me of food for several weeks and even beat me up. I never knew my baby will survive. I spent six months in the prison. My parents thought I had died because they were not hearing from me. On October 30, 2017, the father of my baby came to free me from the prison. I gave birth on December 20, 2017. Then I started having issues with the father of my baby and he left me. The only thing I can say I achieved in Libya is this baby girl. I left Nigeria because I had no helper”.
‘I will avenge’
Another returnee, 20-year-old Igbinosu Jennifer, narrated her ordeal. “I headed to Libya on February 9, 2017 through my ‘Madam’ called Mama Gift who lived in Akpata Street, Egor”, she told Sunday Vanguard.
“She said I should go and meet her sister in Italy. But when I got to Libya, it was hell for me. I was arrested and sent to prison.
I was calling my ‘Madam’ to help me out but she said she had no money. I spent four months and three weeks in prison. My boyfriend, a Gambian, helped me out of prison. After that he tried to help me cross to Italy but it did not work and I decided to come back to Nigeria. I will avenge what this woman (‘Madam’) did to me. They deceived me to travel and abandoned me. But the funny thing is that when some of my people heard that I was coming back, they asked what I was coming to do in Nigeria as there is no money here. They didn’t know what I went through. If not for the Gambian man that assisted me, I probably will not be alive today”.
Asked whether she took oath like other girls who went to Libya, she replied, “Yes we took an oath before leaving. We went to a village outside Benin-City, about three hours’ drive. The native doctor was a woman, they called the village Usen. I took an oath that I will never try to escape or call the police to arrest the ‘Madam’ in case of any problem in Italy. I was forced to eat a life chicken in the process and drank something I didn’t even know”.
Meanwhile, Governor Godwin Obaseki, who is tackling the problem of human trafficking from Edo head on, is not finding it easy due to the financial burden of catering for the returnees and the battle against the cartel perpetrating this evil. The governor recently told Sunday Vanguard, “The first thing we did was accepting that there was a problem. Even in our political debates and conversations everybody pretended about it. Again you have to understand the economics of migration; they are people who support their families at home from what they get over there, so politicians don’t want to talk about it to avoid a backlash. So the first thing we did was that we accepted there was a problem, illegal migration has taken a new dimension. It was not just about the girls going to Europe, it has become more serious, so many people were getting involved, so many people were losing their lives and, as a government, we have a responsibility to deal with it. That acceptance led us to all other things we did, like setting up a Task Force to deal with the situation. We domesticated national laws to make penalties for trafficking stiffer and that Task Force began to develop more responses to the problem. First, how do you deal with the returnees, how do you resettle them, how do you reintegrate them? And the Task Force has done very well, you can verify the progresses from the IOM and I believe it is only Edo that has a Task Force.
“The other issue is that we never expected that the repatriations would bring a large number of returnees very quickly. So we were not really prepared financially for that but we are coping. Though we have been stretched and that is why we are reaching out to the Federal Government and donor partners to see how we can get resources to deal with the size of the problem. And the way we see it, the first thing is advocacy, trying to make potential victims see the hazards associated with being trafficking. We have a team at the airport any time we have Edo natives coming back; we welcome them, transport them back to Benin, run a medical check on them, counsel them, give them stipends and put them in skill programmes to help them rebuild self-confidence and open up opportunities for them for jobs.
“It was not in my consciousness. I did not appreciate it until we went to Rome, where we had a session with the Italian parliament and the security forces, and, in their briefings, they narrated how Nigerian confraternities got involved, that there is actually a Nigerian mafia that runs the trade in collaboration with the Italian mafia. For us as a government, it is just to focus on law and order and strengthen the institutions such as the police, the judiciary, the prison system, just to ensure that these institutions work. So we don’t single out any special group for special action. Just strengthen the institutions and people will respect themselves”.
Stressing the need for stakeholders to fight human trafficking in the state, the Chief of Staff to the governor, Mr Taiwo Akerele, said, “Often times, the governor does not sleep well after seeing the mayhem against our people in Libya. It is really sad and that is why he is determined to make the economy of Edo the best in Africa, not just in Nigeria”.