Nigerian sisters take on the fight against human trafficking

Sister Bibiana EmenahaSister Bibiana Emenaha. Photo by Linus Unah.

When the offer to work as a babysitter in Italy came in 2013, Kpemesi Abu could not ignore the opportunity. Testimonies of young women sending remittances home, building posh apartments and lifting their families out of poverty were rife in her village in southern Nigeria’s Edo state.

Ms. Abu, then a high-school student, was just 20. A classmate connected her to a person in Libya who arranged for her to reach Libya through the neighboring Niger Republic after a weeks-long trek across the Sahara Desert.

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But there her journey to Italy halted; the contact in Libya turned out to be a human trafficker and a pimp. She was forced into sex work. “In Libya, I worked for a madam for more than seven months as a prostitute,” Ms. Abu recalls. “When I was able to raise 2,500 Libyan dinar [around $2,000 at that time] I was able to receive help to get on a boat going to Italy.”

For more than three decades, tens of thousands of young Nigerian women and men have made an arduous journey through the Sahara Desert to Libya where they hope to travel by boat across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. A combination of a rapidly growing population, extreme poverty, unemployment and armed conflict push people to cross Nigeria’s porous borders in search of a better life.

A combination of a rapidly growing population, extreme poverty, unemployment and armed conflict push people to cross Nigeria’s porous borders in search of a better life.

In 2016, more than 181,000 migrants arrived in Italy by sea, the International Organization for Migration reports. Nigeria sent 37,551 of those migrants, up from 22,237 just the year before. The number of women more than doubled from 5,000 in 2015 to 11,009 in 2016. According to the I.O.M., about 80 percent of the women and girls are likely to become victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Ms. Abu fervently prayed her boat would not sink as it crossed the Mediterranean. The I.O.M. reports that between 2000 and 2017 at least 33,761 migrants have died or gone missing on the Mediterranean Sea. But Ms. Abu made it to Italy, and once there she told authorities she was 16 to take advantage of “favorable” child protection referral pathways and get “quick [asylum] documents,” she says.

That small deception worked. After months as a sex worker in Libya, she was ready to continue to work as a prostitute in Italy, where, she heard from others, “our girls made much more money.” But that plan was thwarted when she was transferred to a shelter run by Catholic nuns in the city of Caserta in southern Italy. A few days later at the shelter, she discovered she was five weeks pregnant.

“Later when I gave birth to my baby in May 2015, they made sure I didn’t lack anything and even got me a job where I earned 300 euros monthly for six months.”

The major superiors of Nigerian religious congregations, who often travel to Europe, were deeply troubled whenever they found women from their home country waiting for clients on Italy’s streets. Determined to combat the rising rate of trafficking in women and forced prostitution, the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious formed the Committee for the Support of the Dignity of Women (Cosudow) in 1999, headquartered in Benin City, a major trafficking hub in Nigeria.

With support from the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Bishops of Italy, the sisters built a two-story apartment in 2007 that serves as a shelter for repatriated women and girls. The walls of the shelter are filled with posters on human trafficking, tips for recognizing the tricks of traffickers and information about hotlines to call for help. “That attractive job offer to travel may just be your route to slavery or death. Beware!” one warns; “Just say NO,” another poster says, offering a hotline to call.

Prevention is crucial to addressing the exploitation of women and girls by traffickers. Almost every month, the sisters conduct awareness-raising campaigns in schools, radio stations, churches, markets and local communities to inform people about the dangers of irregular migration and to share the harrowing experiences of trafficking survivors. The sisters also organize campaigns on the streets and walk around Benin City waving banners, sharing leaflets and posters and boldly speaking out via public address systems against the sex trade.

“This country is hard: no electricity, no roads, no jobs for youth, no good salaries for those working, and our leaders are not doing well at all.”

“It is better for our country people to know they have freedom to travel, but then they have to travel the right way,” the committee’s coordinator Sister Bibiana Emenaha, D.C., explains.

In 2015, the European Union and its member states launched the E.U. Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. It is worth over 4.1 billion euros now, and its resources are mainly directed at the root causes of irregular and forced migration. The initiative, which is active in 26 countries in Africa, offers migrants willing to return to their home countries free flights home, shelter on arrival, counseling, business training and support to start their own ventures.

Since April 2017, the I.O.M. has assisted in returning 12,429 migrants (7,245 men and 5,184 women) to Nigeria from Libya, Niger, Mali and other countries. Some of the women have been referred to the committee’s shelter in Benin City, where they receive emergency care and other forms of reintegration support.

The Nigerian sisters allow the women and girls to stay at their shelter for three to six months. There are about 10 rooms with two beds apiece for returnees and a central sitting room with a TV. The shelter also serves as a referral center for a host of organizations, including the I.O.M., the Edo state anti-trafficking task force and other congregations in Europe.

The sisters of Cosudow usually receive a reintegration package from the organization or country repatriating the migrant. The package includes money for accommodations and microgrants to help them start their own business ventures.

Three sisters are working at the shelter now. One of them, a trained psychologist, holds counseling sessions for the women to help them recover. After that, the sisters join forces to offer spiritual direction or religious education and hold sessions on domestic skills like cooking, time management and hygiene. Likewise, Cosudow engages in family tracing and reunification, outreach Sister Emenaha describes as “very difficult and dangerous” because some families have sold almost everything they own to facilitate their child’s journey, and they can react bitterly when their daughters return penniless.

In Libya her journey to Italy halted; the contact turned out to be a human trafficker and a pimp. She was forced into sex work.

Two years ago, Slavery No More, a nonprofit working to end human trafficking, sent word to Sister Emenaha that a Nigerian woman under their care in Italy was terribly sick after undergoing a kidney transplant. Sister Emenaha went in search of the family to inform them.

She eventually found the family and shared the news with them. She named the trafficker responsible and explained that if the woman died, the family would need to raise money to repatriate her body. The young woman died two months later, and her relatives accused Sister Emenaha of murdering her.

Nigerian police used the incident and other misunderstandings and conflicts with family members to harass Sister Emenaha and discredit her work. The sisters feared for their lives and sometimes had to sleep at the diocesan pastoral center. Now, they make sure to have police accompany them on family visits to discourage false accusations from arising.

So far, Cosudow has successfully reintegrated more than 450 trafficked women and girls, some of whom were reunited with their families. Others were offered assistance to start small-scale businesses or given scholarships to return to secondary schools and universities thanks to support from the Archdiocese of Benin, the Italian Union of Major Superiors, the I.O.M. and a number of nonprofits like Solidarity With Women In Distress, Slavery No More and Caritas Italy that focus on trafficking.

Sister Emenaha, a social worker, takes great pride in encouraging the returnees to either learn vocational skills or go back to school; most prefer to take the vocational track. One of the sisters at Cosudow teaches the women and girls how to sew and make soap. For other skills like photography, hairdressing, bead-making, catering, cosmetology and fashion design, the sisters work with another local nonprofit, Idia Renaissance. There instructors teach returned migrants different trades for up to six weeks.

Ms. Abu stayed with Cosudow for six months, while learning how to make soap and cakes, doughnuts and other baked goods. After that, the committee rented a one-bedroom flat as well as a small grocery store for her for one year. She was able to manage it until late last year when the business crumbled.

“That’s our sad story,” says Sister Emenaha, who has seen three women mismanage their ventures since she became Cosudow’s coordinator in 2015. Now, the sisters try to monitor the progress of reintegrated returnees and sometimes solicit additional funds to help those whose businesses are struggling.

“If one or two are successful, at least we have made some progress,” she says, citing the success stories of those who had graduated from school, who got married or whose businesses are thriving.

Despite all the awareness and assistance available for returnees, some people are still keen to embark on the journey to Europe again.

“Most of the problems that forced them to leave are still there,” says Roland Nwoha, the project coordinator of Idia Renaissance. “Poverty is high; electricity supply, unemployment and security have all worsened. When you talk to the returnees you get the sense that it is better to die trying than not to try at all.”

Today, Ms. Abu lives in a single room in Benin City with her 4-year-old son and works with Cosudow as a receptionist. Despite her experience, she still dreams of returning to Italy but, this time, in a safe way and with a passport.

“This country is hard: no electricity, no roads, no jobs for youth, no good salaries for those working, and our leaders are not doing well at all,” she says, her voice rising.

“We are living in darkness; before you know it they will take this light,” she tells America, pointing to the electric bulb on the ceiling of the shelter, the fan beside the bulb whirring.

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6 months 3 weeks ago

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Tim Donovan
6 months 3 weeks ago

I have great respect for the Nigerian sisters who operate a home to provide shelter and other programs for women who are victims of human trafficking. I have never known a woman who has been a victim of what Pope Francis gas rightly termed modern day slavery. However, although I'm a man, the great majority of my co-workers at a school for disabled children where I taught children with brain damage were women. I then worked in our agency's residential program both as an aide an supervisor in group homes. The overwhelming majority of the staff were women. So, I believe my experience working primarily with women (and learning about their concerns and often in detail their needs--sometimes, frankly, some of the women had no compunction about describing needs in intimate detail)! has made me a man who can sympathize with the concerns of women, and in a sense appreciate their needs. Also, many of the residential program staff were immigrants from African nations. At one point when I worked in a group home caring for disabled men, three of my co-workers were immigrants from Liberia. They had fled from a brutal civil war. The details they described of life during war were harrowing, and I imagine that the effects of the civil war caused considerable destitution, perhaps similar to the poverty and other severe problems found in Nigeria. (I live in. a,nursing home/rehabilitation center, and many of the staff are immigrants from Liberia, Sierre Leone, and other nations in Africa. My favorite nurse, who unfortunately left several weeks ago was from Kenya). I do support financially when I can Dawn's Place in Philadelphia, PA. Like the home operated the good sisters from Nigeria, it is a shelter for women who are victims of hum an trafficking. The staff also provide myriad social services to address the many needs of the women. I was surprised to learn from several news sources that human trafficking is a significant problem in our nation. As someone who has worked with, been friends with, and now is cared for by many immigrants, I believe that our nation, while under no obligation in my view to accept unlimited numbers of immigrants, should be compassionate enough to welcome more immigrants. Also, I believe that our nation has an obligation as the leader of the free world and as a beacon of human rights (hopefully our leaders still value this as an ideal) to provide economic development aid to impoverished nations, and humanitarian aid when needed.

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