Sex workers are some of the easy targets of human traffickers in Nigeria. Poverty and collapse of law and order in Libya has made it easy for various gangs to sneak sex workers from various states of Nigeria to Europe, where various reports show they suffer gross human rights violations and abuse.
Hundreds of others have died while attempting to make the boat journey to countries like Italy, Greece and Spain. Statistics show that over 3,000 migrants from different African countries died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2017.
Nigeria is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children subjected to trafficking in persons including forced labour and forced prostitution in the detention camps in Libya.
Trafficking in persons is the third most lucrative illegal trade in the world, after trafficking in illegal arms and hard drugs.
According to Caritas Nigeria, Nigeria is a well-known source country for international human trafficking and is ranked eighth globally. Many hundreds of young Nigerian girls are trafficked to Europe and Asia every year, where they are put to work in brothels and strip clubs, or sent out to prostitute themselves in the streets.
United Nation agencies say over 10, 000 girls and women have been trafficked from Nigeria to various cities in Europe where they are sexually exploited in the last three years.
The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons of Nigeria says it is working with various agencies in Europe especially Italy and Spain where ring leaders of notorious smuggling cartels operate from. This March, the Nigeria Agency, the British Government and Guardia Civil, the Spanish Law Enforcement Agency, rescued 39 women.
While the problem needs a global solution to address the political instability in Libya and also addressing poverty in Nigeria, human rights activists say the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and other NGOs dealing with the issue need to step up advocacy and civic education.
According to the Nigeria Sex Workers Association, human trafficking should be dealt with ruthlessly, but legal loopholes and cultural views on sex work have made it difficult for culprits to be punished.
The National Coordinator, Amaka Anemo, sex worker trafficking is a matter of concern and the association is looking to partner with organisations working on the issue to educate its members and also be part of a national awareness campaign. She says conflating sex trafficking and consensual sex work has made life difficult in some states. Human trafficking is a gross violation of rights involving the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation. Sex work involves an agreement with a client. However, in most cases, anti-trafficking initiatives regard all sex workers as victims sometimes subjecting them to the so-called rehabilitation programmes.
According to the Nigeria Constitution, sex work is not criminalised rather the people that benefit from the proceeds of sex work. However, a sex worker can be punished when caught negotiating sex with a client.
Even without a legal basis for criminalisation of operational aspects of sex work, sex workers are harassed and punished by law enforcement agencies that apply other laws such as those on vagrancy.
Due to the law being silent on sex work, sex workers, on the one hand, are forced to work in dangerous conditions and subjected to violence (often by law enforcement authorities and a times by their clients), on the other hand, sex workers are unable to defend their rights.
In a Shadow Report presented at the 67th CEDAW Session Geneva, Switzerland last year, Amaka said law enforcers are among the greatest violators.
“From the gender violence incidents recorded, it was gathered that almost all the sex workers detained by law enforcement agencies were violated. According to the results regarding violations of sex workers’ rights during administrative detention, it showed that almost all sex workers questioned had been subjected to unlawful detention,” she says.
Amaka adds: “Mos times, sex workers are forced or blackmailed to say all sorts of things or they would be exposed to the media for everyone to know that they are doing sex work.”
She also says that criminalisation of sex work limits their rights.
“The penalisation of sex work leads to silence in the face of human rights abuses. It is difficult for women to speak. They even fear protesting in defense of their rights due to the criminalisation and stigmatisation,” she says.