Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-NIGERIA: Life Sentence for Human Traffickers

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Jul 28 2003 (IPS) - More than 45,000 Nigerians are transported to Europe every year and forced to work in brothels. The lucky ones, who reach their destinations safely, often do so after encountering untold hardships on the way.

Several of the girls were roasted in the Sahara heat, while trying to cross North Africa to Europe recently, according to the police.

To combat the trade, Nigeria is now getting tougher on human trafficking. It is imposing a life sentence on anyone caught trading in humans.

"Any person who procures a girl or woman … to become a common prostitute either in Nigeria or elsewhere is liable to life imprisonment," says a new law on human trafficking.

The law, signed by President Olusegun Obasanjo last week, also prescribes a fine of 100,000 Naira (about 1,000 U.S. dollars) for any Nigerian convicted of human trafficking. These penalties are a marked difference from earlier laws on human trafficking, which handed out a jail term of just two years.

But, for the law to be effective, rights activists have urged the government to enforce it.

Peter Ebigbo, president of the Nigeria-based African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect, says Nigeria police should be empowered to link up with other law enforcement agents abroad. And that effective mechanism should be put in place to check Nigeria’s porous borders and movement of traffickers.

The trafficking of children and women has remained under the carpet for too long. ”Until such laws are enforced, they are just dead letters,” one rights activist told IPS.

But President Obasanjo has assured that the new law would be enforced. ”The new law will be implemented to stem the tide of this Modern Day Slave Trade,” he said, while signing the bill into law.

Until recently, all laws on human trafficking and prostitution in Nigeria were scattered in various criminal codes and law books. And punishments for offenders were very light and largely not enforced.

The new law is a handiwork of non-governmental organisations such as Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF) founded by Titi Abubakar, wife of Nigeria’s vice president. It is a collation of all laws on human trafficking and prostitution in the various legal books of Nigeria.

”The old laws did not even mention giving assistance to victims. But this has been taken care of by the new law. Trafficking is an emerging problem worldwide. It is thriving in Nigeria because the punishment for offenders is too light,” said a rights activist.

She told IPS that human trafficking is an organised crime which needs to be fought with every available means and culprits given the harshest of punishments.

At the signing ceremony, an elated Abubakar called for the setting up of a specialised organisation to enforce the law and bring perpetrators to book.

”Our organisation was motivated by the realisation that the perpetrators of this heinous crime are specialists who have specialist routes, specialist language and specialist means of operation. To confront them with the same zeal of force, the need for a specialist organisation like the National Agency for Trafficking in Persons Law Enforcement and Arrest, becomes inevitable,” she said.

”Since three quarters of the Nigerian population are women and children, we should make their welfare and rights our priority. We cannot allow the issue of trafficking to be subsumed under the general duty of the police. The police has so much to do in fighting high profile crime like murder, armed robbery and advanced fee fraud,” she said.

"We shall not only catch traffickers, but assist to protect the victims,” Abubakar said.

Human trafficking may not be a high profile criminal act like drugs. But it is a crime that not only destroys the country’s future but also the lives of its victims.

The 2001 UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report estimated that one million children worldwide enter the multi-billion dollar commercial sex trade every year. Most of these children are caught up in child sex tourism.

Most of the children are usually citizens of less developed countries such as Nigeria who are carried to developed countries to feed the sex tourism industry there. Major causes of commercial sexual exploitation of children are poverty and armed conflicts which have caused a rise in the number of trafficking cases as well as the spread of the crime to areas which were previously less affected, according to UNICEF.

As part of efforts to check the menace internationally, an Europe-Africa summit was held in Brussels in Oct. 2001, where countries agreed to draw up a Plan of Action Against Human Trafficking.

Part of collaborative efforts in the fight against human trafficking across borders is the teaming up of the immigration authorities in Nigeria with their foreign counterparts. The exercise has yielded positive results. Last year it culminated in the deportation of 142 girls and young men from Italy, 160 from Spain, 59 from the Netherlands, four from the United States, 13 from South Africa, six each from Ireland, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger Republic.

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