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Human trafficking a growing menace for Africa

Ben Shemang | Mimi Mefo Takambou
July 28, 2023

A growing number of Africans are being trafficked and exploited along migration routes to Europe and the Middle East. Experts say more urgent international cooperation can curb the disturbing trend.

A girl holding a poster with the word "trafficking"
An archive image of a girl at a protest calling for an end to human trafficking in South Africa Image: NIC BOTHMA/EPA/dpa/picture alliance

Human trafficking and migrant smuggling are on the rise in West Africa.

More than 15,000 Nigerian women and girls who were trying to make their way to Europe are currently stranded in Mali, according to the Nigerian Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). 

One victim, Mary Bello, told DW about her experience. She was introduced into the journey by a friend of a friend, she said. She left Benin, in Nigeria's south for Kano in the north of the country. Bello then rattled off a long list of places in neighboring Niger that she passed through before ending up in Libya.

Young African men at a train station
A group of African migrants pictured in Tunisia in JulyImage: HOUSSEM ZOUARI/AFP

Dangerous trend on the rise

Experts in West Africa say that despite evidence of widespread human trafficking and modern-day slavery, little is heard about prosecutions. 

"I feel strongly that government needs to sit up, prosecute them so that they will serve as a deterrent to others," Francis Kozah, a lawyer based in Kaduna, Nigeria, told DW.

The lack of prosecutions has emboldened many human traffickers who ensnare their victims with the promise of taking them to a better life in Europe.

But the route to Europe holds many dangers. "There was no water, no food, everything was so difficult because when someone is thirsty, you have to beg for urine to take just to quench the thirst," Joyce Vincent, a survivor, told DW.

"It's horrible — people die. Any time I remember it traumatizes me."

Ijeoma Faith, another Nigerian who was trafficked, had a similar experience before she was rescued by the International Organization for Migration. 

"We thank God because some of us escaped death. We lost some of us [who] died on the way. It was not a journey of two days or three days or even a month. Prostitution was all we could do to feed [ourselves]," she told DW.

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Urgent international cooperation needed

Many of Africa's human trafficking victims and survivors  are from West African nations such as Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Senegal. Some traverse the Sahara desert to reach Libya and then on to Europe by sea.

Joyce Vincent says death, enslavement and organ theft are some of the disturbing realities of human trafficking.

"The Asma boys, those thieves, they call them Asma boys in the desert, when they catch you, it's either they sell you for prostitution or they harvest your organs," she said.

A boat carrying migrants
Africans are frequently among the migrants who are rescued in the Mediterranean seaImage: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

In Vincent's country Nigeria, NAPTIP is often criticized for not doing enough to combat human trafficking. 

Josiah Emerole, NAPTIP Director of Intelligence, Research, and Programmes Development says some countries in West Africa have started working together to stop human trafficking.

Emerole told DW that Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS ] member countries are working together to curb human trafficking.

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Policing a 'complex criminal chain'

International police agencies are also working together to stop human trafficking with initiatives such as the Interpol-Afripol Operation FLASH-WEKA.

The operation is the frist cooperation between Interpol and Afripol against human trafficking, and involved police in 54 African nations. It has led to more than 1,000 arrests so far.

Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock recently explained that the complexity of human trafficking hindered efforts to cub it.

"Human trafficking and migrant smuggling are often part of a wider and more complex criminal chain,” Stock said. "This is why close cooperation between Interpol and Afripol is so important in uniting our resources to dismantle these networks and ultimately identify and rescue thousands of unsuspecting victims."

Operation FLASH-WEKA unfolded in two distinct phases in May and June. It aims to dismantle the intricate web of organized crime networks responsible for human trafficking and migrant smuggling, not only within Africa but beyond its borders too.

"Nobody knows that people are being prosecuted that is exactly the truth about it, but people know that people are being trafficked all over the place," said Francis Kozah, the Kaduna-based lawyer.

Stock from Interpol believes that the joint operation is on track to achieving even more. "The leads generated by Operation FLASH-WEKA will no doubt result in further arrests, bringing to justice those who traffic in human misery," he said.

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Edited by Benita van Eyssen