A combination of poverty, corruption and cultural practices appear to fuel the criminal practice of child trafficking and forced labour across continents from Africa to Europe
As a young girl, Maria (surname is removed to protect her) was taken by a relation from her village in Togo to live in Nigeria. That was in 1996. She was aged 12 at that time. She did not come on sightseeing. Instead, the young girl was actually sold into domestic slavery. She worked as a house help to a Nigerian family resident in Lagos keeping the house clean and taking care of their two children. Two years down the line, her employers decided to relocate to the United Kingdom, UK. The busy city of London was their destination of choice. And they also took Maria along. In the UK, she continued with her job. She was not allowed to leave the house and never went to school. To compound her woes, Maria was also always beaten and not given enough food. Soon her cries attracted neighbours. Her matter was reported to Social Services workers who came to her rescue and took her into care in 2002. Unfortunately at that time, there were no laws against trafficking. Domestic slavery was not seen as an issue by the authorities, so the family was never charged.
The story of Victoria Climbie taught Social Services that they had to do more for vulnerable children. Victoria was born in November 1991 in Ivory Coast. She died in February 2000 in London aged eight. To escape the poverty of Africa, her parents entrusted her to Marie Therese Kouao, her great-aunt who brought her to Europe. As it turned out, Climbie was tortured to death by her great-aunt, and the woman's boyfriend Carl Manning. And she need not have died. Police, doctors, social workers all had contact with her while she was being abused. They heard she had scabies so planned visits to her home were aborted. At the time of her death, she had 128 separate injuries on her body (including cigarette stubs). She had been sexually assaulted and seriously malnourished by her great-aunt and her partner.
Jide is another sad story. He was brought to London from Nigeria four years ago at the age of 13. A man who promised to help him fulfil his dreams of becoming a footballer brought him into the UK. He said he knew how to help young boys join football clubs in the UK. Prior to that time, Jide, being an orphan, was living with a friend of the family in Lagos. He had no siblings. The person who brought him to the UK therefore used false papers, as Jide had no proof of identity other than his birth certificate. Once in the UK, he was made to work at a car wash during the day while at weekends, he worked as a toilet attendant in a nightclub. His earnings all went to the man who brought him to the UK. After a year of abuse, he was able to run away from the man. Jide is now under care of Social Services with the support and assistance of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, AFRUCA, a charity set up by Modupe Ariyo, a Nigerian based in London.
Jide was lucky. Other children in the same situation with him are not that lucky. Many of them suffer in silence and remain in captivity because of fear of ritualistic oaths. Indeed, forced labour is very common in the UK. And examples abound. For instance, Tunde and his brother, Seun were brought to the UK by relations after the death of their father in Nigeria in 1996. At that time, they were nine and 10-year-old respectively. Those who brought them to the UK had promised that they would go to school in London. But that has so far turned out to be wishful thinking. The boys, now young men, have only just sorted out their immigration status in the UK.
They insist that they have not been in touch with their mother since 1996. It is thought that perhaps she is also dead. They have no other siblings. Once they arrived in the UK, they were forced to help run their aunt’s restaurant in South London. Their day-to-day tasks included going to the market to buy the foodstuffs used in the restaurant and carrying the foodstuffs home on foot since they were refused money for transport. The boys would walk long distances from the market to the shop. If they took too long to return, they would be severely punished for being late. On return from the market, they would cook the food and serve customers, wash dishes and clean up the restaurant. To achieve all of these, they were woken up at 5am every day and went to bed at midnight. Eventually, they managed to break free from their abusers. Now in their 20s, they are still trying to cope with the effect of their long-term exploitation and abuse.
AFRUCA has made important strides in the fight against child trafficking. Most recently, four child trafficking victims from Nigeria were awarded damages after police failed to investigate their complaints. They were awarded damages totalling £20,000 after a high court judge ruled that the police failed to properly investigate complaints that they were being subjected to slavery in the UK.
The women, who were all aged 15 or less when they were illegally brought to the UK from Nigeria, were each awarded £5,000 after a judge concluded that the Metropolitan Police had breached their human rights by failing to investigate their allegations.
The traffickers, who brought the women to the UK between 1997 and 2002, told their parents that the move would help them to complete their studies. But they ended up working as house helps for fellow Africans. They were forbidden to talk to anyone and prevented from leaving the house. They were also spied on by their guardians and physically abused.
Each of these abused women tried unsuccessfully to seek help from Social Services and police from 2004 onwards, including the Specialist Child Trafficking Unit, Operation Paladin. But they were unsuccessful until AFRUCA came to their rescue in 2007. This intervention later led to their successful claim against the police. The women, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, complained that the Metropolitan Police had infringed their rights under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by failing to investigate over a "significant" period of time.
In another development, for the very first time, a Nigerian man is the first to be convicted for trafficking females out of the UK, in a case involving two Nigerian girls. Anthony Harrison, 32, was sentenced to 20 years for four trafficking offences as well as two cases of false imprisonment. The charges related to teenage victims who alleged they were subjected to witchcraft and violence. Harrison imprisoned both girls – aged 14 and 16 – at his home in Albert Square, Stratford, in 2009 before attempting to traffic them to Spain and Greece as prostitutes. The two alleged that juju rituals had controlled them. The case is thought to be the first of its kind in Europe to involve a prosecution linked to such a practice.
As far as Ariyo is concerned, there are many definitions of child trafficking. A simple definition adopted by AFRUCA is “the movement of children for the purposes of exploitation and abuse.” Ariyo explained that AFRUCA was established in May 2001 as a community response to the increasing reports of abuse and deaths involving African children. Ariyo was inspired by cases of children such as Jude Akapa, Climbie and Damilola Taylor who all came into the UK for the better life supposedly but today, sadly, lie six feet below.
A bully in his school killed Akapa with a single punch to his head. The blow fractured his skull and he died only hours later. He was found lying on the sofa at his home, he never woke up. His killer only got a 12-month custodial sentence. His mother had complained for weeks that her son was being bullied, but the school did nothing to keep Akapa alive. Taylor on his part was stabbed with a broken bottle by bullies who chased him from Peckham Library. He bled to death only 10 days before his 11th birthday. His mother – Gloria Taylor – passed away eight years later. She apparently died of a broken heart. Her son’s killers were charged with manslaughter and given an eight-year custodial sentence. They were released after serving half the term. One of them remains in prison for other offences.
Ariyo explained that the UK society is both complicated and difficult for the black African immigrant. “There is inequality and children who are brought up in this society lack a sense of ethics and community. Many of these children grow up in single-parent homes; they grow up with deep psychological needs. In search of their own answers, they join block gangs to find their identity and the affirmation their family has failed to give them,” she said.
Apart from that, the African child is scorned because of his accent and perhaps his skills. And if he does not blend on time, he creates enmity for himself simply because he is African and different. The killers of Akapa and Taylor were black maladjusted boys, whom the British system had failed. Black on black violence, drugs, gangs are real issues many Nigerians are not aware of when they come to the UK and send their children to war zones otherwise called state schools.
Ariyo and her team have done a lot to coordinate efforts at supporting African families as they emigrate from Nigeria into a very different environment. AFRUCA has taken a lead role in supporting victims and families who deal with sensitive issues such as child on child abuse, child trafficking, child poverty and many more. For her efforts, Ariyo was awarded an Order of the British Empire, OBE, by Queen Elizabeth II, June 2011.
AFRUCA works with Social Services and the police to put an end to child trafficking and exploitation. It is the foremost African Charity in the UK campaigning against child trafficking. AFRUCA works to sensitise the community both in the UK and in other countries in Europe and in Africa about the ills of child trafficking. The organisation also provides support for victims of trafficking and influence relevant government policies and regulatory action.
In the UK, the phenomenon of child trafficking was first noticed in 1995 by social workers in West Sussex Social Services. Young girls travelling unaccompanied on flights from West Africa landing at Gatwick Airport would claim asylum. Put in the care of Social Services, days or weeks later, they would disappear from care. Before long, a pattern began to emerge. Children, mainly Nigerian girls were being trafficked to Europe via the UK to become sex workers.
Social workers say a lot of the girls spoken to talked about owing their exploiters huge sums of money, which they have to pay back otherwise terrible things would happen to them or their families back home. Since that time, many more cases have come to the fore. These days, child trafficking has come to the attention of charities and government agencies across England and Wales. In response, the UK government has put in place a law to tackle the problem and criminalise the practice. Under the law, child traffickers – those who transport children so they can exploit them – can go to jail for up to 14 years for committing this crime.
Ariyo explained that the UK is the most multi-cultural country in Europe hence the reason child trafficking flourishes there. According to the 2001 census, there are over 587,000 Africans living in the UK with 78 per cent of these living in London. However, this figure is believed to be very unrepresentative of Africans. This is due to the fact that many Africans do not have legal status in the UK and so are afraid to present themselves to the authorities. Many Africans are also in the country as asylum seekers and so do not register to vote.
According to the census, Africans are the fastest growing ethnic minority group in the UK overtaking Afro Caribbean and other ethnic groups. In addition, the number of African children in the UK grew from about 96,667 in 1992 to about 145,667 in 2000. This is a phenomenal 50 per cent increase over the eight-year period. Over the past years, there has been a consistent growth in the number of separated African children arriving in the UK correlating with increasing population of Africans in the country.
Children and young people come in unaccompanied, or as unaccompanied asylum seeking young people or with others who are not their parents or immediate family members. It is widely believed that many young people have been transported into the UK to be exploited and abused in different ways. Recently released figures by the UK Human Trafficking Centre, UKHTC, show that between April 2010 and March 31, 2011, there were 1,481 referrals to the National Referral Mechanism. Nigeria leads the top 10 nations that traffic children. In 2008, over 200 Africans were referred to the centre by charities and other organisations as victims of human trafficking. Most of them including children were from Nigeria, which had reported 89 victims, Ghana with three victims, Sierra Leone with 13 victims, Zimbabwe with 16 victims, Eritrea with five victims, Uganda with 14 victims and lastly Sudan with just one reported victim.
In 2007, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, CEOP, reported that at least 330 children fit the child trafficking profile. There were 102 cases of West and East African girls between the ages of 12 and 17 recorded. The biggest source country identified in the data is Nigeria with 38 girls.
Ariyo says the term human trafficking and smuggling are often used interchangeably, but in fact, they mean different things. “Human smuggling is the process whereby people pay to be illegally transported into a country. Upon arrival, the smuggled ‘customer’ is free to do as they please. An example is when parents pay a smuggler to help them bring a child into the country. Once the child is delivered to the parents and money has changed hands, the relationship with the smuggler ends,” she said.
But human trafficking on the other hand is different. “Human trafficking on the other hand is when the person who is taken into the country becomes a victim – because they have been forced to come into the country illegally. Not only that, there have been instances where parents have paid for their children to be smuggled into the country only for the children to end up being exploited and abused by the smuggler. In some instances, the children are never delivered to the parents, but end up stolen and used for other purposes. The parents never see their children again,” she said.
As it is in Europe so it is back in Africa. Ariyo says at least one million African children are victims of trafficking and exploitation within Africa itself. According to the International Labour Organisation, ILO, there are 12.3 million people in forced labour, bonded labour, forced child labour and sexual servitude at any given time; other estimates range from four million to 27 million. Fifty-six per cent of all forced labour victims are women and girls.
Human trafficking is worth about $32 billion annually. This means that it is the third most profitable criminal activity in the world after drugs and arms trafficking. Human trafficking is a hidden trade due to the clandestine and criminal nature of the activity. This is why it is always difficult to give accurate figures of the number of victims. However, because of the number of persons involved and its scale of operations, experts have suggested that present day trafficking of Africans to the West is fast approaching the same level as the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Child trafficking is also fuelled by certain cultural practices among Africans. Although caused by poverty, it is neither uncommon nor unusual for children to be engaged in different forms of hard and hazardous labour. On the streets of many African cities, children are exploited as hawkers, beggars and for other dangerous activities. In most African homes, from a very early age, girls are expected to be able to perform certain duties, including cooking, cleaning and baby-sitting as part of their socialisation process. In the extended African family system, parents have traditionally sent their children to live and work in other households – sometimes entrusting them to better-off relatives in the cities. Increasingly, however, many people have abused these traditional practices, exploiting the vulnerability of these children.
Corruption has also played a huge part in the trade of African children. Criminal gangs are able to procure documentation to transport victims out of their countries without being checked by local authorities. Also, some immigration officials in the UK are seen as complicit in fuelling the trade of children due to their inability to safeguard victims who present at the visa office or the port of entry.