Human Trafficking in Nigeria

3 November 2015

With a supposed six out of ten trafficked women in European capitals coming from Nigeria, Research and Campaigns Intern Natasha examines the reason for such prevalence of human trafficking from the West African country.

This powerful animation tells the story of Abike, who moved to the UK to be a nanny but was then sold for sex trafficking and thrown into a British prison. Abike is Nigerian.

(Video: Created by PositiveNegatives. Commissioned by The Guardian)

Kevin Hyland, the UK’s first Anti-Slavery Commissioner, marked Nigeria as ‘high priority’ in June due to it placing among the top five countries of origin for victims of human trafficking in the UK. Figures from the National Crime Agency (NCA) show a 31% increase in 2013-14 from the previous year of Nigerians being trafficked to the country. Campaigners believe the real figure could be even higher. UK-based organisation Stop the Traffik found Nigerians to be the fifth highest nationality of trafficked people to this country. This makes it the only African nation in the UK’s ten most trafficked nationalities and one of only two non-European countries in that list. Meanwhile it is estimated that as many as six out of ten trafficked women in European capitals are Nigerian.

The Migration Policy Institute has observed an increasing globalisation of the Western European prostitution market. Alongside this, they emphasise the widespread trafficking of West African women and children both within the region and to overseas. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that West African trafficking victims make up about 10% of those forced into sex work in Western Europe. Italy is the most common destination for trafficked Nigerians with as many as 10,000 Nigerian prostitutes. Most cases of smuggling are conducted by air or land. Flying via other countries is also common because forged documents are less frequently questioned via these routes.


trafficking routes


(Image: UNODC. Published on BBC.)

Within Nigeria, the problem is highly localised with trafficked persons disproportionately coming from Edo State in the south-west. UNODC and Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency report that over 90% of Nigerians found trafficked outside of Nigeria for sexual exploitation are from Edo State. Further, one in three women in the state has been approached by a trafficker. In particular, state capital Benin City is considered a ‘key player’ in human trafficking with ‘networks and infrastructure built around the trade of people’.

Edo State
(Image: First Bank of Nigeria)

The extent of the problem in Nigeria is indisputable, but the question remains as to why there are so many cases of trafficking originating here? Analysis can be largely divided into two themes: structural and cultural.


Porous borders to Nigeria’s north are beyond immigration officials’ control and exploited by traffickers in order to enter Niger, cross Libya and reach Europe. The country is renowned for its porous borders, of which it has 149 to manage. Boko Haram’s increasing insurgency only provides further challenges to border security.

Complicit individuals in the trade of people form part of the system’s infrastructure. Men known as “trolleys” escort women in individual or small groups on their initial journeys out of the country in highly organised logistics such as demonstrated in the diagram below.

Migration Policy Nigeria to Italy

(Image: Migration Policy)

These systems have developed in order to serve asylum seekers who ‘depend on human smugglers to reach Europe and to present their claims’ (IOM Report, page 7). They have then been easily exploited by human traffickers.


The International Organization for Migration (IOM) claims that immigration, human smuggling and trafficking are overlapping concepts. This stance emphasises the need to consider human trafficking of Nigerians within the broader cultural context of migration. Nigeria experiences high levels of unemployment, corruption and organised crime that are beyond that of most other African countries. This has contributed to widespread disillusionment following the regaining of a democratic system in 1999, leading to emigration aspirations which, combined with severely limited emigration opportunities, fuels the trafficking industry.

In 2004, Nigerians were the fifth largest group of asylum seekers in Europe, yet asylum was granted to very few of these. Europe is an aspirational destination partly for its perceived employment opportunities. It also has a large legal diaspora, predominantly in the U.K. where 191,183 Nigerian-born residents in England and Wales were recorded in the 2011 census (Office for National Statistics). Italy, Germany, Spain and Ireland also have high proportions of Nigerian immigrants.

People desperate for improved living situations and prospects can be vulnerable to exploitation by those offering alternatives. Specialist on international migration, Jørgen Carling highlights that ‘in anticipation of leaving Nigeria and helping one’s family out of poverty, it is tempting for these women to believe in promises about good jobs’.

A further feature of trafficking is its ‘self-reproducing mechanisms’. This includes ‘upward mobility’ in the female dominated prostitution circles, where women can eventually advance to becoming ‘madams’, or female pimps, themselves “owning” prostitutes. Further, the repayment of original debts to traffickers maintains wealth within trafficking circles, funding its continuation. Finally, once established networks and infrastructure are in place, such as to the extent they exist in Edo State, migration flows are able to flourish, regardless of how arbitrary where they were originally established is.

The nucleus of the problem in Edo State can similarly be explained by particular local cultural factors which the Migration Policy Institute delineate as including local traditions of slavery, severely disadvantaged females and substantial weight placed upon material status.

What is being done?

Efforts to combat the trafficking of Nigerians are being made in both source and destination countries.

The Nigerian government complies with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking and in 2009 convicted 25 offenders as well as providing care for 1109 victims. The National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP), whose efforts were commended by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is currently working with the Government of the Netherlands to run a training programme which aims to share experience and information with the Judiciary. NAPTIP undertakes grassroots programs and hosts an annual race in Edo State against human trafficking.

Many organisations operate within the UK both advocating around the issue of human trafficking, which is the fastest growing crime in the world, as well as in efforts to rescue and rehabilitate those that escape this form of modern slavery. While their work is commendable, the British public remain woefully ignorant of the extent to which modern slavery exists upon our doorstep. We are also complicit in its funding. The Modern Slavery Act passed this year demands transparency in supply chains, which if heeded is a step in the right direction. (Read House of Lords debate on our blog).

In the meantime, we must no longer ignore stories like that of Abike and so many other thousands of people.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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