By Federica Borlizzi
Nigerian women are among the five non-European nationalities most at risk of trafficking. According to the IOM, 80% of the Nigerian women arriving in Italy are likely to be victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation . The journey to Europe is usually organized by a “madame” and the victims travel with men who accompany them en route.
Far from being a linear phenomenon, trafficking of Nigerian women is marked by frequent interruptions. Especially in transit countries (Niger and Libya), a woman may experience a weakening of the subjection by the traffickers’ network or she may be subjected to other types of exploitation. This becomes even more apparent in the Libyan context where the political crisis of recent years has made it impossible for Nigerian criminal organizations to maintain continuous control over their victims. The inability of protection networks to identify the most vulnerable persons during these interruptions reveals their failure in protecting them. These failures can also lead to a phenomenon called “re-trafficking”. This is the term commonly used to describe a situation where a victim that has escaped from the circuits of exploitation, returns to her country of origin and is then trafficked again from there. Although there have been numerous reports that Nigerian women who had been repatriated have been trafficked again, it is surprising that no comprehensive statistics are available on this phenomenon.
No data available
There are also no data available on repatriations under the so-called “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” (AVRR) programme implemented from transit areas by the IOM and financed by the EU through the EUTF for Africa  and by the Italian government
, through the “Africa Fund” . AVRRs are part of a more comprehensive border externalization strategy implemented by European countries with the ultimate aim of blocking the arrival of migrants by involving African transit countries – usually assisted by the UN Agencies of the UN for Refugees and Migration – in the management of migration flows. Therefore it is not surprising that, in the prevailing narrative, voluntary returns are considered an essential part of global migration management and are presented as “a cost-effective option to migrants whose journey has often taken a different route from what initially expected and who desire or need to return home” . However, what should be questioned is the free character of the “voluntariness” of such returns, especially when they take place from Libya or Niger. In this regard, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of migrants highlighted in May 2018 that, in most cases, such returns cannot be qualified as truly “voluntary” because they lack a fully informed decision, free of coercion. Many migrants accept repatriation because they are held in detention or because there is no real alternative .
Another major problem is the lack of clear procedures for the various stages of voluntary return. The guidelines published by the IOM on AVRR programmes refer in general terms to the need for an individual assessment of the risks that victims of trafficking may face if returned to their country of origin . However, the UN Special Rapporteur himself considered “legitimate” the concerns regarding liability for human rights violations resulting from the externalization of borders, with particular reference to return procedures carried out by the IOM, and he stressed that any AVRR programme should comprise a transparent and public monitoring and evaluation system . As for voluntary returns from Niger and Libya, such monitoring does not seem to have been developed or, at least, made public.
Is monitoring at all possible?
The absence of official data means that the effectiveness of these programs can be analysed only through documents drawn up by NGOs or researchers who have carried out surveys and interviews in the field. One of these reports highlights that 12,000 Nigerian citizens accessed the voluntary return programmes between May 2017 and February 2019, mostly from Libya (89%). Out of these 12,000 returnees, only 7,000 (i.e. 58%) received reintegration support from the IOM .
What happened to the remaining 5,000 returnees? How many of them were potential trafficking victims who did not receive protection, thus risking being re-trafficked? The existence of flaws in the identification of vulnerable persons among repatriated Nigerian migrants is confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur who stressed that only 440 persons (4.5%) out of the 9,695 who had accessed AVRR programmes as of August 2018 had been identified as victims of trafficking by IOM, in collaboration with NAPTIP. Bearing in mind the inhuman conditions in which migrants find themselves in Libya, the figure was not considered credible by the Rapporteur, who stressed that the number of identified victims of trafficking must have been much higher .
Moreover, due to an increase in voluntary returns from transit areas, the already precarious Nigerian victim protection system seems to have entered a full crisis  and the IOM itself is no longer able to implement reintegration assistance programmes .
This inevitably begs the question: who benefits from (in)voluntary return policies and what is the cost of their implementation?
Life after return
Victims of trafficking face enormous difficulties when they return to Nigeria because they have no access to services and because of social stigma. As for services, it should be noted that in 2003 the NAPTIP (National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons) was established. This is an anti-trafficking agency dependent on the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Justice whose aims include the prevention of trafficking, the prosecution of persons involved in human trafficking and the organization of return and reintegration of victims. In 2019, according to the data provided by the Nigerian agency, 1,152 victims of trafficking were “rescued” by NAPTIP. Half of them were minors and, with respect to sex, 80% were women and 20% men .
The 10 shelters operated by the Agency are only for women and minors
- There are “mixed” shelters which house not only victims of trafficking, but also victims of other forms of violence (e.g. domestic violence). This hinders the rehabilitation of victims of trafficking from being effective because they are often forced to face the stigma even in shelters, due to attitudes about their experience of forced prostitution .
- The length of stay in these shelters is limited to only six weeks and, according to the UN, this time is too short for victims to make a full recovery .
- Arbitrary detention and denial of freedom of movement of victims in shelters is another problem. Detention undermines victims’ reintegration into their communities, weakens trust in services providers and prevents victims from seeking the protection and assistance they need, so much so that they often decide to decline assistance .
With specific reference to the services offered, interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch between 2017 and 2018 show that most of the victims claim they did not receive adequate assistance neither from NAPTIP nor from IOM, in particular in the area of health needs (first of all, psychological counselling), financial support, skills acquisition programmes and employment counselling .
The inadequacy of shelters coupled with the lack of services offered is one of the causes that contribute to the re-trafficking of victims. In addition to that, further problems are posed by the social context and the complexity of Nigerian criminal organizations involved in trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation. Indeed, pressures from the victim’s family are often behind their trafficking stories. Sometimes the woman’s family members are themselves involved in her recruitment by traffickers. This means that, upon her return, the victim may experience family rejection for not meeting their earning expectations and suffer social exclusion from the community. This marginalization increases the risk of re-trafficking, also in the light of the subtle methods used by Nigerian criminal networks to subjugate their victims, the most important being the juju rituals and the debt.
The situation outlined so far reveals a dangerous vicious circle in which Nigerian victims of trafficking risk being trapped. The absence of legal entry channels to Europe and the process of externalization of borders seem to have only resulted in rendering exploited women even more vulnerable. In this sense, the voluntary returns from transit countries offered by IOM do not appear to be an adequate solution, but rather they become part of the problem. The absence of careful monitoring of risk factors and the lack of services in the country of origin make re-trafficking a real risk.
Finally, it seems appropriate to reflect on the impact that the “rescue” practices conducted by the so-called “Libyan coast guard” have on the risk of re-trafficking. Migrants intercepted by the Libyan coast guard are
 IOM, Human Trafficking Through the Central Mediterranean Route: Data, Stories and Information Collected by the International Organization for Migration, 2017, p. 9.
 The European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa was established in November 2015 with the aim of providing a coordinated response to the causes of irregular immigration. According to Oxfam, from the date of its establishment until May 2019, the EUTF for Africa financed projects for 3.9 billion euros, most of which related to development cooperation (56%) and migration governance expenses (26%). These also include resources amounting to 100 million euros, which were provided to UNHCR and IOM to “evacuate” refugees and migrants out of Libya. See Oxfam, The UE Trust Fund for Africa, January 2020, pp. 4 and 18.
 The “Africa Fund” was established by the Italian Government with the 2017 budget law. Its main objective is to combat irregular immigration and human trafficking, taking into consideration “the exceptionally important role played by Libya, Niger and Tunisia in the management of the central Mediterranean route “(MAECI, DM 1 February 2017, p. 2). The initial start-up funding for the “Africa Fund” was 200 million euros in 2017 and it was renewed in subsequent years (30 million for 2018 and 50 million for 2019). Again as part of the “Africa Fund”, an agreement was signed between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the IOM whereby the IOM received 10 million euros for the implementation of assisted voluntary returns from Libya (MAECI, Resolution No. 2 of 27 June 2017, p. 2).
 UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, 4 May 2018, p. 8.
 IOM, A Framework for Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, 2018, p. 18.
 UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, 4 May 2018, paras.82 and 53.
 UN Human Rights Council, Report of Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, 16 April 2019, para 53 p. 11.
 Human Rights Watch, “You Pray for Death”. Trafficking of Women and Girls in Nigeria, August 2019, p. 57.
 Human Rights Watch, “You Pray for Death”. Trafficking of Women and Girls in Nigeria, August 2019, pp. 58-64.
 Human Rights Watch, “You Pray for Death”. Trafficking of Women and Girls in Nigeria, August 2019, pp. 70-75.
 UNSMIL, Desperate and Dangerous: Report on the human rights situation of migrants and refugees in Libya, 20 December 2018, p. 4.
 In June 2017 the Panel of Experts of the UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee on Libya reported that the so-called Libyan Coast Guard was involved in the smuggling business. See UN Security Council, Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Libya, 1 June 2017, pp. 61 and 63.