This week, the United Kingdom Home Office, the country’s interior ministry, came under heavy criticism from the Nigerian anti-trafficking agency and UK politicians, human rights lawyers, and nongovernmental groups for claiming Nigerian women and girls trafficked to Europe can return home “wealthy from prostitution” and “enjoy high social-economic status.”
The comments are contained in a 2019 official policy and information note on trafficking of Nigerian women, which is meant to provide information and analysis to Home Office officials handling particular types of protection and human rights claims.
The Home Office’s claims ignore the reality in Nigeria. I have recently completed research for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report on abuses that women and girls trafficked within and outside Nigeria suffer, and assistance they receive when they are identified or return home. Many told me about suffering horrible abuses at the hands of their traffickers, including being exploited through forced prostitution and other forms of forced labor in slavery-like conditions. They told me they were raped, beaten, threatened with death, held in debt bondage, and not allowed to communicate with their families. Many said they had had no options and wished to return to Nigeria.
But their abuse did not end after returning home. Many said they returned penniless, to worse economic situations, and with mental trauma, physical injuries, and illnesses. Although some women and girls returned to supportive families, others said their families blamed them for returning home without money, or abused, mocked, and ostracized the survivors, compounding their trauma. They said they were humiliated in their communities for returning from abroad with nothing, or for being victims of sexual exploitation.
The Home Office policy note acknowledges some of these problems, but reaches a conclusion at odds with the facts and evidence it contains. The Home Office has said it will rewrite the policy note – it should do so immediately. The UK government promotes itself as a leading campaigner against modern-day slavery, including human trafficking. This reputation is undermined by the UK ignoring the facts on the ground in Nigeria, to the detriment of some of the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking. Trafficking is a crime and a human rights violation, not a money-making adventure for victims.