The Daily Beast Correspondent, Philip Obaji Jr., is known for reporting touching humanitarian stories, but he is also spearheading a tough fight against human trafficking in camps for displaced persons in northeast Nigeria.
By Okon Nya
As the sunlight began to diminish in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Madinatu, a town near Maiduguri, Philip Obaji Jr. arrived with the hope of speaking to victims of the Boko Haram insurgency about life in their temporary home. Virtually everyone interviewed by the journalist complained about the hardship in the camp, and looked forward to returning home. But Sarah, a 17-year-old girl once enslaved by Boko Haram militants who abducted her from Bama, had a different intention. She wanted to start a new life in Europe, and a trafficking ring stationed in Benin City—with agents operating in IDP camps in the northeast—had made plans to smuggle her to Italy through the Mediterranean.
Sarah eventually travelled to Benin City to meet the female leader of the ring who took her north to Niger with the hope reaching Italy from there.
“They told her they were going to get a job for her once she arrived in Italy,” Obaji said. “I knew it wasn’t true, and, so, I decided to find out who these people really are.”
Photo: 17-year-old Sarah lived in this IDP camp in Madinatu before traffickers took her on a journey hoping to reach Italy.
Before Sarah departed for Benin City, she had shared the address of her destination with Obaji. A week later, the journalist tracked her movement. He initially thought the address Sarah gave to him was the residential home of her trafficker but, on getting there, he found out it was a temple, where she was expected to swear an oath of allegiance to her benefactor.
“I met the priest [in charge of the temple], showed him a photo of Sarah, and he admitted that the girl was in the temple the previous week,” Obaji said. “She had arrived straight from Maiduguri to take part in the ritual along with a few other girls her madam also planned to traffic to Italy.”
Obaji narrated Sarah’s story in his article for The Daily Beast: How Boko Haram’s Sex Slaves Wind Up as Sex Workers in Europe, published in February 2017, and it led the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) in Nigeria into increasing its surveillance in IDP camps, with a top official in the agency, who didn’t want his name mentioned because he had not gotten the approval of the Director-General to speak to the press, saying that NAPTIP is “now working with other security actors and international NGOs in fighting human trafficking in IDP camps.”
“We have given [the security actors and international NGOs] our numbers, and asked them to inform us if they suspect any act of human trafficking in IDP camps,” the official said. “We’ve also met with road transport workers in Borno state, and have asked them to report to us any person they see suspiciously conveying or carrying any children or women in their vehicle.”
The story about trafficking of Boko Haram victims may have gone wide, as the writer intended it to be, but it was also aimed at drawing the attention of Nigerian authorities to the plight of children in IDP camps.
“The purpose of the article wasn’t just to tell how teenage girls are exploited by sex traffickers, but also to inform our security agencies that it was time to protect the most vulnerable,” Obaji said. “I’m happy that NAPTIP decided to act.”
But NAPTIP’s improved surveillance did not immediately put an end to exploitation of young girls in IDP camps by sex traffickers. When Obaji interviewed sex traffickers in Benin City, he found out that some of them still get their clients from where they take refuge in the northeast.
To confirm what he had been told, he returned to IDP camps in the region and interviewed over 60 children, with some admitting that they had been approached by people promising them jobs in Europe. He travelled as far as to Bama to discover how girls are abused in IDP camps and trafficked.
“It made me very angry,” he said. “I said to myself, enough is enough.”
The following week, Obaji travelled to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, to meet with officials of NAPTIP. He narrated new cases of human trafficking to them and demanded more action from the agency.
“I knew NAPTIP had increased its surveillance in IDP camps in the wake of my earlier story for The Daily Beast about sex trafficking, but I wanted more from the agency,” Obaji said. “The agency asked me to make an official complaint which I did, and they promised they will do more to stop human trafficking.”
But Obaji wasn’t going to stop there. He returned to Maiduguri and met with members of the vigilante group, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), on the issue, and asked that they team up to fight trafficking in IDP camps.
“We agreed that while NAPTIP and the vigilantes keep an eye on the movement of displaced persons, I will be moving round camps every three months asking IDPs if anyone had approached them concerning Europe or elsewhere,” Obaji said. “Fortunately, since we started this, traffickers seem to have stayed away from IDP camps.”
Obaji has written a number of stories for The Daily Beast that describe how children once enslaved by Boko Haram are approached by people-smugglers and sex traffickers, and taken toward Europe. Two of those stories: Blood on Their Breasts, a Curse on Their Heads: The Juju Ritual Torturing Italy’s Sex Workers—which describes how another 17-year-old, who fled the war in Maiduguri to Benin City, was forced by her trafficker to undergo an oath swearing ritual in which a part of her areola was cut off by a juju priest, and her blood and pubic hair used for the ritual—and When the Way Out of Boko Haram Is an Ancient Slave Route—which narrates how traffickers and people-smugglers transport children from the northeast to Libya using the same route used by slave masters to transport black slaves and concubines centuries ago—have received received huge commendation from readers and security agencies in Nigeria.
NAPTIP, which has solely been responsible for combating human trafficking since its creation in 2003, believes its effort, coupled with support from partners like Obaji, is yielding results in the fight against trafficking of victims of the Boko Haram insurgency.
“Right now, NAPTIP intelligence officers are working in all the IDP camps in Maiduguri,” the top official said. “Presently, the issue of human trafficking does not exist [in IDP camps].”
Journalists do not often get involved in activism, but for reporters like Obaji, with a passion for human rights, standing up for those whose voices are rarely heard is also the responsibility of those in the media.
“As a journalist it is my job to report what is true, but I also have a duty as a Nigerian to protect my fellow citizens,” Obaji said. “I will live every day of my life fighting for the vulnerable.”