Chinara is sorting snacks and household products at her store in Upper Sakponba, in the outskirts of Benin City, Edo State. “I need to refill my fridges with beverages. Customers love refreshing cold drinks in this heat.” She is one of the few shop owners with a generator in her village and has quickly become famous for this asset.
In 2018, she travelled to Mali, in the hope of bettering the livelihood of her family. Being the first-born child, and with both parents deceased, the pressure on her to provide for her three children and four younger siblings was high. The journey did not go as she had anticipated, and her life took a turn for the worst.
Like many other Nigerians, particularly from Edo State, Chinara was deceived by an acquaintance she met at the market, and was convinced to migrate irregularly to Mali, with the promise of making up to NGN 150,000 (approximately USD 360) a month by cleaning houses.
“Maybe in three months I will be big and financially stable to support all my siblings,” she thought.
When she arrived in Mali, she did not find a house to clean but instead one with sealed doors and windows and armed men guarding the entrance. “What I saw was not what they had promised me. It was a female sex workers house. I saw many of my friends doing this because they were forced to take drugs, and then became addicted. When you do these things, you become another person.” Chinara refused to take any illegal substances and withstood the abuses.
“Many women ended up dying due to drugs. We lived the life we did not choose to have.”
Dozens of fellow Nigerians were held against their will in different houses on the outskirts of the Malian capital Bamako, Chinara recalls. “Men would come in to choose girls as a sex partner or they would come to pick you up for hard labour. If you refused, they would be hitting you with heavy sticks.”
“They were treating us like animals. It was like hell.”
Chinara had left Nigeria together with four other friends but returned with one. “I saw my friends dying from starvation and the brutal beatings. Another one was pregnant, and a guy kicked her in the stomach. I lost her in front of my own eyes.”
“I thought I would die here and never see my children again.”
Thankfully, she met two other Nigerian migrants outside the house who had established contact with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Through Chinara’s intervention, the two men found where the women were being kept. “I heard him speaking Nigerian on the phone, so I immediately approached him to ask for help.” They promised to return in two days.
Chinara was waiting vigilantly for them to return. She asked to go to work, as an excuse to go out, and four of them were taken outside thereafter.
“I did not have a phone to get in touch with the (Nigerian) men, so I was looking around. Suddenly I noticed a car and recognized the [IOM] logo. Without a second thought, I immediately ran towards the car and left. They tried to chase us. Thankfully they didn’t have guns.”
Alongside her three friends, Chinara managed to escape.
For a month, they prepared for their return to Nigeria through IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration Programme.
“I felt so relieved. Finally, I would see my children and family. This is when I decided that I would never do this again. If it is to travel, it would only be with the regular way.”
Data from Nigeria’s National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking In Persons (NAPTIP) shows that trafficking in persons did not decrease during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the total number of detected victims in 2020 (1,087) remained stable compared to 2019 (1,152) and 2018 (1,173).
“Right now, I don’t believe that someone can come up to me and convince me to go to Italy and make NGN 200,000 per month. I know the secret, there is no job; it’s lies.”
Upon her return, she opened a convenience store in January 2022 with support from IOM. Later on, she qualified to receive reintegration support through IOM’s Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism and its Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions (COMPASS).
She received practical business training that helped her establish her business and earn a living alongside financial support through COMPASS.
She hopes that her business will be a success soon so she can support all of her children. “All I want to offer them is a better future.”
Aside from the business, she plans to finish her last year at the College of Health Technology in Benin City and get a certificate to work as a community nurse. Chinara used part of the financial support received to pay for her college fees.
“I know more about medicine than food.”
Before migrating to Mali, Chinara worked for three years with local non-governmental organizations doing community outreach and supporting HIV patients.
“All I want is to contribute to my community and help those in need.”
As for her business, she plans to hand it over to her little sister Mary.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
This story was written by Stylia Kampani, Public Information Officer, IOM Nigeria