"We hung on to the side of the truck and the girls were inside. After three days one of the boys fell off the truck and was crushed by the wheels. We buried him under the leaves but couldn’t stay for long.”
Every week at Camp UNITE, the participants get to meet a young person from Pagala, the village where we hold camp, who has been trafficked. It is devastatingly easy to find a speaker.
Today’s speaker’s name is Kossi. He was first trafficked when he was still a student, in about 7th grade. A man from Nigeria arrived in the village, driving a new motorcycle and offering jobs to strong young men and women. The man handed Kossi a 1000 FCFA bill (worth about 2 dollars, more than the average daily wage). Kossi didn’t like that he had to share a room at home and that he couldn’t afford to buy jeans and t-shirts like his friends. So he snuck out of his house and lied to his friends and family so he could join the bus of Togolese young people on their way to Nigeria.
The quote above describes only the journey. The months Kossi and his other companions worked in the fields were worse. They walked 15 km in the dark out to the fields to start work at 3am. Field work continued until dark at 6pm when the workers were allowed to make themselves food, many of them had not eaten all day.
“When it rained, we had to keep working. We didn’t have anywhere to take shelter or any way to get dry, so we just took off our clothes and buried them in the ground to keep them dry. And we kept working.”
As awful as his experience was, Kossi went back the next year. And the year after. He explained that the money was addictive. He would return with a lot of money, nearly 200 dollars, but then spend it all in a week as he made his way home.
And so he would go back, telling himself that this time he would find a way to save the money. Each time it was like Russian Roulette, he never knew whether he would survive the journey or die like the 4 friends that he buried.
The participants at Camp UNITE for apprentice boys are not young. Some of them are even older than me! They make decisions for themselves and have responsibility for their own homes. We are not worried that they would be sold by parents to unscrupulous traffickers.
Trafficking in persons is not that simple. Sometimes the person makes the choice for themselves. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines severe forms of trafficking as:
a. Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
b. The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.
It’s clear that these young men were recruited and transported based on a fraudulent idea of how much money they would gain and how hard/life-threatening the work would be. They were then subjected to debt bondage and near slavery.
But the borders are so porous and the ability to find and prosecute traffickers is so limited, that the state has very little it can accomplish. There are no services available for young men from 15-24 years old. This type of indentured labor will not be eradicated until both the state and social services have sufficiently developed.
The young men must also be able to earn a sufficient wage in country. Kossi’s story ended well, but not because of any money he earned in Nigeria. He explained
“I started to save my money. I learned to cook for myself so I didn’t have to buy prepared food. When I saved enough, I bought phone cards to resell. Each time I made a profit, I learned to save it and invest in my business. Now I have a small shop where I sell gas to moto drivers and phone cards. None of this money was from Nigeria. It was all from my earnings in Togo. You can do it here, but you have to make plans and budgets.”
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