Trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad. In this report GABRIEL ATUMEYI looks at the story of a Nigerian fish seller who is now anti-human trafficking activist
Nigerians are always known for excelling educationally when they go abroad to study. But the story of 25-year-old Ms Ochuko Joy Agbeyegbe, has a courageous and beautiful twist. Joy who started from a very humble background selling roasted fish in Nigeria before gaining admission to Girne American University in Cyprus to study law, apart from graduating with distinctions, she also found herself entangled in a real life story of conspiracy, voodoo oath taking, madams and migrant girls.
She rose to the occasion perhaps from her feminine instinct or legal training or both by trying to provide succour and assistance to the trafficked victims. As it stands today, the Nigerian international student has become an anti-human trafficking activist in faraway Cyprus. She earned her reputation from her activities and efforts to assist girls that were illegally smuggled to be exploited as sex slaves.
Speaking to LEADERSHIP Weekend about her experiences and how she weathered the challenges, she said: “I grew up in Jakande community in Lagos state and attended St Mary’s College. I have three sisters and one brother. My Dad was unemployed and my mom sold roasted fish for a living.
Unfortunately we lost my dad in 2014 after a short illness. I myself like my mom sold fish to survive but after my secondary school education and the seeming inability to secure university admission despite several attempts I decided to muster the financial resources to go abroad to study. It was during my school years in Cyprus that I first came in contact with trafficked persons of Nigerian heritage.
“I first arrived Cyprus in 2011 to pursue a degree in International Law. I graduated with a first class and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2016. After practicing in Nigeria for one year I traveled back to Cyprus to complete my masters in International Business Law which I had started before attending Law School. That was when I saw firsthand what it meant to be a victim of human trafficking.
“One of the girls I met during my stay narrated how she was trafficked from Edo State in Nigeria to Cyprus nearly three years ago. She told me how she was subjected to all forms of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and had paid over N10 million to her madam.
“There were other victims but they weren’t willing to speak against their madam, perhaps because of the voodoo secrecy oath they were subjected to take in Nigeria before they embark on their journey to Europe.
“After several months of strategizing, I eventually decided to quit my job and started the process to liberate the victim. We reported the case to the police and the Traffickers were arrested immediately. “Surprisingly, the Traffickers were released by the police within two days and we (the victim and I) started running for our lives. The North Cyprus police finally resolved that there was not enough evidence to prove the allegations and decided that the victim would be deported back to Nigeria.
“At that point, I was completely broken because I was not only doing my job as a lawyer, but I had become so close to the victim and come to love her as a sister. This is a girl from a humble background who had paid over N10 million and now about to be deported back to the village, I knew I needed to do something.”
She said after receiving several threats from the traffickers, “we eventually ran to the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees Office in North Cyprus on 19th February, 2018, seeking help. The UNHCR lawyer then filed an Asylum Application on behalf of the victim to the government of South Cyprus (a country under the European Union). We were also provided with accommodation in a four bedroom duplex, food, clothes and police protection.
“Today, the victim has been granted residence permit to live in the Republic of Cyprus. With monthly government assistance, she now pays her house rent and has been awarded scholarship to study Law so she can assist other victims in the future.
“I also recently assisted a victim of labour trafficking in Oman who was trafficked by a Nigerian agent to work as a housemaid but ended up being used as a slave in Oman. The victim has finally been reunited with her husband and daughter two weeks ago.
Based on my personal experience as an anti-human trafficking activist, I made it the focus of my master’s thesis which is a research on human trafficking. I’ve been given recognition by several humanitarian and international bodies.”
Barrister Joy was recently invited by the University of Toledo and the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition to be part of its 15th Annual Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference held recently at the University of Toledo.
According to Celia Williamson, the 2018 Conference Committee Chair, the purpose of the conference is to bring together researchers and practitioners in an effort to lay the groundwork for future collaborative research, advocacy and program development. The conference also aims to further educate social service and health care providers, and criminal justice professionals on human trafficking and the needs and risks of those victimized by the commercial sex industry.
Participants came from a variety of countries and throughout the United States. The aim was to integrate a global perspective which is essential to providing communities with the knowledge and resources necessary to combat all forms of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
In her conference speech, Joy called for greater cooperation between the State and traditional institutions as well as between nations in order to effectively prosecute the crusade against human trafficking.
Presenting a paper titled ‘Finding a Voice, from Africa to Europe, the effect of voodoo secrecy oath sworn by victims of sex trafficking. In which she explained that 90 per cent of Nigerian girls trafficked for sexual exploitation were first made to take secrecy oath. That the secrecy oath forbids the victims from ever reporting her madam to the police and to complete repayment of her debts.
She also commended the recent effort by the Oba of Benin to combat human trafficking in Edo state. Informing the esteemed audience of how the monarch invited all voodoo priests to his palace earlier this year and placed curses on traffickers and their collaborators.
This year’s conference welcomed presenters and attendees from 34 states within the US and 25 countries around the world. There were three speakers from Nigeria including Joseph Osuigwe, Maureen Eke a Nigerian professor at University of Michigan and Barrister Joy herself.
For now joy is working on her plans to establish a non-governmental organization that will partner with other civil society organizations and international partners to eliminate the human trafficking pandemic in Nigeria.
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