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The recent British asylum case of HD (Trafficked women) Nigeria CG offers hope that refugee status recognition will become easier to obtain in the United Kingdom for Nigerian women who seek asylum after being subjected to sex trafficking.
Sex Trafficking of Nigerian Women
According to a 2012 UN report, 10% of the forced sex workers in Western Europe are trafficked out of West African, with many of those victims originating from Nigeria. Hundreds of sex trafficking victims from Nigeria end up in the United Kingdom each year, and the number appears to be growing. In 2014 the UK National Crime Agency reported a 31% increase over the previous year in the number of Nigerian trafficking victims reported to UK authorities. Much of the trafficking has been done by powerful gangs, but the terrorist group Boko Haram has also been involved in trafficking in Nigeria.
Most countries recognize that the trafficking of a woman for sexual exploitation is a human rights violation and that a victim who seeks asylum is a refugee under the guidelines of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Nigerian trafficking victims become refugees once they are trafficked out of Nigeria if they fear that they have a real chance of being re-trafficked upon return to Nigeria. Under international law a member state of the Convention cannot legally return such a victim to Nigeria because she is a refugee entitled to protection from that member state.
While the Nigerian Government has made efforts to combat the trafficking, it has not been able to eradicate the practice. Further, it has not been able to provide adequate protection to trafficking victims upon their return to Nigeria. The U.S. State Department reports that “[d]espite the growing number of Nigerian trafficking victims identified abroad, the government has yet to implement formal procedures for the return and reintegration of Nigerian victims.” This lack of reintegration procedures could lead to the re-trafficking of women that are returned to Nigeria because they remain vulnerable to perpetrators.
Refugee Status Determination in the United Kingdom 2009-2016
In the past decade, the United Kingdom’s Asylum and Immigration Tribunal has erected a high hurdle for trafficked Nigerian women to overcome to show that they fear being re-trafficked if they are returned to Nigeria. Until recently, the main UK case on refugee status determination for Nigeria trafficking victims was PO (Trafficked women) Nigeria, decided in 2009.
In PO the tribunal argued that because the Nigerian government is making efforts to eliminate human trafficking it is presumed that a trafficked woman who is returned to Nigeria will be protected by the Nigerian government, with one exception—if the woman was trafficked by a gang and is ‘indebted’ to the gang. The tribunal stated that trafficking gangs force trafficked sex workers to earn a specified amount of money for the gang. The gang considers a sex worker to be indebted to them until that money is fully paid. The tribunal stated that the gangs are relentless in upholding this practice and will re-traffic a woman who returns to Nigeria without paying this ‘debt’ in full.
The tribunal apparently believed that the Nigerian government could protect trafficked women from individual traffickers but not from trafficking gangs. Troublingly, the tribunal placed the burden onto the woman to prove that she was trafficked by a gang and not by individuals who did not belong to a gang.
In PO, the tribunal refused to accept that the woman was abducted by a gang because she did not show any “evidence” that the abductor “himself” was “a member of a gang in Nigeria, or that he employed gang members.” This was in spite of the fact that the abductor in the case had two associates, and that, as the tribunal admitted, a woman who is abducted by a gang rarely sees any other members of the gang aside from the few members who abducted her., Although the tribunal noted that the woman, who had a child, appeared vulnerable, it still dismissed her asylum claim.
A New Approach to Refugee Status Determination
In July of 2016 the UK Upper Tribunal of the Immigration and Asylum Chamber gave an opinion in HD (Trafficked women) Nigeria CG that was a leap forward in providing asylum protection for Nigerian women who are trafficked into the United Kingdom. The Upper Tribunal made two important changes from PO.
First, the court moved away from presuming that the Nigerian government will be able to protect women from being re-trafficked, so long they are not indebted to a trafficking gang. Second, the court no longer relied on the lack of evidence that the woman was trafficked by a trafficking gang as a decisive factor in determining whether the woman would be re-trafficked upon return to Nigeria.
Instead the tribunal now considered three factors that “indicate an enhanced risk of being” re-trafficked. The factors include (1) the absence of a supportive family in Nigeria, (2) characteristics that indicate that the woman is vulnerable (such no support network, no skills, little education, poor financial prospects, ill health, or mental conditions) and (3) the fact that a woman has already been a victim of trafficking should be taken as an indication that she is vulnerable to future trafficking.
The tribunal’s analysis in HD will most likely greatly reduce the risk that Nigerian women who seek refugee status in the United Kingdom will be returned to Nigeria and fall victim to being trafficked a second time. The tribunal’s opinion suggests that an assessment of the victim’s vulnerability, in practical terms, will be made. Perhaps most significantly, it now appears that the tribunal has a presumption that women who were once trafficked are indeed vulnerable to being re-trafficked if denied asylum.