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Fear of witchcraft fuelling child trafficking to the UK

TRAGEDY: Victoria Climbie’s tragic death in 2000 helped raise national awareness of the issues

MOST KIDNAPPED children are not as lucky as Grace*.

The 14-year old was on her way to the UK when she was arrested by immigration officials at Heathrow in 2009. When questioned by immigration officials, she insisted she was travelling alone to visit her father in London.

At first, she refused to answer questions by immigration officers. It was only after hours of questioning that she revealed she’d taken an oath never to reveal the identity of those who were taking her to London. If she broke that oath, she said she feared her life might be in danger from evil spirits, which would eventually kill her.

After being assured that she wouldn‘t be in any danger, Grace decided to open up and tell the officers how she had come to the UK.

Child traffickers have long been able to elude child protection and law enforcement agencies.

VICTIMS

Indeed, MP Keith Vaz, in his former role as head of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said that he was “very concerned” at the ease with which traffickers were able to move victims through British ports and local authority care homes.

But as the case of Grace shows, there is one factor that authorities and child protection professionals have yet to fully comprehend, one that is making it even harder to arrest traffickers - the use of cultural beliefs in witchcraft and spirit possession as a tool of coercion.

The issue was highlighted last month following the conviction of Osezua Osolase. The 42-year-old Nigerian was sentenced to 20 years in prison for trafficking for sexual exploitation, rape and sexual activity with a child. He reportedly brought orphans from the West African country into the UK with the fake promise of a ‘better life’. He then attempted to send them on to parts of Europe to be sexually assaulted by gangs. It is believed that West African juju’ rituals were used to instil fear into the three unidentified victims.

Mor Dioum, of the Victoria Climbie Foundation (VCF), says that his organisation has been concerned about stories like Grace’s for a number of years.

Often, victims of trafficking do not try to escape from the exploitive situations in which they find themselves because of fear they’ll be punished by evil spirits.


JAILED: Trafficker Osezua Osolase used belief in witchcraft to control his victims

CONCERN

“It’s a major concern of ours because the work we’ve done has shown up how cultural belief systems are being used as a means of psychological control,” he says. “We have come across cases where trafficked children as young as five have been made to swear an oath to keep silent about the circumstances of their arrival in the UK. They have been told that if they break that oath they will be cursed for the rest of their lives or that evil spirits may kill them. Fear of witchcraft is so strong that physical violence is rarely needed to ensure a victim does not run away.”

He added: “It is often very hard for child protection professionals working in local authorities and elsewhere to understand how witchcraft abuse can have such a powerful effect over individuals. This often leads to such cases not being explored fully.

Signs such as the presence of an adult who is not a member of the family, for example, are easy to spot as potential indicators of human trafficking. But there are no physical indicators to point out that a child is fearful of witchcraft or spirit possession. This makes it particularly hard to support victims of trafficking and to investigate and prosecute traffickers.

AWARENESS

It is vitally important to raise awareness in communities about witchcraft abuse and empower victims to overcome fears of Juju (witchcfraft). Authorities need to also become more aware of this form of coercion and provide victims with the appropriate support.

Investigations by immigration officials in Nigeria back up Dioum’s concerns. According to a 2007 international investigation by Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP), once arrangements for victims’ trips abroad are completed, traffickers seal the deal by taking the victims to shrines of voodoo priests for oath taking.

There, victims are made to swear that they will never reveal the identities of their traffickers to anyone if arrested, whether in the course of the journey or in the destination countries. The investigation was a collaboration with security operatives in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands.

The investigation found that those administering the oaths often collect the finger nails, menstrual blood and pubic hairs in preparing concoctions. When traffickers are arrested in Nigeria, victims often refuse to show up in court to testify against them for fear that they will die if they violate the oaths they took.

PROBLEM


JAILED: Trafficker Osezua Osolase used belief in witchcraft to control his victims

Dioum adds that the prevalence of private fostering arrangements in the UK’s black and minority ethnic communities in particular, make this problem even more difficult to detect.

“Private fostering arrangements mean that we’re dealing with an indirect form of trafficking. Families are aware of the fact that their children are coming to the UK because they are told by traffickers that they are moving abroad to stay with extended family members here to get an education. Given the economic climate, the only hope for poorer families is that their children get an education in countries like the UK. But often they are not given the full picture. Often what happens is that the child ends up in domestic servitude. Things have changed drastically since a decade ago when a child would arrive unaccompanied at the airport. Authorities are more aware if a child arrives unaccompanied. But many are still slipping through the net because they have been coerced into silence and are afraid to speak to authorities because of the fear of being cursed.”

Dioum welcomed the Government’s recent National Action Plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.

The VCF is one of a number of partner organisations involved in helping to execute the plan which focuses on four themes; engaging communities, empowering practitioners, supporting victims and witnesses, and communicating messages.

The case of Victoria Climbie, murdered by her aunt and her boyfriend in 2000 and from whom the Foundation takes its name, has gone some way in bringing these issues to national attention.

SENSATIONALISM

But Dioum says the media sensationalism that often accompanies stories of witchcraft has shifted the focus away from where it is really needed - stopping the use of threats and coercion by those who traffick children.

He says: “It’s critical that front line staff are aware of the belief issues involved. The best preventative method is for professionals to understand the issues, build dialogue so that members of the community feel comfortable in picking up the phone.”

* Not her real name

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