Social Dialogue Magazine
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U.O Okoye, Department of Social Work, University of Nigeria

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P.C Agwu, Department of Social Work, University of Nigeria

Why the high figures of sex-work migrants in Edo State, Nigeria? Considerations for social work practice

Amidst interventions poised to curb sex-work migration and human trafficking in Edo State of Nigeria, figures are still on the high side. The roles played by certain factors seem not to have been effectively integrated into these interventions. The general inadequacy of social work expertise contributes in no little amount to the underachievement of existing interventions. The article underscores these factors in 5 typologies, while arguing the importance of social work to the entire remedial process. Scientifically, it borrows ideas from the Capability Approach to make causal explanations, while relying on reviews of relevant literature for knowledge.


Nigeria accounts for top contributions to international sex-work (National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons [NCFRMI], 2017), with trafficking of women a major channel (International Organization for Migration [IOM], 2018). The figure of sex-work migrants in Italy alone, is put at 11,009 persons as at 2016, which is an increase from 439 in 2013. Edo State in Nigeria, among the country’s 37 federating units, accounts for most prevalent occurrences of trafficking vis-à-vis sex-work migration. Odorige (2016) claims that 85% of Nigerian sex-workers in Europe originated or migrated from Edo State. IOM (2018) puts the figure at over 60%.

Allowing the twin practice of sex-work migration and trafficking of women to thrive in Edo state are couple of factors spread across categories of cultural, economic, educational, globalization, and political concerns. Key cultural factors reported across literature that foster sex-work migration among residents of Edo state include the widespread of voodoo practice, normalization of migration, large family size, and patriarchy. In Onyeji (2018) and Osezua (2016), voodoo practice is used for sealing bonds between victims of sex-work migration and their principals (madams), and/or cast them under ‘spell’ to yield unquestionably to the process. Also, sex-work migration was revealed by Monde-Anumihe (2013) as increasingly becoming a norm in the area, enjoying support from nuclear and extended families. Additionally, reproductive lifestyle obtainable in the area, which amounts to so many children not having similar parents, makes parenting difficult, and deepens vulnerability to human trafficking and deceptions to travel abroad (Oyekanmi & Okunola, 2017). Lastly, feminization of poverty in the area, has created a perspective where females see this kind of migration as an avenue to make wealth (Osezua, 2016). Given that the male folks by tradition are exclusively in possession of lands and viable economic means for survival. Economic factors likewise stimulate sex-work migration. Burgio (2017) made mention of poverty, unemployment, and debt-bonds (a financial agreement involving victims owing their principals a sum usually spent on their travel, or an agreed fee to pay for the opportunity of travelling) as key to sustaining the occupation. Home Office (2016) of the UK Government highlighted the strong role made by material remittances of successful migrants as a major influencer. The respect the successful ones enjoy at home, and the desire to be placed in such shoes of bringing back material remittances stimulate the urge to travel, and makes the occupation an appealing one.

Further, ignorance over the scourge of human trafficking, migration policies of countries, acceptable travelling standards, and what it takes to live in a foreign country, makes for the prevalence of sex-work migration in Edo state (Iyanda & Nwogwugwu, 2016; Dagaci, 2016). The images of migrants on social media stimulates the urge and quest to migrate (Ibrahim & Mukhtar, 2016), sometimes, heedless of the appalling circumstances involved. Adding to the consequence of social media – a channel for globalization, is the high demand across Europe for sex-work migrants of African descent (Alexander, 2014), and richness of the international sex-work market – about $100b generated annually (Gungul & Audu, 2014).

Finally, the political influence on the issue of sex-work migration and human trafficking range from: politically induced ecological tragedy of Edo state just like all other Niger Delta states, thereby amounting to poor human development index (Odorige, 2016); others include, political covering of human traffickers, and corrupt immigration personnel profiting from the occupation (Dauda & Muhammadu, 2016). These account for perversion of justice, thereby further weakening remedial efforts.

Appraising existing interventions

Several interventions to curb trafficking of women vis- à-vis sex-work migration exist in Nigeria. The establishment of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) in 2003 is one. The agency is commissioned by law to investigate, research, collaborate with relevant security and non- governmental agencies, and to prosecute human traffickers (Osezua, 2016). They also pay attention to the psychosocial wellbeing of victims, through sensitizing the public on human trafficking, providing shelters and relief items to victims, and also interface with witch doctors used in mystifying human trafficking processes (Onyeji, 2018). Further, the Edo state government signed a ‘state-base’ trafficking prohibition law in May 2018, which adds up to efforts they make in rehabilitating and reintegrating victims through stipends and small scale businesses (Aliu, 2018).

There is dearth of literature appraising the effectiveness of these interventions. However, it is suggestive that the steady increase in figures of sex- work migrants (NCFRMI, 2017) implies scaling up interventions. Very importantly, the unaddressed push factors deepening the vulnerability of these females and making them susceptible to trafficking and sex- work migration are yet to be tackled. Issues of political instability, poor economy, and poor educational opportunities persist in Nigeria (IOM, 2018). Lastly, the issue of corruption among immigration officials, and the political protection some traffickers enjoy frustrate interventions, especially in terms of apprehension and prosecution (Oyekanmi & Okunola, 2017). Therefore, there is still lot to do if the twin cases of sex-work migration and trafficking of women must be a thing of the past. It is in this vein that the profession of social work becomes of critical importance to the entire remedial process.

Social work concerns and sex-work migration

The profession of social work is known for its knowledge and skills in advocacy, counselling, social action, empowerment, resource linkage/mobilization, mental health, social protection, social care, and inter- sectoral/multi-disciplinary collaboration (Okoye, 2013). The importance of bringing these varieties of social work interventions to the process of trafficking of women and sex-work migration cannot be overstated. These interventions can come at the macro, mezzo and micro levels, and are encouraged to be more preventive than curative.

At macro level better legislations and policies that deter traffickers and their accomplices, as well as those that foster socioeconomic protection are recommended (Braimah, 2013; Odorige, 2016). The more educated and economically viable one is, the chances of being susceptible to traffickers and sex- work migration lessens. The need to promote girl-child education, among other rights for the female gender should be encouraged by social workers. This inspired the recommendation by Odorige (2016) to have social workers in primary, secondary and tertiary schools, so they could help in addressing social and emotional needs of females using counselling and group therapies. Adding to this is paying attention to cultural gaps that push them toward sex-work migration. Media and community based sensitization would be of help, and where necessary, social action through rallies, road-walks, among others. The aim is to have everyone aware of this scourge, and the need to stay away from it.

Further, the influence of voodoo on the process is mentioned to be traumatizing and made to instill fear in the minds of victims (Ikeora, 2016). The impact of this is that it makes legal redress difficult, given that victims have been made to swear to secrecy, and where broken, could meet unappealing situations like death or mental illness (Ikeora, 2016; Onyeji, 2018). So it affects the abilities of victims to live meaningfully. Thus, social workers could work together with clinical psychologists to help with desensitization (Edwards & Mika, 2017). Stronger partnerships with the witch doctors is advised in Onyeji (2018). He revealed that most times these witch doctors are oblivious of the actual realities trafficked victims face abroad. So, they could reverse the spell, refuse their charms for such purpose, and help in advancing campaigns against human trafficking and sex-work migration. In addition, social workers could organize harm reduction programmes and services to help reintegrate victims. This they could achieve together with NGOs and high profile persons in the society. The need for housing assistance, medical care, security, and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) prevention is important to prevent victims from the dangers of re-trafficking (Braimah, 2013).


This article began by establishing facts of the prevalence of sex-work migration involving females in Edo state, and the contributions of human trafficking to the figures. It went further to discuss factors responsible for the increase in typologies of cultural, economic, educational, globalization, and political factors. It argues that these factors should have to be addressed, as they clamp on capabilities to effectively resist human traffickers’ deceptions, and urge to migrate for sex-work. This is supported by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach of the 1980s. They argued that to make life meaningful for people, certain capabilities like education, political stability, economic viability, environmental protection, etc., must be in place (Clark, 2002). Their absence would cause people to go in search of them, not minding circumstances that ensue. Thereby, making human trafficking and sex-work migration, means to get back these capabilities they cannot find in their countries of origin. This is where the need for social workers becomes crucial as discussed.


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