Immediate past Director General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, NAPTIP, Dame Julie Okah Donli, is currently the Chairman Board of Trustees, United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons. She : has remained loved and admired even after leaving office because of her openness, attentiveness and willingness to attend to every issue brought to her especially those that affect girls and women. She spoke about her early life and career in this interview. Excerpts:
Could you tell us about your family background and early life?
I was born on December 30 1966 to the family of naval commander and Mrs Okah. I have nine siblings and my parents ensured that we had the best of everything that they could afford. I lost my mother to kidney failure when I was 18 years old. She was a young and supportive wife who died in her early forties. Her death left a great vacuum in the family but my dad stepped into her shoes and combined the fatherly and motherly role well.
I had my secondary education in a girl’s school and then proceeded to Zaria where I had my higher institution studies. As a teenager, I read many books that piqued my interest on the issues of gender discrimination and social vices in the society. This interest fueled my active participation in literary clubs and associations that aligned with my vision of contributing my quota to the development of the society. Growing up in a typical African society, I saw how some families treated the girl child as though she was inferior to the male child. I saw women with great potentials fading away and relegated to the background because their husbands would not allow them work. I couldn’t help but appreciate my father for giving all his children equal opportunities. At that tender age, I could see that children from families such as mine had a better self-esteem and excelled academically compared to children from families where daughters and wives were constantly being bashed and underappreciated. I made a resolve then to perform excellently well in my career and subsequently help pave the way for girls and women to reach out for the sky which is where we all belong.
You are the founder of the Julie Donli Kidney Foundation, an NGO that supports people with kidney disease, what led to this?
I lost my mother at the age of 18 to kidney failure. She was in her forties and was so full of life and vitality. Her loss created a terrible vacuum not just in the family but also in my heart. Even though we did all we could go save her life, I felt bad that she had to die that way and felt that if we had been proactive enough and had done things differently, she may have still been alive. It was a long journey that started in 1981 when she was diagnosed with acute renal failure. She was the first dialysis patient at the Lagos University Teaching hospital.
My brother, Charles Okah who was just 20 years old then donated one of his kidneys to her. She underwent a kidney transplant in Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai. Her body rejected the kidney even though it was a perfect match and she had to resume dialysis. She died on 15th February, 1984. This terrible and painful experience left an indelible impression on the family’s memory, leading to the establishment of 15 dialysis centers in major teaching hospitals in Nigeria by my brother, Charles and this subsequently gave birth to the Julie Donli Kidney Foundation which has the principal mandate of creating kidney health awareness and assisting indigent patients get aid for kidney disease and treatment.
As NAPTIP DG, what were the challenges you faced doing your work especially from traffickers?
Confronting evil everywhere comes with its challenges and in this case, fighting trafficking isn’t an exception. As the director general of NAPTIP, we experienced challenges such as inadequate funding as well as other technical and bureaucratic challenges.
Traffickers also fought back tooth and nail by coming up with various new trends to get us off their track but we were resolute and this paid off as recorded in the outstanding successes I achieved during my tenure.
What was the hardest trafficking case you handled?
We had so many difficult cases to tackle at NAPTIP but taking out one out of these cases and labelling it hardest is not feasible because all cases are equally heart wrenching and painful. One of those cases was when we had young girls trapped in various countries and reaching out to them was quite difficult because of some of the challenges I talked about above. As if the challenges experienced in bringing them back into the country was not enough, my heart broke into a thousand pieces when I heard stories of their experiences outside the shores of Nigeria. Some of the victims had all sorts of physical injuries including cuts and broken bones and joints. Some were forced to eat feaces and engage in all sorts of dehumanizing and unprintable experiences that I would rather not spoil your day with. I picked this as the hardest experience because it was very emotionally demanding for me and I had to struggle to keep tears off my eyes when I had a one on one interview with the victims.
Tell us about your new role as the Chairman Board of Trustees UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons
The United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund is saddled with the responsibility of providing essential services and direct assistance to victims of human trafficking worldwide. My role as the chairman of the board of trustees is to come up with strategies to grow the trust fund in other to assist more Victims of trafficking especially women and children , UNVTF offers me a global platform to do what I have always loved to do which is providing humanitarian, financial and legal aid to victims of trafficking in persons
Also tell us about the NGO you are planning to launch and why, since you already have one
My Foundation which would be launched soon is committed to preventing all forms of human trafficking and Sexual and Gender Based Violence through massive awareness campaigns collaboration and cooperation between all relevant stakeholders so as to liberate and uplift the vulnerable, especially women and children in exploitative conditions through, massive awareness campaigns, access to justice, medical and humanitarian aid and to ensure their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
It is obvious from the above that the mission of my soon to be launched Foundation is clearly different from that of my kidney Foundation. My Foundation is inspired by my experiences at NAPTIP and the need to continue to support the government in its fights against human trafficking and sexual and gender based violence. As the DG of NAPTIP, I championed the call for private individuals and corporate organisations to synergize with the government in fighting this scourge. My Foundation therefore, is me practicing what I preach, irrespective of any hindrances.
The menace of child abuse appears not to be abating. What is your take on this?
Child abuse is one scourge that is still eating deeply into the fibre of the society and for me, whether in active public service or not, the passion remains ever strong. Child abuse or child maltreatment is any intentional physical, domestic, sexual, psychological and mental maltreatment of any human below the age of eighteen. Child abuse knows no colour or race or religion, it cuts across different spheres of the country. The upper class who employ the services of underaged children as house helps are guilty, so also is the middle class who serve as the agents that bridge the gap between the upper class and the lower class. The lower class are also guilty because as parents, they falter in their responsibilities to their children which explains why they are ever ready to send out their kids to the streets to hawk and to serve as domestic servants.
How well do you think the country has done in its war against child abuse?
So much has been achieved in tackling the menace of child abuse in the country but unfortunately, the storm still rages on. Littered through almost all the streets and major roads in Nigeria are children who have no choice but to leave their innocence behind and beg for their daily bread because their parents have more children than they can afford to cater for. As if it is not just enough to go out there under the sun or rain to fend for yourself at such a very tender age, some of these children have masters who take away all proceeds of the day from them in exchange for dilapidated shelters and all sorts of poor living conditions.
The issue of child labour is one fundamental aspect of child abuse in Nigeria. Research has shown that 7 out of 10 homes have at some points in their existence employed the services of child domestic help. Most people have this impression that because the child in their custody is the son or daughter of a relation, it cannot be interpreted as child abuse. But like I would always say, when you in any way subject even your own biological child(ren) to any sort of dehumanizing condition, it is child abuse. Notwithstanding the fact that you are the biological parent of the child doesn’t make it less of an offence.
Has the mode of operations of child abusers remained the same all along or has it in any way changed?
In recent times, the menace of child abuse has experienced a dramatic shift in its mode of operation. People are no longer satisfied with turning innocent children into domestic slaves, they have degenerated into using them as sex slaves and even porn stars. The most saddening part of this is that in many cases, pedophiles are people who often share blood ties with their victims. You see fathers, mothers, uncles, aunties, nephews, cousins, drivers, etc who ought to serve as knights in shining amour to protect their ward turn to the beast that defile these innocent ones. By this unholy and highly condemnable act, children are exposed to all sorts of health challenges as well as mental and psychological disorders. My heart broke into a million pieces when I read the story of a few months old who had to undergo a corrective surgery on her vagina because she was raped by a man old enough to be her father.
Another worrisome trend in Nigeria is child trafficking with all its attendant consequences. In this situation, young boys and girls below the ages of 18 are trafficked out of the country to strange lands exposing them to all sorts of harm and danger on the road. Most of these children often travel unaccompanied and are exposed to all sorts of harsh weather conditions on the road, pneumonia, cholera, malnutrition and some are sexually molested and left to die of starvation and diseases when the journey gets tough. The implication of this is that the country continues to lose some of its brightest minds and future leaders.
What are the implications of child abuse for the society?
There are several implications of child abuse and these implications form the basis of some of the moral and security challenges we are confronted with in Nigeria today. When we have children who have been physically, emotionally, psychologically and mentally battered, they grow into suicidal, depressed and unproductive adults who constitute nuisances to themselves and the society. Today, we have children all over the street who demand for alms for adults in the most embarrassing manner. Some of these children end up in the wrong company and they are converted into pick pockets, suicide bombers, drug addicts, etc.
A nation which takes for granted the wellbeing of children and youth is actually setting itself up for failure and this is the reason why we must not relent in tackling this menace.
How well would you say you did as director general of NAPTIP?
As we all know, National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons is the government agency saddled with the responsibility of tackling the scourge of human trafficking and other related offences in Nigeria and I am bold to say that during my time as the director general of NAPTIP, we did surpass expectations and previous achievements. In summary, as at December 2020, NAPTIP has about 6, 221 reported cases, 3, 658 investigated cases, 5, 421 traffickers have been arrested, 304 number of successful prosecutions, 368 number of convicted persons as well as 13, 555 rescued victims as at 2020.
As the director general, I championed a lot of anti-child abuse grassroots awareness campaigns on the social media, schools, markets, motor parks, places of worship, etc. We also took the campaign to different media houses including the TVC, NTA, AIT, etc.
Together with my team, we visited different states of the federation with our campaign on the need to stop all forms of child abuse against children and the need for children to be given access to free education as free and affordable education is the right of every child. Parents were also enlightened on the need to only have as many children as they can cater for as this will help in ensuring that children are not left to fend for themselves a few years after birth.
At NAPTIP, we also provided shelters for victims of abuse and human trafficking who had no accommodation. We understand that fighting such things as human trafficking and child abuse is all encompassing and so we ensured that we had adequate physical, emotional, psychological, emotional and legal support were always available and accessible.
Officially, my time as the director of general of NAPTIP ended in December 2020 but for me, the passion and zeal remains unquenched and so I shall continue to strive for an end to the scourge of child abuse not only in Nigeria but globally.
Another boat tragedy off North Africa’s Atlantic Coast stark reminder of perilous sea journeys
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, say the deaths of 47 people who were onboard a boat heading to the Canary Islands from North Africa’s Atlantic coast highlight the urgent need for more support to prevent further tragedies at sea.
The boat left on 3 August carrying 54 people, including three children. After two days at sea, engine failure left passengers stranded without food or water for nearly a fortnight. When located by the Mauritanian coast guard on 16 August, only seven people were alive on board.
Survivors were taken to Mauritania’s northern city of Nouadhibou for medical treatment. Four people in critical condition were transferred to hospital. UNHCR is working to provide assistance and to determine whether any survivors have international protection needs.
The latest tragedy comes just 10 days after another 40 people lost their lives along the same route. It adds to the spiraling number of deaths, as more vessels depart for the Canary Islands. As of January this year, more than 350 people have died, while over 8,000 refugees and migrants have reached Spain using this sea route.
Meanwhile, since October 2020, more than 1,200 people have been rescued off the Mauritanian coast and received medical assistance as part of a first aid programme set up by IOM.
IOM and UNHCR are appealing for more support, to be able to continue their lifesaving interventions, including through screening, medical and psychosocial aid.
“Our top priority is to provide safe and viable alternatives to the dangerous journeys undertaken by refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, as per the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said Maria Stavropoulou, UNHCR’s Representative in Mauritania. “UNHCR is working to increase the identification of those with international protection needs travelling along these routes and provide assistance in the countries that host them.”
IOM’s Chief of Mission in Mauritania, Boubacar Seybou, said the organization was concerned that many rescued at sea end up in administrative detention.
“In accordance with the recommendations included in the Global Compact for Migration, alternatives must also be available to survivors, who have already suffered heavy medical and psychosocial trauma,” Seybou said. “We are working closely with authorities “to accelerate the implementation of new assistance and protection measures, and to strengthen the fight against traffickers and smuggler networks.”
IOM and UNHCR are urging the international community to support efforts to identify and assist those with international protection and other specific needs, to create safe and legal pathways, establish alternatives to detention, and strengthen search and rescue capacity off the coast of Mauritania.
Response capacities stretched with hasty return of 40,000 Ethiopian migrants
Ethiopia – The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is urgently appealing for funds to respond to the needs of 40,000 Ethiopian migrants returning from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Over 30,000 have arrived in Ethiopia over the last two weeks, at the rate of over 2,600 people a day. More than 20,400 (68 per cent) are from parts of Tigray and Amhara regions which are in the midst of conflict in Northern Ethiopia that has displaced nearly two million people.
The returns of Ethiopian migrants follow a bilateral agreement between the governments of Ethiopia and KSA.
According to IOM, USD 740,000 is needed to provide assistance for every 10,000 migrants returning. This is for essentials such as medical treatment, supplies for babies and infants such as diapers, clothing, help with finding and tracing family members, and reunifying them or providing alternative care arrangements as appropriate, as well as to respond to protection concerns.
“This sudden upsurge in returns poses a major challenge to our ability to assist the returnees – many of whom require medical and psychosocial assistance, support reuniting with their families, and livelihood options that would help to diminish the appeal of irregular re-migration to KSA and other countries of destination,” says Maureen Achieng, IOM Chief of Mission in Ethiopia.
“Our response is seriously underfunded and barely reaching the needs of returnees in the provision of essential basic and specialized assistance, including for unaccompanied migrant children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and victims of trafficking.”
Many of the migrants will require help to return and reintegrate back into their communities. Reintegration assistance is therefore vital to supporting the returnees psychologically, and to find work and stability, to help them avoid irregular migration, and exploitation by trafficking and smuggling rings.
The returning migrants are among the target population included in the Regional Migrant Response Plan 2021-2024 (MRP) for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a USD 99 million appeal launched by IOM and 39 partners in March 2021 to address the protection needs, risks and vulnerabilities of migrants along this route. The MRP is underfunded and urgently requires additional resources to carry out its response, including for this target population.
While recognizing the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction, in conformity with international law, IOM, as part of the United Nations Network on Migration, reaffirms its commitment to keeping everyone safe. It means that all Member States need to ensure that collective expulsions of migrants and asylum-seekers must be halted; that protection needs, including international protection, must be individually assessed; and that the rule of law and due process must be observed. It also means prioritizing protection, including every child’s best interest, under the obligations in international law.
IOM provides over 1,300 migrants with emergency shelter and assistance on the Canary Islands
Madrid – As more migrants arrive in the Canary Islands, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has provided shelter, protection services, medical, legal and other types of assistance to 1,361 migrants on Tenerife.
The arrival of more than 23,000 people in the Canary Islands by sea in 2020, particularly in the last three months of the year, strained the reception capacity and COVID-19 has further complicated the response. In November 2020, the Government of Spain announced “Plan Canarias” to renovate and expand the archipelago’s reception facilities to accommodate and assist 7,000 migrants.
Since 26 February this year, IOM has been operating at the Las Canteras Emergency Reception Facility (ERF) on Tenerife to support the Spanish government in managing the site. The EU-funded facility is an open centre which can accommodate as many as 1,100 people.
“Our priority is to support Spain with site management to provide safe and dignified living conditions and tailored services for migrants who have arrived via extremely treacherous journeys to the Canary Islands,” said Maria Jesús Herrera, Head of IOM’s Office in Spain.
Today, some 300 migrants are staying at the facility from Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Sudan, The Gambia, Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire.
At Las Canteras, IOM provides meals, core relief items, water and sanitation, maintenance, and Multipurpose Cash Assistance. The Organization also offers protection assistance, which includes vulnerability assessments, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), primary health care, legal information and counselling for family reunification or international protection, and assistance with transfers of eligible vulnerable migrants to the mainland.
IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) is also available to migrants who wish to return to their country of origin.
Marouane, a 27-year-old from Morocco, had arrived at the facility on 6 March. One year ago, he risked a harrowing sea journey towards the islands.
“For three days, you hang out with death, you see it. But if you don’t die, then you get there,” he told IOM in May.
To date, IOM has provided legal counselling to more than 780 people seeking asylum, in cooperation with UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. IOM also ensured – through close collaboration with the Spanish authorities – the referral and transfer of some 682 migrants to other specialized centres on the islands and the mainland.
The Organization also works closely with the municipality of La Laguna to engage with neighbourhood associations, the Tenerife council, civil society, citizens and local actors in the interest of transparency, mutual exchange, and social cohesion.
“We consider the people hosted in Las Canteras centre as citizens of La Laguna municipality. We therefore try to collaborate as much as possible so that they also benefit from the activities organized by the City Council,” said José Luis Hernandez, Environment Councillor from the La Laguna City Hall.
Arrivals to the Canary Islands on the Western Africa-Atlantic Route this year have reached 7,309 – more than double the number of arrivals at the same time last year. Some 23,848 migrants have reached Spain irregularly via all land and sea routes so far this year.
The project at Las Canteras,“Supporting the Spanish Authorities in managing an Emergency Reception Facility on the Canary Islands”, is funded by the EU (European Commission, DG Home). The overall management of the ERF is under the coordination of the Site Manager of the Spanish Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration.
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