ABUJA/LONDON - By rewarding whistleblowers, boosting prosecutions and challenging beliefs in black magic, Nigeria is ramping up its crusade against human trafficking, backed by millions of pounds of British aid, anti-slavery and government officials said.
Thousands of Nigerian women and girls are lured to Europe each year, making the treacherous sea crossing from Libya to Italy, and trafficked into sex work, the United Nations says.
The number of female Nigerians arriving in Italy by boat surged to more than 11,000 last year from 1,500 in 2014, with at least four in five forced into prostitution, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
To tackle this rise, Nigeria's anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP is stepping up efforts to catch traffickers and support victims, backed by a 7 million pound aid package announced last week by Britain's foreign aid department (DFID).
'We have embarked on more aggressive campaigns to create awareness,' Julie Okah-Donli, NAPTIP's director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 'We are covering all the schools and rural areas because this is where they get the girls from.'
The agency is also rewarding whistleblowers with a share of traffickers' gains.
'Since the policy was adopted in October, we have had more than 50 people coming to us with information,' Okah-Donli added.
Britain's latest pledge for Nigeria follows a promise in September to double its spending on global projects tackling slavery and trafficking to 150 million pounds.
The money will create jobs in sectors such as hospitality, technology and farming in Nigeria, and support victims with safe houses, rehabilitation and training for counselors, DFID said.
'We are giving vulnerable people more choices to earn a living in their own country and reducing the chances of their suffering from modern slavery,' Penny Mordaunt, Britain's international aid minister, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Battling black magic
More than nine out of 10 Nigerian women trafficked in Europe come from Edo, a predominantly Christian state of 3 million people, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC).
Edo's governor, Godwin Obaseki, who came to power last year, said his office is tackling the problem.
'We have established a local task force to ... increase surveillance intelligence and arrest traffickers,' he said, adding that a bill to give the task force powers to prosecute traffickers has been sent to the state parliament for approval.
Obaseki said his office was also trying to dispel fears around black magic, known as 'juju', which traps thousands of Nigerian women and girls in sex slavery in Europe.
Victims of trafficking fear that witchcraft rituals performed by spiritual priests could cause them or their relatives to fall ill or die if they disobey their traffickers, go to the police or fail to pay off their debts.
'We have gone to (the traditional priests) and asked them to reverse the juju,' said NAPTIP's Okah-Donli, adding that the agency shows trafficked women photos of these priests to convince them that any curses cast upon them have been lifted.
The trafficking and enslavement of African migrants has been in the spotlight after footage broadcast by CNN last month appeared to show Africans being sold in Libya, sparking a global outcry and protests across Europe and Africa.
Nigeria's president Muhammadu Buhari said last week his government had started bringing stranded citizens home from Libya, referring on Twitter to the situation of people being sold into slavery as 'appalling and unacceptable.'
IOM data shows that Nigerians made up 20 percent - the biggest share - of a record 181,400 migrants who reached Italy by boat from Libya last year seeking a better life in Europe.