A 12-year-old Nigerian boy travelling by himself and rescued off the coast of Libya this month told rescuers a dramatic tale of being kidnapped and taken away from his mother, thrown onto trucks, locked in homes and eventually put on a boat on a “big river.”
His rescuers believe there is much more to his story, that he was being trafficked for eventual child prostitution or other forms of exploitation in Europe.
For his protection, he has been identified only as Maka.
Maka was rescued on Sept. 10 by a ship run by the non-profit organization Save the Children.
“He seemed to be travelling on his own and we verified that pretty quickly,” Gemma Parkin, a spokeswoman for Save the Children who interviewed him on the rescue ship, said.
“Maka’s story was incredibly worrying and also his version of events may not even be the truth of the matter,” she said. “He had quite a naive view of what had happened to him.”
Maka said he lived with his mother in Nigeria and they had very little money.
His father died in an accident when he was very young.
One day while he was waiting for his mother at the market a man came and said he would give him some money to carry something to the next junction.
“I help him. The man took me,” Maka said.
It was then that little Maka began his odyssey.
““I don’t even know where the man took me to,” Maka added.
Passed from hand to hand, car to truck, left by the side of the road, and locked in different houses, Maka was moved from place to place with people constantly asking him for money.
He said he never had any.
Many times he thought he was going to be killed.
“I say ‘Where are we going?’ I was thinking he wanted to go and kill me,” the boy recalled.
Several times he escaped from people he thought would hurt him.
Eventually Maka said he was taken to a small house where people inside were prisoners.
Then he saw a boat coming and the man who brought him talking with the owner of the boat.
“I said ‘Please sir I cannot die sir,’” the boy said.
He was then forced inside the boat.
Parkin said many children taken by human traffickers are misled by the belief they are going to be taken to a better country.
“They think they are going to be able to work,” she said. “They think the streets are paved with gold, but sadly along the route, the closer they get, the more they realize that this is a very kind of dark undercurrent of the situation of trafficking.”
According to Parkin, despite experiencing abuse during their journey to Europe, victims often feel stranded once they arrive, and often turn to the traffickers for help.
“They are beaten along the way and they have no means of going back the way that they came,” she said. “They have no option but to making that call to the smuggler when they land in Europe.”
After he was saved from the sea, Maka was taken to a Sicilian port and is now at a reception centre for minors in Sicily.
According to Parkin, child protection experts realized that Maka “may be a victim of trafficking.”
“He thought that some of the people along the way were doing him a favour, or being kind to him,” Parkin said. “But sadly our child protection team knows that many times this trafficking route from Nigeria to Italy will pick up children along the way, will dupe them with stories of what they’ve got in Europe waiting for them.”
Officials weren’t even sure how old Maka is.
“He wasn’t even sure of his birth date,” Parkin said. “But we thought that he looked about 12 years old, but obviously the age that you would only have just started secondary school, so incredibly young to be travelling alone, which is why we were immediately concerned about his welfare.”
Parkin said they are working with Italian authorities to help find a foster family for Maka.
“Our team is trying to establish a relationship of trust with him to explain to him what the dangers are and get him into a foster family where he can be safe,” Parkin explained.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 300,610 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea in 2016 and 3,498 have died or gone missing in the attempt.
According to Save the Children, 16 per cent of the migrants arriving on the Africa route are children and of those 93 per cent are unaccompanied.