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One-time human trafficking victim aims to help others break free

While waiting for a residence permit, Nigerian Itohan Okundaye has become an advocate for women and girls trapped in the underworld of human trafficking.

Human trafficking victim from Nigeria
Itohan Okundaye Image: Berislav Jurišić / Yle

Nigerian Itohan Okundaye has been trying to get permission to remain in Finland for the past four years. As she waits for a final decision she is aiming to help other young African women to avoid the predicament she found herself in when she arrived to Italy when she was 16, more than a decade ago.

Before Okundaye began her journey to Europe, a relative told her that she could help her get to the continent. Okundaye became hopeful about the idea because she’d already been forced to quit school in order to work, so moving to Europe seemed like a good choice, she said at a seminar in Helsinki on Tuesday.

Her dream was to become a doctor, she said, and she thought a new life in Europe could provide such an opportunity. But after her arrival to Italy, the life she actually faced was not one for which she was prepared.

The human traffickers who’d arranged her transport to Italy told her that her new vocation was to be a prostitute, she said. They told her that she owed them 40,000 euros for her journey to the continent and would have to pay it back by prostituting herself.

Stuck in Italy, peril

She said it did not take long for her to realise that it would take several years to pay back the money she owed the smugglers. The teenager earned between 10 to 30 euros for each act that she performed, which was used to pay off her debt, food and lodging.

“You’re putting your life in danger, because anything can happen on the street. No one is there to protect you, you are simply in constant danger,” she said.

She said that even after paying their smuggling debts, many women in her situation continue working as prostitutes because of the shame and fear preventing them from seeking help.

After five years of her unhappy situation, a pregnant Okundaye managed to escape her life of prostitution in Italy and fled to Finland. Now, after four years in the country, her future remains uncertain.

Future in Europe still uncertain

She told the newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet that due to the Dublin Regulation, Finnish immigration authorities have rejected her applications for asylum because the first European country in which she applied for asylum was Italy.

She told the paper that she has received plenty of help in Finland, including health and psychological care, help with her child and housing. But so far she has not received a residence permit.

As she waits, Okundaye is now trying to help women and girls in the same predicament she was in to seek assistance, through the Finnish NGO FinnWID, a volunteer group that works to protect women from human trafficking.

She told Svenska Yle that the group is trying to raise funds and resources in order to set up a help centre which will assist people stuck in the underworld of human trafficking to regain autonomy over their lives, for education and to award stipends.

Other kinds of stories

Okundaye took part at a FinnWID-organised seminar on human trafficking and forced prostitution in Helsinki on Tuesday. The event coincided with the launch of the group’s latest project “Toisenlaisia tarinoita,” (in English roughly: Other kinds of stories), which is designed to help Nigerian women in particular who find themselves trapped in a life of prostitution in Europe.

One of the seminar’s panelists was Essi Thesslund, a specialist at Pro-tukipiste, a Finnish group that promotes the human rights of people working in the sex industry.

She said that the position of victims of human trafficking in Finland is unusually weak, and blamed the problem on a lack of legislation on the issue of human trafficking and the sex industry.

“Organisations and officials have advocated the police should have more resources and expertise available to them, and perhaps a specialised unit, in order to improve work which fights against human trafficking,” Thesslund said.

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