The challenges of reintegration

Disrupting the pity narrative in human trafficking: Perspectives from Nigeria

by Allen Kiconco

Simplistic reintegration discourse is not helpful and sometimes it is counterproductive. It does not recognise how and why people end up in exploitative (e.g., trafficking) relationships. It also does not consider how the experience of trafficking complicates survivors' social identities; the identities they must rely on to create strategies for reintegration.

Allen Kiconco

Research, international institutions and NGOs in the field of human trafficking in Africa rely on storytelling to communicate their findings and seek funding. Yet, the stories they tell sometimes misrepresent the problem, creating a dominant narrative that suppresses other stories, failing to capture the complexity of the problem. They often sensationalise lived experiences, creating concerns of pornography of poverty – portraying survivors as hapless victims who need rescue. Specific aspects of stories are amplified to endorse the dominant narrative of trauma, victimisation and helplessness.

The ultimate goal is to generate pity, undoubtedly done to elicit donor sympathies. With pity turning into a disempowering and dehumanising tool, the approach strips survivors of their dignity, maintaining a skewed view of how Westerners look at Africans and Africa. On the other hand, institutions, NGOs and activists are portrayed as heroes/saviours because of their power and privileges. Cultural assumptions about gender, ethnicity and exceptionalism underpin this constrained narrative of ideal victims, ‘foreign’ villains and heroes.

However, re-centring survivors as knowers and co-creators of knowledge can disrupt this pity narrative as AKN’s Voices and Images of Migration, Exploitation and Emancipation in Nigeria (VIOMEREN) project demonstrates, investigated and documented the lived experiences and voices of trafficked returnee migrants. VIOMEREN facilitated the initiation and development of the Nigerian Literary Arts and Anti Slavery Collective (NLAAC), which campaigns to combat trafficking through art-based and community methods. VIOMEREN, provided a collaborative space where art and literacy practitioners work with survivors to use art-based tools against trafficking and advocate for a better and effective reintegration.


The collection and methodology

The VIOMEREN collection unveils a national initiative that uses arts and collaborative action to create awareness of Nigeria’s under-reported and rapidly growing trafficking challenge. The collection includes creative writing and art, namely short stories, which reflect lived experiences in Nigeria, South Africa, Libya and Italy. The collection also includes poems, sculptures, paintings, murals, pictures from a local play and short videos of volunteers, artists, and coordinators reflecting on raising awareness and collaboration with survivors.

The methodology included coaching and mentoring early-stage local artists to produce artwork on human trafficking. It also facilitated development of collaborations between experienced artists and survivors to articulate short stories and poetry. The methodology, particularly pairing local artists and survivors to co-create disruptive writings and art, is appealing and powerful.

"He [friend] encouraged me to join in [NLAAC] and tell the world my story so that other people who share a similar story with me will come to the knowledge of the fact that leaving home for a while does not preclude a person from coming home. A migrant is never too far to immigrate and is never too gone to reintegrate."

Nguher Iorkyase - Excerpt from short story

How projects recruit, access and work with survivors influence the process of stories shared. Indeed, this project suggests that developing horizontal collaborations with survivors to create knowledge builds and centres trust. Acknowledging that true and ethical stories are about collaboration, closely talking to and learning from each other, VIOMEREN focussed on the process of storytelling and not the final product.

Storytelling and dignifiying survivors

Collaborating with survivors meant that artists participating in the VIOMEREN project did not work with data but with the fabric of survivors’ lives. As a consequence, NLAAC does not frame itself as a saviour organisation that has to rescue survivors from their challenges. Instead, the artists involved depicted themselves and the survivors as partners and co-creators of knowledge, effectively disrupting the pity narrative.

The content in this project does not evoke only emotions of pity. Rather the project revolves around developing stories that arouse varying emotions, including resilience, determination and sometimes joy. Indeed, the project gets people excited about what NLAAC are doing with survivors in a way that inspires, empowers, informs and advocates. The enduring image in most materials is that of moving forward with hope, resolve, agency and recovery. By tapping into these positive attributes, the stories connect the audience with the survivors and experiences explored through emotions other than pity.

Returning home and reintegration

Mechanisms and coping structures for reintegration are often based at the community level. External interventions and government rely on community mechanisms to ensure that returnees achieve meaningful recovery and reintegration. However, the picture emerging in the VIOMEREN collection is contradictory. Consider this excerpt from a short story by Doosuur Ukula.

"Being repatriated back to Nigeria was the greatest gift to her life, it felt as though the shards of her broken soul had been laced together by raw bliss. … There was a snag of worry as fear ate at her. She knew the process of reintegration would not wear a smile of equanimity around her. … She knew how excruciating it would be to adjust again."

Doosuur Ukula - Excerpt from short story

In this story, Ukula presents the lived experience of a survivor, referred to as Laura, who was repatriated back to Nigeria after two years of trafficking.  Ukula describes and equates Laura’s return home as ‘raw bliss’. However, in the same breath, the story hints at the fear that haunted her as she imagined life returning home after the excitement ended. She now had to face the landscape of reintegration and its challenges. 

Such content in the collection highlights a misconception about human trafficking and ways to solve it, rooted in dichotomous thinking of ‘home’ vs ‘foreign place’ (a place far from home). According to this thinking, ‘home’ is a safe place where everyone is protected and included. ‘Foreign place’ is unknown and therefore dangerous. The perspective presumes that home has no tolerance for violence.  Thus, violence, suffering and exclusion only exist in the ‘foreign place’ perpetrated by wicked wo/men. Therefore, solving trafficking is reduced to getting victims away from wicked wo/men in foreign places and safely returning them home.

It is hoped that home will support the process of recovery and reintegration through familial and community ties, care and general acceptance. Reintegration, according to this discourse, is a straightforward and uncomplicated process and experience.  While this sounds good in theory, as some stories in this project show, the reality is different. Returnees, particularly women and girls, can be viewed by locals as ‘damaged goods’:  ‘That so called girl is a slut! A dreadfully spoilt brat!’ Laura reported hearing as she moved around in her community.

Simplistic reintegration discourse is not helpful and sometimes it is counterproductive. It does not recognise how and why people end up in exploitative (e.g., trafficking) relationships. It also does not consider how the experience of trafficking complicates survivors’ social identities; the identities they must rely on to create strategies for reintegration.

Indeed, the collection suggests that during the initial days of family/community reunification, some returnees live in fear, spending most days worrying about their community and its perspectives on their past. Those who have stayed away for a long time experience difficulties re-socialising with their communities. Moreover, returnees experience ostracism and stigma from communities, forcing them to be mistrustful. Laura further lamented:

"What can I do? Things seem tougher than before, even the stigma alone can send one to an early grave. I have endured a lot of these since I returned, it seems very tough and it feels like trying to shatter a mound with a thin stick in order to keep up. Even my head and brain is messed up."

Doosuur Ukula - Excerpt from short story

Yet, the early days back home are crucial because only through these initial interactions can returnees re-establish social relations and repair their ‘damaged’ identities, which they need to rely on as a springboard to induce meaningful reintegration (inclusion, freedom and emancipation).

The collection suggests that returning home is an insufficient measure of successful reintegration. Because of ‘damaged’ identities, home contexts pose limitations for social acceptance and inclusion for returnees. Their attempts to gain inclusion might meet resistance with the potential to push them to the margins of society where they would be cut off from support systems. Home reintegration should not be seen as a bulletproof solution to trafficking. The reintegration discourse and interventions should be flexible when it comes to contexts, allowing returnees, especially women/girls, to engage with available options, including reuniting with home or integrating into new environments.

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