The Child Refugees ‘Sold’ Through Facebook

Thousands of Cameroonian children who fled the fighting in their country’s English-speaking regions are taking refuge in Adagom community in south-central Nigeria, where some have been exploited by people looking to take advantage of their vulnerability

For over a week in December, Stan Wantama used his Facebook page to upload photographs of teenage Cameroonian girls, who fled the conflict in their country’s Anglophone regions to border communities in southern Nigeria, as he sought interest from people willing to pay to have them as maids.

In one post, he put up a photograph of a young girl he said was 16 years of age and asked Facebook users interested in having her as a maid to contact him by sending a private message via the social media platform or through an email he displayed in the post.

In another post, Wantama uploaded an image of a girl he claimed is “intelligent, hardworking and about 17,” and asked persons interested in hiring her as a maid to “inbox me.”

Photograph of an allegedly 16-year-old girl Stanley Wantama sought to give away as a maid by advertising her on Facebook.

I reached out to Wantama through the email he gave, asking him about the background of the girls he displayed on Facebook and the process of getting a maid from him. He did respond to my email, but without going into details in many areas.

“They could come from anywhere,” he said, in response to my question regarding where the girls he offers as maids come from. 

With regard to the average age of the girls Wantama offers as maids, he replied by saying “it depends on what age range you want.”

According to Wantama, anyone interested in having any of his maids has to first send him a private message via Facebook or an email stating his or her name, address, phone number, and occupation.  

“No fee is paid immediately,” Wantama, whose profile photo on Facebook is a drawing of a young man in black and white colours, told me. “You are to pay 30,000 naira (about $82) every month to the maid as her salary and agree to give her accommodation and a day off every week.”

“For the first month, you are to pay her salary after she works for a week,” Wantama added.

In response to my question about if there was someone available to work immediately as a maid, Wantama sent a photograph of a girl he said is a 13-year-old Cameroonian, whom I’ll call Glory, living in Adagom, a small community inside Ogoja Province in Nigeria’s south-central Cross River State, along the border with Cameroon. Wantama said the parents of the girl approved of her becoming a maid. He rejected my request to speak directly with the parents or any available relative of the girl by telling me “you have to speak [to any of them] through us.”

Photograph of another young girl Stanley Wantama displayed on Facebook hoping to get someone who’ll hire her as a maid.

In another email to Wantama two days later, I asked if the girls who currently had their photos displayed on his timeline were still available as maids, he replied by saying, “on Facebook, we take out the photo of anyone who has been given away as a maid. We’ve taken a couple away.”

A Facebook user, who reacted to one of Wantama’s posts, appeared to confirm what he said about deleting photos of girls who’ve been given away as maids by telling me in a chat via Facebook Messenger, “I think I have seen some other photos of young girls which I no longer see again.”

It’s difficult to ascertain how many Facebook users Wantama’s posts have reached, as his friends are not visible to the public. Nevertheless, his activities on the site did gain some public interest.

In one post in which he displayed a photograph of a teenage girl and offered to give her away as a maid, one person commented by saying, “I’m interested.” Wantama then replied, “check your inbox,” apparently insinuating that he had sent a private message to the Facebook user on how to go through the process of having one.

It took until the following day for Facebook to respond to my email reporting Wantama’s activities on the platform. In her reply to my email at about 10 p.m., Nigerian time, Kezia Anim-Addo, Head of Communications for Facebook in Africa, told me the company was “currently looking into this at the moment.” Wantama’s account was suspended at about the period of Anim-Addo’s reply, nearly 29 hours after Facebook’s attention was drawn to his inappropriate posts. The delay in taking action enabled Wantama’s posts to gain more views and a reaction to one of his posts from a Facebook user.

Yandex, the Russian tech company which provided the email Wantama displayed in a number of his Facebook posts did not respond to my request for comments for this article.

In his replies to my emails, Wantama didn’t give much details about the girls he had advertised on Facebook but, by mentioning where the 13-year-old girl in his first email lives, I thought I had enough information to pursue an investigation into his activities.

On Facebook, Stanley Wantama offered to give away this allegedly 17-year-old girl to a anyone able to afford her as a maid.

I travelled to Ogoja shortly after my second email chat with Wantama. The town is home to thousands of Cameroonians who are taking refuge in communities like Adagom and Okende.

In November 2016, lawyers from Cameroon’s English-speaking took to the streets to protest against the government’s decision to appoint Francophone magistrates in Anglophone courts, despite lacking training in British common law. Teachers in the Northwest and Southwest regions also called sit-in protests in response to the appointment of French speakers in Anglophone schools who lacked the ability to communicate fluently in English.

But it was the declaration of a new state called Ambazonia on October 1 2017 by separatists that angered the Cameroonian government. Security forces began a brutal crackdown on protesters, killing people and burning communities.

A number of armed groups began to retaliate, worsening the crisis and contributing to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Anglophones who make up 20 percent of Cameroon’s more than 24 million inhabitants and often complain of being marginalised.

Nearly 10,000 of these refugees occupy temporary shelters built with mud bricks and covered with corrugated iron sheets in refugee settlements in a few locations in Ogoja. Many others live in host communities.

In Adagom community, where Wantama had told me Glory lives, I showed the photographs of the 13-year-old and other girls which he had uploaded on his Facebook page to dozens of people in the settlement. While no one initially recognized Glory, a number of persons said they had seen two of the other girls in the camp a few months back.

“I don’t think they still stay here,” one man, who said he had seen the girls on numerous occasions in the past, told me but he couldn’t confirm whether or not the girls lived in the settlement alone or with their families. “They probably have moved into the host community.”

After spending more than six hours moving round the settlement asking if anyone knew the girls whose photographs appeared on Wantama’s Facebook page, a young girl who initially said she had never met Glory, came back to tell me she knows the teenage girl very well and was ready to take me to where she lives.

We arrived Glory’s home a few minutes before 7 pm. The teenager lives with her middle-aged parents and her 15-year-old older sister in a two room mud house not very far away from the refugee settlement.

Eighteen months ago, Glory and her family fled their home in the southwestern Cameroonian town of Akwaya after soldiers stormed their compound and began to burn houses. They arrived in Adagom after spending days in the bush, near the Nigerian border, trying to escape the violence in their country.

A year after Glory’s family began to live in Adagom, a middle-aged man, who met the young girl’s father in a local carpentry workshop, where the Cameroonian works, offered to connect his daughters to families who’ll assist them return to school after learning that he had two female children who were not able to complete their secondary education over lack of funds. He later got to the home of the Cameroonian family and took photos of the two girls.

“He gave his name as Stanley,” Glory’s father said of the middle-aged man suspected to be Wantama (in Wantama’s first reply to my email, he stated his full name as Stanley Wanta Wantama). “He said he could help give my daughters as maids to families who will send them in school and not pay for their services.”

“The photo you showed to me is the same photo he took of my daughter,” he added.

Image of 13-year-old Glory who has been taken to Markurdi in north-central Nigeria by Stan Wantama to work as a maid in what appears to constitute human trafficking

Glory’s father was told by Wantama that he lives in Ogoja town where he works as a public servant, but his profile on Facebook tells a different story. 

Wantama wrote on the social media platform that he lives in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, and is a self employed businessman. While he once said to Glory’s father that he schooled in Ogoja town, he indicated on Facebook that he had his secondary and tertiary education in the north-central Nigeria city of Lokoja.

When I requested to see Glory, her father told me that someone working for Wantama took her to Makurdi, another city in north-central Nigeria, where she is expected to work as a house help to a family of eight persons.

“They left in the morning,” Glory’s father said. “I was assured that she’ll be allowed to return to school as from September 2020.”

After informing him that Wantama offered his daughter to me as a maid in exchange for monthly payments, Glory’s father said he was shocked to learn of the development and admitted making a mistake trusting the man he thought will “bring smiles to the family.”

“We never discussed paying anyone,” Glory’s 50-year-old father said. “The man (Wantama) completely deceived me.”

Glory’s father’s biggest regret is not listening to a colleague who warned him about trusting Wantama.

In February, Wantama promised to take the 16-year-old daughter of Collins, who works in the same carpentry shop as Glory’s father, to Calabar to work as a house help to a nuclear family of four. He had assured Collins that the teenager will be allowed to further her education while serving her hosts.

But in the six months the teenager lived in Calabar, she was not only denied the opportunity to attend school but also forced to work for 12 hours, six days a week, as a sales girl in a small shop owned by the family.

“She worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday except on Sundays and was only fed in the morning.” Collins, who—like Glory’s father—fled the fighting in southwest Cameroon with his wife and four children in 2018, told me. “If she wasn’t up at 4 a.m. everyday, her madam will beat her up using any object she finds.”

At the end of each month, Collins’ daughter received 15,000 naira (about $41) from the family she served, but Wantama often showed up to take almost 80 percent of the money. The girl’s parents were not aware of such payment at the time.

Fed up with being made to work for very long hours daily without having enough food and rest, Collins’ daughter ran out of where she lived one Friday morning in August to a bus station where she boarded a vehicle that took her to Ogoja, having saved enough money for the journey. She eventually made it back to her parents in Adagom.

“She looked so immatiated when she returned,” Collins said of his daughter. “There were marks all over her body that showed the high level of torture she suffered in the hands of the people she served.”

It was based on what his daughter experienced in Calabar that made Collins advice Glory’s father not to let his own daughter move away with Wantama.

“I wish he (Glory’s father) had listened to me,” Collins said. “He just didn’t want to believe anything my daughter and I told him about Stanley [Wantama].”

Life is generally difficult for Cameroonian refugees in Adagom, where thousands of people face huge challenges getting jobs and accessing basic social services.

An Emergency Food Security Assessment conducted a year ago by the United Nations found that more than 80 percent of Cameroonian households in refugee settlements and those in host communities are  “severely or moderately food insecure.” 

According to the U.N., three in four refugees may be resulting to highly risky measures like child labor and survival sex to cope with the demands of life in where they live. Many, like Glory, end up in the hands of persons with a history of exploiting vulnerable people.

Attempts by Glory’s father to reach Wantama by phone were unsuccessful. The man, who now appears to be in the business of child trafficking, did not respond to my email for comments about the status of Glory. The girl’s father, who now wants his daughter to return to her family, vowed to keep trying to speak with him.

“Whenever I can get to him, I’ll tell him to make sure my daughter is back home immediately,” he said. “She can’t be a slave to anyone.”





Original Author

Philip Obaji Jr.

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