World Day against Trafficking in Persons: Nigerian liaison magistrates deployed in Italy and Spain strengthen international cooperation to prosecute cases of human trafficking

30 July 2020: Trafficking in Persons remains one of the crimes that severely affect the West and Central Africa region. The significant economic returns that it generates make it attractive to a growing number of criminal networks, who thrive thanks to the laundering of the proceeds thereof as well as corruption. At the same time, it endangers the life and other human rights of victims, exploited in various forms for the traffickers’ profit.

While the number of trafficking victims identified in Europe is staggering, the number of successful prosecutions and convictions still remains low in both countries of origin and destination, making trafficking in persons a low risk high reward criminal enterprise.

In a need to increase international cooperation between West and Central African countries and Europe to counter organized crime, and notably trafficking in persons, since February 2018 UNODC has been supporting the Federal Ministry of Justice of Nigeria in the deployment of Nigerian prosecutors, first to Italy and then Spain through the PROMIS project, funded so far by the Netherlands and Italy.

The Nigerian prosecutors deployed in Europe act as liaison magistrates in the host countries to establish a direct channel of communications between the respective relevant authorities in order to facilitate the speedy exchange of operation information as well as toto overcome obstacles to requests for mutual legal assistance (MLA) in cases of trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, in line with the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and the Protocols thereof.

On the World Day against Trafficking in Persons, UNODC asked the two Nigerian liaison magistrates to share their experience since their deployment to Italy and Spain and how their role has been fundamental to strengthen international judicial cooperation and to build trust between Nigeria and the host countries.

Q1. How would you describe your experience as liaison magistrate deployed to Italy and Spain, respectively?

LM to Italy: The Liaison Magistrate initiative is commendable because it exposes to me as a Nigerian prosecutor for the first time the full dimensions and ramifications of transnational organised crime and the need for an “all hands on deck” approach to cooperate in the fight against it. The initiative has provided both the European Union (EU) and African prosecutors to the fora for exchange of experience and expertise. Furthermore, it has helped in showing the underworld of organized criminality and that Africa is no longer a hiding place for them. Above all, the initiative has removed the bureaucratic bottlenecks in terms of expeditious response to requests. On a personal level, I was positively impressed by the readiness of the Italian authorities to daily assist me in any way possible to facilitate my job and by their acceptance of me as an equal partner.

LM to Spain: I would say that my deployment to Spain as liaison magistrate has been as challenging as it has been exciting. It has offered me the opportunity to work and liaise with high level Spanish officials on international cooperation especially in the area of trafficking in persons, which is one of the core focus of the deployment. Overall, the experience has been positive, particularly in showing that levels of engagement like this are key to fighting transnational crime, especially in areas that impact both jurisdictions.

Q2. Which is the greatest result achieved since your deployment?

LM to Italy: The greatest result is the network created which enables the EU and African prosecutors and law enforcement authorities to reach out to each other not only through official channels but also informally (i.e. through phone calls, communication apps, and emails) in order to respond quickly to exigent issues as they arise. Moreover, there has been physical interactions which moved us from abstract entities to real persons co-operating as equals. Finally, I would also mention as a great result the arrest of a Nigerian fugitive convicted in Italy for trafficking in persons who had escaped to Nigeria. The arrest was the result of the close cooperation between the Nigeria Police Force and Interpol and the constant interactions between Nigerian and Italian counterparts, facilitated by my role as liaison magistrate.

LM to Spain: The greatest result achieved so far is the facilitation of the voluntary return of a fugitive from Nigeria to Spain. The fugitive was wanted in Spain primarily for being a key member of a transnational organised criminal group specialised in luring and trafficking young victims from Nigeria to Spain for the purpose of sexual exploitation. This case required constant engagement and coordination with the law enforcement and judicial authorities on both the Nigerian and Spanish sides as it presented a number of peculiarities that needed rather innovative measures. At the end of the day, it highlighted the positive prospects that this level of cooperation paves for the future.

Q3. Any lessons learned from this experience?

LM to Italy: I learned that the Europeans also have respect for our expertise, the zeal and interest to render support for this initiative is unequalled. As a result of this mutual trust, the criminals are gradually being prosecuted, while requests are expeditiously channelled to the proper authorities thanks to my role as Liaison Magistrate. Indeed, as the representative of the Nigerian Central Authority/Federal Ministry of Justice in Italy, in many occasions the Italian counterparts transmit the cases directly through me, and I channel them to the proper investigating authority in Nigeria.

LM to Spain: There have been several lessons learned, not just for me but for authorities across both jurisdictions. For example, it allowed us to gain a better understanding of the various challenges when it comes to execution of judicial assistance requests and the need to establish lasting trust across different authorities, which is paramount. Dealing with cases of a confidential nature, authorities are usually somewhat sceptical to divulge information which they deem sensitive: this is where the presence of the liaison magistrate becomes crucial to build mutual trust.

Q4. Why international judicial cooperation is so important to fight transnational crime?

LM to Italy: Because dismantling transnational criminal gangs and putting them completely out of action require concerted efforts, not only from one side. Without international judicial cooperation, most of the requests for mutual legal assistance and needed actions takes too long to be responded due mainly to the cumbersome diplomatic and bureaucratic procedures.

LM to Spain: It is obvious that without international judicial cooperation, transnational crime cannot be effectively countered. Criminal groups are not encumbered by inconveniences such as differences in legal systems and regulations. As the world becomes smaller thanks to technology, the reach and ability of these groups widens, so also their capacity to evade the reach of the law. International cooperation is the only way to ensure that criminal networks are dismantled, victims find restitution and perpetrators are brought to justice.

Q5. How could international judicial cooperation be improved, especially looking at EU-Africa judicial cooperation to counter TOC?

LM to Italy: I am of the strong opinion that there is the need for constant interactions through trainings, exchange visits and other engagements between the EU and African law enforcement authorities. This helps in giving identity to the faceless entities we interact with through official and diplomatic means. In order to be sustainable in the long-term, initiatives like this should be supported not only by UNODC, but also endorsed by national governments through the allocation of adequate means and resources for the deployment of liaison magistrates. In this way, the stay of the liaison magistrates would be more stable and their position become more permanent, thus contributing to the success of the initiative and their commitment to the assignment.

LM to Spain: There is a need for more initiatives of this sort. More liaison magistrates should be deployed from Africa to European countries, although historically the deployment has been from Europe to Africa. To harness the full potential of international cooperation, it needs to go both ways. UNODC has been key for the design and implementation of this pilot project, but it should be the States’ call to also prompt initiatives of this kind. Signature of bilateral judicial agreements and programmes aimed at fostering exchanges between law enforcement authorities in the EU and Africa to improve informal cooperation would improve international cooperation. The liaison magistrate initiative not only narrows the cooperation gap between jurisdiction in the EU and Africa, but affords also an opportunity to build trust, relationships and capacity by allowing for a better understanding of what works on both sides.

Q6. How has COVID-19 impacted on your work and the follow up of cases?

LM to Italy: The mobility restrictions and lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have stalled many activities, especially in terms of investigations and follow up on cases. Furthermore, the Nigerian government pulled many law enforcement agencies into ensuring the citizens’ compliance with national guidelines as response to the COVID-19 crisis, with a consequent impact on the investigations on trafficking and smuggling cases, which were affected. It is only very recently that investigation activities resumed.

LM to Spain: As with almost all sectors, the impact of the pandemic on the initiative cannot be overstated. Investigative activities and by extension the follow up of cases have slowed down in Nigeria because of the lockdown, however this has not ceased the constant keeping in touch with the law enforcement authorities on both ends.

For more information:

Rethinking judicial cooperation between Africa and Europe

UNODC PROMIS Project improves judicial cooperation between Africa and Europe

UNODC supports the deployment of a Nigerian Prosecutor in Italy

World Day Against Trafficking in Persons - 30 July