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Migration History: Trevor

Trevor is a fascinating character. He is in his mid-40s, is a figure of influence in Za-Kpota comune and runs a successful local business that employs many young interns, including a number sponsored by an NGO to stay at home instead of migrating for work. We first met in 2007 when I was introduced to him by a local government official as a ‘former trafficker’ who had apparently repented and decided to mend his ways. He became one of the most significant participants in my research, meeting with me on myriad occasions and facilitating my access to a large group of traffickers/patrons involved in the migrant labour network linking the Zou departement to the quarries of Abeokuta.

Trevor first migrated to Abeokuta himself when he was 11 or 12. He did so because he was poor and because he and his family had seen others from their community migrate and return with riches. He worked for five years in Abeokuta and returned with a bike, a radio and 25,000 FCFA (about $45)—not an insignificant haul for a 16-year-old in the 1980s. At 16, after a brief period at home, he returned to Abeokuta for a further six years, becoming a patron and also engaging in the production of sodabi, the region’s palm wine.

During his time as a patron, Trevor returned to Za-Kpota every two years and constantly brought more boys back with him. Parents and boys themselves would approach him on every visit and ask him if he could find them work. Sometimes, when boys were young (between 10 and 13 or 14), an advance on the boys’ wages would be paid to the parents, who would negotiate the contract on the child’s behalf. In this case, Trevor explained that a boy’s earnings would be considered like any other component of the household economy, which fathers organise. No one, he said, accepts that this equates to the sale of their offspring. By contrast, when the boys Trevor placed were older (in their mid to late teens), they would themselves negotiate their own two-year contracts and would mostly keep their wages upon its completion. Trevor was adamant that his relationships with his workers were good and that he never mistreated any of them, even if he admitted that some other patrons did. He emphasised this by introducing me to some of the men sat around his shop, who are now his friends after having themselves graduated from under him in Abeokuta.

Trevor left Abeokuta and Nigeria in 2003, when he returned to Benin to set up his business. He maintains personal links with the world of that economy, however, and today remains one of the most articulate and trenchant critics of dominant anti-trafficking strategies. In each of my many encounters with him, he waxed lyrical at the corruption of politicians and formal institutions, each of which he believes promises riches to encourage people to stay at home or to vote for them and yet never deliver. In one of our discussions, he picked up a piece of Sellotape and shouted, ‘IF I EARN ONE OF THESE HERE BUT FIVE OF THEM THERE, WHY THEY HELL WOULD I STAY HERE?’ He was also very clear that at times the work in Abeokuta can constitute exploitation—‘especially if, as the boss, I sit in the shade with a beer while the boys work in the sun’ or ‘if I don’t pay what I’ve agreed’—but in the majority of cases, it is not. In an ideal world, he believes, working conditions would be improved across the board, and alternatives to labour migration would be provided for all the regions’ young people.

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