Itohan became a victim of human trafficking at the age of 16. She was forced to prostitution for five years, until she had paid a debt of 40,000 euros. She came to Finland as an asylum seeker and has started raising awareness about trafficking in humans.
Itohan Okundaye comes from a poor Nigerian family. She has had to work since the age of 12, and, at 15, she had to drop out of school as her family could not afford her tuition. When a family member offered Itohan work in Europe, she decided to seize the opportunity, even though she knew the work might lead her into prostitution. At least she would be able to make some money and help her younger siblings pay for their tuition. Later, she could get a better job and maybe go to school.
Itohan arrived in Italy with high hopes. After her arrival, she was told that she owed a human trafficker EUR 40,000 for the travel arrangements. The only work available was prostitution. She had no choice as she might have otherwise been arrested for illegal entry and sent back to Nigeria. That would have put Itohan’s entire family at risk due to the debt incurred by the trip.
The years spent in Italy included violence, abuse and incidents with the local authorities. Thanks to a residence permit obtained with forged documentation, Itohan was able to continue working to pay off the debt. However, this proved difficult as various expenses took up most of her income. The obligatory expenses included housing, work clothes and protection money, even the spot on the street where she stood at night. After five years, she finally managed to pay off the debt, but the human trafficker demanded more money.
Finally, Itohan was able to break loose from prostitution. She met a nice man and got pregnant. The man, however, was not ready to be a father, leaving Itohan to fend for herself. She was not entitled to social security as she had no documented work history in Italy. Itohan had heard of Finland: a country where education is held in high regard and human rights are respected. She left Italy in February 2014, arrived in Finland and applied for asylum.
Her child was born two months later in Helsinki. In December 2014, Itohan and her son were transferred from Helsinki to the reception centre of Kristinestad. Itohan’s asylum process was long and complicated, and all the waiting caused a lot of frustration. It is difficult to find work in a small town as an asylum seeker.
In the autumn 2016, Itohan was denied asylum and was returned to Italy, only to be sent back to Finland on the same day as the Finnish authorities had not informed the Italian authorities of the child travelling with her. The waiting continued. In October 2017, the Supreme Administrative Court issued an order to again return Itohan and her son to Italy. The decision could no longer be appealed.
According to human rights associations, victims of human trafficking with children should not be returned to Italy as the families face a risk of ending up on the street and once again becoming victims of the human traffickers. In November 2017 Itohan made one more application, for a residence permit for a victim of human trafficking. The uncertainty continued.
However, Itohan refused to give up— she started working to prevent human trafficking in a non-governmental organization FinnWID – Finnish Women in Development. She has been touring around Finland, talking to people about human trafficking and raising money for a project designed to develop young women’s opportunities to receive education and a livelihood in Nigeria.
In January 2019, Itohan received the decision on residence permit for a victim of human trafficking. It was negative. As Itohan’s work against human trafficking had received media attention, the deportation decision was also covered in a lot of media, including Yle and Helsingin Sanomat. The Finnish Immigration Services promised to take her case for inspection. Finally, in September 2019 a new decision came. Itohan and her child had been granted one year’s residence permit with a possibility to apply for a continuation.
Itohan and her son were finally offered integration services. They moved to their first apartment outside reception centre, the child started day care, and in the beginning of year 2020, Itohan started formal Finnish language studies. The years of stress were finally behind them.
Itohan wants to study and continue her work against human trafficking. She wants to inspire people with her story, do something meaningful and take back the years— basically her entire youth— spent as a victim of human trafficking.