TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual violence, torture, rape, prostitution, Human Trafficking
The following testimonials are from Amos, Beauty, Blessing X, Blessing Y, Nancy, and Rejoice, victims of human trafficking who shared their stories in the DW Documentary “Sex trafficking in Nigeria”.
An International Labor Organization report estimates that the trafficking of humans for sexual exploitation is an illegal industry that generates US$99 billion per year, making it the thirst most profitable crime. Considered to be the modern form of slavery, it involves recruiting, harboring, transporting, provisioning, or obtaining a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, or debt bondage (US Department of Justice, 2000). Affecting mainly women and underage girls in developing countries afflicted by poverty and social and political instability, Nigeria is considered by the United Nations to be the epicenter of this intricate transnational multimillion-dollar scheme, having the Edo State as its main hub.
Situated in the southern region of the country, Benin City, the capital of Edo State is known for being the core of human trafficking mobs in the African continent. These mobs, usually run by women called Madams, formerly trafficked women themselves, look for a specific profile of person: mostly young girls and minors, who find themselves in difficult situations, notably extreme poverty, victims of rape, victims of female genital mutilation, and girls ostracized from their villages due to various causes (Human Rights Watch, 2018). They are manipulated into believing that their traffickers are offering them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in Europe, make a good living, and be able to provide for their families by working as hairdressers, cashiers, and cleaning ladies, or nannies in Europe. “I never knew I was going to Napoli for prostitution. I was 15 the first time and I was so devastated.”, “I was told I would be working in a hair salon, like in Nigeria”. Furthermore, allured by the endless possibilities promised and oblivious to the dangers, these women agree to pay their traffickers an amount ranging from 30,000€ up to 85,000€ without being aware of currency conversion (International Organization for Migration, 2006).
Their journey begins having to first go through a juju ceremony, traditionally done by a shaman known as a native doctor. During the ceremony, the women promise allegiance to their traffickers, promise not to seek the police for help, but most importantly, promise to pay their debt with their Madam, otherwise, the native doctor would use their collected pubic hair and nails to cast a spell on them and their family, leading to their death or severe madness. “If I did not pay my madam, the juju would kill me. When I pay here, I am free. If not, the juju will follow me[... and] cause me madness. It’s real. ”.
After going through the ceremony and arriving in Europe, the victims have to cross the Sahara by traveling through Nigeria and crossing Niger. In the desert, many die of tiredness, hunger, and thirst. Due to the lack of money to buy water, some resort to drinking their urine to stay hydrated. Then, the victims are stationed in Libya for an undetermined amount of time. Throughout their stay, these women are usually heavily beaten and raped by their traffickers and may be forced into guarded brothels called Connection Houses, mainly in Tripoli, Sabha, and Qatrun. There, they are forced to work to exhaustion, are not allowed to refuse clients nor any client’s sexual requirements, do not receive proper menstrual products, and have no access beyond the brothel’s walls, all while risking being sold in slave markets.
Pimps make use of extreme physical violence and psychological abuse towards these women and their families to keep them from fleeing and ensure that they started paying their debt (Human Rights Watch, 2018). “[..] They [human traffickers] take the electric shock and put it in your anus. You will be shouting, the thing will be shocking your body.”; “I was tortured with an iron. [...] The bruises are still on my body”; “She [the madam] was shouting at me and beating me up. So I didn’t have any other choice than to do it [prostitution]. As a result of me telling her I would not do it, she injured me in the process.”. The stay in Lybia is most often described by victims as a living hell and the worst part of their journey. “It’s not a good experience. I really don’t wish to go back to it”, “Lybia is a bad place. A bad country”.
After staying in the country for weeks, these girls are then taken to crowded curb rubber boats with Italy as their primary destination. These trips usually take place during the night, so it is easier to escape from Lybian coastal guards. The main objective when crossing the Mediterranean is not to actually arrive in Italy, but to be rescued by the Italian police while at sea. Due to precarity in transportation conditions, it would be a nearly impossible task to arrive in the country. According to UNHCR, almost 1,600 people died due to sinking rubber boats intending to cross the ocean. Once facing the terrors of sailing across the Mediterranean, the victims are once again forced into sex work, abuse, and deplorable living conditions.
Right before crossing the sea, the girls are instructed by their traffickers to call their Madams once arriving in the refugee camps in Italy. They are usually picked up by their pimps and taken to a house with other girls, where they learn they would have to either start or continue with the sex work to pay their debt. They are shown what to dress, where to go, and how to get clients in the streets. “ I came here with my madam the first day. [...] She told me I could stay here [to work]. [...] It’s a very good place. The police don’t disturb you much here”. Beauty shares her fear about working in the streets: “There are a lot of dangerous clients.”; “Sometimes they [the clients] come with a knife. They don’t have money to pay you and you have to make love to them”; “[...] He [a client] said I should give his money back [...]if I didn’t give his money back, he would kill me”.
Having to go through such traumatizing journey, the victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation are left with both mental and physical scars. They develop severe depression and anxiety due to the constant fear of being beaten up by their clients or madams, have to go through the loss of family members due to blackmail assassinations, and may fall pregnant or contract sexual diseases after being forced to have unprotected sex with clients. Besides that, they become hyper-aware of those surrounding them and develop trust issues after being tricked. “It pains me when I think about it. [...] She told me I was going to help her with domestic work…”. There is, however, a national effort to try to raise awareness around the issue in Nigeria and try to cut the evil by its roots. In 2018, after external pressure from the international community, the King of Benin (current Edo State), also known as Oba, has issued an official statement ordering native doctors of the state to “revoke all of the curses and oaths placed on victims of trafficking” and further invoking a curse on those who do not abide by his directive (Iroko Associazione Onlus, 2018). In addition, a task force against human trafficking has been put in place by the State’s government.
Although a significant improvement has been noticeable throughout the years regarding action against the trafficking of Nigerian women for forced sex work in Europe, they still face hardships that are nearly not as well commented as other problems. For instance, once arriving in Europe and being able to distance themselves from their Madam, usually leaving Italy for other countries like France and Germany, they find themselves without easy access to their medical and legal rights. In addition, the conscientization campaigns in Nigeria are not sufficiently widespread throughout the surrounding villages of Benin City, where most of the girls are recruited from and are not accessible to those who were not able to have an education and thus, cannot read and understand the signs being exposed. There’s still alarming social ostracization of victims of forced sex work both in their country of origin but sometimes also in their host country, and overly discretionary use of international and domestic law regarding the attribution of the refugee status, causing a crisis of undocumented victims who have been rejected from the asylum request. Without having documents legalizing them to seek other lines of work, they find themselves trapped in prostitution, without proper medical care for the treatment of any physical and mental traumas, and unsure of the whereabouts or safety of their loved ones in Nigeria, who are continuously harassed by the mob of traffickers for the payment of the trafficked person’s debt.
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