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Young Nigerian women migrating to Europe are prime targets for sex traffickers

a person standing in front of a brick building

Joy walks along an overgrown path winding through a village on the rural outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria. She points out a few shops that have closed and a big house on an overgrown plot owned by somebody who has left for a job overseas. The neighborhood landmarks serve as constant reminders of the problem Joy grapples with daily: There is no work here. And she wants out.

“See I’m where I’m living?” she asked, sounding exasperated. “I can’t cope. I can’t cope at all. I don’t like it.”

Joy, whose name has been changed for this story, already tried leaving Nigeria once. It was 2005, when she was 22. A friend of the family offered her a job working as a nanny in Italy. Joy was thrilled to get the offer — she already had two children, and her young family needed the money.

But when she arrived in Italy, she quickly realized the people who had helped her sneak into the country using somebody else’s passport had a different plan in mind. She was told she owed them more than €20,000 ($23,427) for the journey and was forced to work on the streets of Parma as a prostitute for several months to pay off her debt.

“I was told there was a lot of work I could do,” Joy recalled. “When I got there, they took my passport and they tore it up.”

It’s a depressingly familiar story. As Nigeria’s economy has flagged in recent years, hundreds of thousands of people have left the country to look for work in Europe. Young women like Joy have become prime targets for criminal networks trafficking women between Nigeria and Europe, part of the $100 billion global sex trafficking industry.

The United Nations has estimated that as many as 80 percent of the Nigerian women who arrive in Italy have potentially been trafficked for sexual exploitation.

And, like Joy, many women who find themselves trapped into sex work in Europe eventually go home, either when they’re deported or when they voluntarily return. Since 2008, the Nigerian government has helped more than 7,200 women who were trafficked overseas when they return, by giving them temporary shelter, medical attention, counseling and help finding work, according to the Nigerian government’s anti-trafficking agency.

The Catholic Church and a handful of nongovernmental organizations are also providing similar services.

“We go to the airport, greet them and bring them back to the shelter. We have what we call ‘a no-place-like-home’ party,” explained Sister Patricia Ebegbulem, a Catholic nun who has worked with trafficking victims for 20 years.

She runs a shelter in Lagos to help returning women reintegrate into society. When Joy got back from Italy, she stayed there and got some seed money from the nun to start a small business.

“Even though many girls try to run away because of the hardship, we assure them that the rest of us are here. We are surviving,” Sister Ebegbulem said.

For many women, coming back to Nigeria is not a soft landing. Not only are many of the women traumatized by what they went through in Europe, they can be shunned by their communities for having worked as prostitutes. Family members who are disappointed they aren’t still sending money back home aren’t always welcoming. And jobs are still hard to find.

“They are full of bitterness, hurt, anger, because of what society has done to them,” Sister Ebegbulem said. “We try as much as we can to prevent them from being retrafficked.”

When Joy left for Italy, she boarded a plane in Lagos and landed in Rome. But in more recent years, as the land route through Libya to reach Europe has become popular, women who have made the journey to Europe faced weeks or months in the desert on their way. In Libya, many have been taken to so-called “connection houses,” where they were held against their will and where their sexual exploitation began.

“When I got to Libya, it was really hell,” said Blessing, a woman living in Benin City, Nigeria, who left to work overseas in 2016. (Her name has also been changed to protect her identity.)

In Libya, she was locked inside a building and forced to work as a prostitute while she waited for her passage over the Mediterranean to Italy.

“In my own connection house, we were more than 11 girls,” she said. “We didn’t go outside. The madam brought the men inside.”

Eventually, instead of getting on a boat to Italy, she was deported by plane back to Nigeria — and for that, she considers herself lucky. Now, she’s training to be a caterer and living with her mother and two children.

“I prefer to stay back in Nigeria because there is nothing to do in Europe — apart from prostitution,” Blessing said. “I prefer to stay here in my country and make a better life.”

After Italy struck a deal in 2017 with Libya to stop migrants and refugees from reaching Europe, tens of thousands of people have been turned around at sea and taken to detention centers in Libya, or sent back to their countries of origin, according to Amnesty International.

But that hasn’t stopped the lucrative trafficking and people-smuggling business. As crossings from Libya to Italy have decreased, the route to Europe has moved west to Morocco, and crossings to Spain have risen.

Not far from Blessing’s home in Benin City, where traffickers have been actively recruiting women for years, an unmarked shelter sits on a dusty, quiet street. Many returning trafficking victims have found a new start here with the help of another group of nuns who run it.

“We don’t have a signpost here. We try to protect them from prying eyes and people asking a lot of questions,” said Sister Antonia Ayeda, who works at the safe haven operated by a local group called the Committee for the Support of the Dignity of Women.

“At times they are sad, but they’re happy they are no longer in such jobs,” she said. “They don’t allow themselves to just stay behind. They are trying to struggle.”

For some women, readjusting to life in Nigeria ultimately proves to be too much. They want to get back to Europe and try to find a better job there again.

That’s what Joy wants to do. After paying off her “debt” in Italy, she lived at a shelter in Parma run by Caritas, an NGO that helps trafficking victims. She made friends there, and started to enjoy her new life. But she could never get the immigration documents she needed to legally stay and work in Italy and she missed her family. So, she decided to come back home and she’s been regretting it ever since.

The small shop she started up with seed money from Sister Ebegbulem didn’t get off the ground. Her husband has also been out of work, and her kids aren’t going to school. The small house their family started to build is only half-finished, with no roof and no windows. Joy and her husband don’t have the money to complete it.

“When I was in Italy, I really wanted to come back because I didn’t know the situation of this [in] Nigeria. But now that I know … I want to leave,” Joy said, looking around her village.

“If it takes me to go to go through Libya, I will go — me and my family.”

But, she added, “I’m not going as a prostitute. No, no, no. I vow in my life I will never do that again. Not again. Never.”

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