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Trafficking in Women from Nigeria to Europe
By Jørgen Carling
International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
Benin City in the state of Edo, Nigeria. Most women trafficked from Nigeria come from Edo.
The Western European prostitution market has become increasingly globalized during the past 15 years. The processes by which Eastern European, Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Sub-Saharan African women end up as sex workers in Western Europe are highly varied.
The largest group of prostitutes from Sub-Saharan Africa comes from Nigeria, and they are usually recruited through a specific type of trafficking network. The term "trafficking in persons" is restricted to instances where people are deceived, threatened, or coerced into situations of exploitation, including prostitution. This contrasts with "human smuggling," in which a migrant purchases services to circumvent immigration restrictions, but is not necessarily a victim of deception or exploitation.
In West Africa, there is widespread trafficking in women and children within the region as well as to overseas locations.
Nigeria has signed and ratified the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, often referred to as the Palermo Protocol. Domestic legislation and legal practice in the area of trafficking remain erratic, however.
Among the other countries in the region, Ghana has been commended for successful anti-trafficking initiatives, while Equatorial Guinea — despite its oil wealth and ample resources — has failed to address the problem and is a hub for trafficking in women and children.
The Nigerian Setting
Trafficking in women often takes place within a broader context of migration. On the sending side, the Nigerian trafficking industry is fueled by the combination of widespread emigration aspirations and severely limited possibilities for migrating to Europe or the United States.
There is a sizeable Nigerian diaspora of almost 200,000 legal residents in Europe. The largest number live in the United Kingdom, followed by Italy, Germany, Spain, and Ireland.
Although academic researchers and the media have devoted substantial attention to Nigerian trafficking, prostitution, and organized crime, little is known about the vast majority of Nigerians in Europe who are not involved in these activities. Given the size of the Nigerian population in several European countries, it is a strikingly under-researched minority.
While poverty and unemployment are not unique to Nigeria, the level of peacetime violence, corruption, and organized crime surpasses most other African countries. The fact that these evils have persisted after return to democratic rule in 1999 has been a great disillusionment to many Nigerians, thousands of whom have sought asylum in Europe. In 2004, Nigerians were the fifth largest group of asylum seekers in Europe, but very few were granted protection.
Trafficking in women from Nigeria is strongly concentrated in the state of Edo in the South-Central part of the country. A survey by Women's Health and Action Research Centre in Edo's capital Benin City a few years ago showed that one in three young women had received offers to go to Europe.
Some researchers have pointed to specific historical and cultural factors as reasons for this geographical concentration, including the particularly disadvantaged situation of women, the importance attributed to luxury and material status, and the local tradition of slavery. Much of the explanation, however, lies in the self-reinforcing mechanisms that come into force once a migration flow has been initiated.
When networks, infrastructure, and expectations have been established, migration flows tend to increase, even if the initial movement was a matter of coincidence. The success of many female emigrants who went to Europe is highly visible in Edo, for instance in the form of grand houses built with remittances.
Working abroad is therefore often seen as the best strategy for escaping poverty. Ensuring a better future for one's family in Nigeria is a principal motivation for emigration within and outside the trafficking networks.
The most important European destination for Nigerian trafficking victims is Italy, where there may be as many as 10,000 Nigerian prostitutes. Other significant destinations include the Netherlands and Spain, and, to a lesser degree, Germany, Belgium, Austria, and the United Kingdom. Italy is the only European country where a clear majority of legally resident Nigerians are women.
When Nigerians began migrating to Italy in the 1980s, they were one of many migrant groups from developing countries attracted by Italy's demand for low-skilled labor in agriculture and services.
The first Nigerian women who worked as prostitutes in Italy usually did so independently and were not trafficking victims. In the early 1990s, however, the rising difficulties of travelling to and settling in Europe meant that prospective emigrants were increasingly dependent on large loans.
Coupled with the prospect of large revenues on the Italian prostitution market, this provided an opportunity for traffickers. Young women were enticed with promises of good jobs, and subsequently coerced into prostitution in order to repay their debt.
The Emigration Pact
An Example of How Trafficking from Nigeria to Italy Is Organized
The victim's initial contact with the smugglers is often through a relative, friend, or other familiar person. This is represented in the diagram (right), which shows one example of the organization of human trafficking from Nigeria to Italy.
After the initial contact, the victim is put in contact with a madam, the network's most important person in Nigeria. In many cases, the madam also has the role of sponsor, the person who finances the journey. Typical costs range from US$500 to US$2,000 for documents and US$8,000 to US$12,000 for the travel. The debt incurred by the victim is much higher, however. Typical amounts are between US$40,000 and US$100,000.
At this point, the victim and her sponsor make a "pact" that obliges repayment in exchange for safe passage to Europe. The pact is usually religiously sealed by an ohen, a priest of the indigenuous religious traditions. The ohen traditionally functions as a magistrate or registrar. Increasingly, the victim and her family also sign a formal contract with the sponsor, using the family's house or other assets as collateral.
As part of the ceremony, the ohen usually assembles a parcel with magic significance. This consists of hair, nail cuttings, or other bodily substances, and a variety of other items that protect against accidents. The parcel makes the woman attractive to men or otherwise supports the pact and its fulfillment. The victims regard the pact as a solemn promise to the sponsor, sanctioned by the ohen and monitored by the local communty.
The magic-religious element in Nigerian trafficking has received much attention in Europe. What is seen as a mixture of "voodoo," organized crime, and the sex trade appeals to the media. The police and policymakers in Europe have embraced the notion that the women are driven by fears of magic — a convenient explanation for enigmatic behavior.
Field research in Nigeria, by contrast, has shown that the initial religious sanctioning of the pact is not necessarily intimidating in its own right. Only at a later stage, if a woman is perceived as challenging the pact, does the magic becomes an element in violent repression.
Emigration pacts are frequently also sanctioned with prayer rituals in the Pentecostal churches to which most of the victims belong, further broadening the pact's legitimacy. As in the rest of Nigeria, indigenuous religious traditions coexist with Christianity and Islam.
Routes and Strategies
In most cases, trafficked women journey to Western Europe by air or over land through the Sahara. Flying via other West African and/or Eastern European countries lessens the risk of having forged documents questioned.
During overland journeys, men known as "trolleys" in the trafficking network escort women individually or in small groups. Nigerians play an important role in human smuggling in North Africa. The smuggling infrastructure that traffickers and their victims use also often serves asylum seekers.
In Europe, the women live and work under the control of a Nigerian madam, a counterpart of the madam in Nigeria. In many cases, the madam in Italy has a male partner known as "madam's (black) boy" who undertakes certain tasks in managing the trafficking.
In Italy, Nigerian sex workers are usually street prostitutes and constitute the low-wage end of the prostitution market. Their places of work (joints) are often located in the suburbs or along intercity highways. In the Netherlands and Belgium, Nigerian prostitutes are more likely to work in the big cities' red-light districts.
The trafficking of women to Europe is now a well-known phenomenon in Edo state. Many women therefore know they are likely to work as prostitutes if they agree to travel to Europe. However, they may have little understanding of the conditions under which they will work and of the size of the debt they will incur.
In anticipation of leaving Nigeria and helping one's family out of poverty, it is tempting for these women to believe in promises about good jobs. Whether this means being duped, or deceiving one's self, is not obvious. Importantly, the fact that the women may have known, or ought to have understood, that they would have to work as prostitutes does not excuse or legitimate subsequent abuse.
A Self-Reproducing Organization
It usually takes victims between one and three years to repay debts to their sponsors. The debt is sometimes increased as punishment, or the duration of the pact is protracted in other ways. Nevertheless, there eventually comes a day when the debt is repaid. The fact that the debt does not last forever may convince victims that adhering to the pact is their best option.
Once the pact has ended, it is common for a victim to work for a madam as a supervisor of other prostitutes, and eventually become a madam herself. In other words, Nigerian trafficking is not only characterized by female leadership, but also by a self-reproducting organizational structure.
In Italy, madams are usually between 25 and 35 years old. In the Netherlands, where many Nigerians prostitutes arrive as minors, some become madams around the age of 20. The prospect of upward mobility in the trafficking organization is a strong incentive to comply with the pact.
Ironically, the strength of the Nigerian trafficking networks lies in the element of reciprocity between traffickers and victims. The religious and legal sanctioning of the pact between the two parties, as well as prospects for a better situation when the indentured prostitution ends, give the majority of victims a strong motivation to comply. As a result, Nigerian trafficking networks are less reliant on the use of violence than their Eastern European counterparts.
The victims' commitment to the pact makes it particularly difficult to combat this form of trafficking. In several European countries, authorities have "rescued" women from their traffickers, but they return to prostitution to fulfill their obligations towards their sponsors.
For the police, the religious element has provided a convenient explanation. For the media, the combination of vice and "voodoo" has fueled sensational coverage.
Therefore, it is vital to understand the social and cultural context of trafficking while recognizing that the most intriguing aspects of this context, as in the Nigerian case, are not necessarily the ones that can best explain it.
Jørgen Carling is a researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). His research focuses on migration from Africa to Europe, including human smuggling, trafficking, and transnational practices.
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