LAGOS, Nigeria — For many of the girls in Benin City, a town about 300 kilometers east of Lagos, the journey to a life of prostitution in Europe begins with a bizarre ritual. Before they leave, they are taken to traditional shrines where they are often forced to undergo a juju oath-swearing ritual that commits them to repaying the money they owe to their smugglers on pain of death or insanity, and not to denounce them to the police.
In what has become a very common ritual in Benin City, girls are made to undress. They have been told to wear underwear stained with menstrual blood, and that is taken from them. Their pubic hair and toenails are cut, and they are forced to swear over the blood of an animal, usually a chicken, that they would never betray their “benefactor.” According to traditional beliefs, which are strong in Benin City, this gives the priests power to punish erring women wherever they are in the world.
One juju priest who claimed to have carried out an oath-taking exercise involving hundreds of girls told The Daily Beast that a small charm which serves as a concrete expression of the agreement, and which also is expected to bring luck for the journey, is usually prepared and handed to the young women to take with them on their travels.
“Any girl who fails to keep to this agreement is struck with a terrible gynecological disease. That is why we take their blood-stained underwear,” said the juju priest. “The blood of the chicken we kill represents the blood of the girl, and that puts her life in our hands.”
A young woman we’ll call Deborah, who spent many years working as a prostitute in Italy, told The Daily Beast she believes in the very common traditional notion that girls who fail to keep their oath become mad or die. One, she told us, was struck with a terrible illness for failure to keep to the agreement.
But other stigmas that might be attached to sex work are less present in Benin City, where human trafficking is a major industry and potential prostitutes are seen by many as investments, expected to pay back more than the costs of sending them away and keeping them in Europe.
The idea of women working as prostitutes to make money for the family has, over time, been accepted by many in the community, and some parents pressure their daughters to go to Italy, especially when familiar faces return home after years in Europe and show off their exotic lifestyle.
Deborah made the trip to Italy with help from her aunt. Her next-door neighbor, Osas, travelled there to be a prostitute as well, with assistance from her schoolmate. In the same compound, Folake was approached by her hairdresser, who arranged for her to travel to Italy. She was told a lucrative job awaited her, but not prostitution. Once she was there, however, she had little choice.
“My hairdresser called me on the phone one evening and said she knew someone who could help me travel to Italy and help get a job for me as well,” said Folake, who asked that we not use her real name. She is the first born in a family of nine, she said. “I was so desperate for a job. My family lived from hand to mouth.”
She eventually made it to Italy after a horrible journey across North Africa during which several women died of hunger and thirst, she said. She arrived in Italy with nothing, and after months working on the streets, Italian authorities deported her back to Nigeria without a penny, having only managed to pay a fraction of the $35,000 she owed her mistress.
“I returned empty-handed, without anything to show for all my efforts and the risk I took. It made me contemplate suicide,” said Folake when we met her in Lagos.
Amid the massive number of migrants reaching Europe over the past year, most of them refugees from Syria and other battlefields, there were also a record number of women from Nigeria. A report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said over 1,200 Nigerian women went to Italy by boat in 2014 compared to 300 the previous year. And historically, according to United Nations estimates, more than 80 percent (PDF) of Nigerian women trafficked abroad to work in the sex trade come from Edo state, where Benin City is located. In 2011, the UN Office for Drugs and Crime named Nigeria as one of the eight worst countries in the world for human trafficking. A number of local reports suggest local traffickers have approached one in three women in Benin City with promises of jobs if they go to Europe.
EUROPOL has identified Nigerian trafficking-related organized crime as one of the greatest law enforcement challenges to European governments. Nigerian crime syndicates run many of the operations, and throughout the women’s journey to Europe, many of them are raped, beaten, and psychologically abused by members of the gangs that control the trade. The syndicates’ use of systematic violence is aimed at preparing the women for intensive exploitation once they reach their destinations.
The history of this massive traffic began in the 1980s when free-market economic reforms led to massive job losses that impoverished many in the West African country. Attracted by Italy’s demand for low-skilled labor in agriculture and services, Nigerians began migrating there in large numbers.
At that time, women who worked as prostitutes in Italy usually did so on their own and were not trafficking other women. But as the trip became more difficult in the 1990s, prospective emigrants became more and more dependent on large loans in order travel to and settle in Europe, and traffickers saw the prospect of large revenues in the Italian prostitution market. So more and more young women—mostly teenagers from poor backgrounds—were enticed with promises of very lucrative jobs, and subsequently forced into prostitution in order to repay their debt. That much is a story as old as human trafficking.
But it’s also true that in Benin City the financial success of many female emigrants who worked as prostitutes in Italy is highly visible. There are grand houses and flashy cars acquired with remittances. Former prostitutes often become madams, recruiting young women from within their own community.
Now add to that mixture the breakdown of anything resembling law and order along the overland route many take to get to Italy. Migration analysts say the fighting in Libya has emboldened existing criminal networks in that country, making it easier for traffickers to ship women and children out across the Mediterranean.
An immigration official told The Daily Beast that young girls, mostly from the Niger Delta region in the south, are taken to the northern city of Kano. In the past, the traffickers would take their victims through Kano airport and fly them to Libya or even Europe using fake and stolen passports. But new security measures introduced by the Nigerian immigration service to check identity fraud, including sophisticated passport reading machines and data bases with high profile arrests, meant the traffickers resorted to driving the victims overland to Niger then Libya. From there they may be shipped out on some of the notoriously unseaworthy scows that sink in the Mediterranean so often that even when hundreds of the people on board are killed, the tragedies draw little international attention.
According to the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), Italy has been the destination of more than 10,000 Nigerian prostitutes (PDF), trafficked from Benin City to the different corners of Italy, including the Via Domitiana, a stretch of potholed highway north of Naples that has become a hub for the smuggling gangs and prostitutes.
Italy is an especially attractive destination because under Italian law (PDF), victims of sex trafficking have been granted residency in order to access the state-run welfare system. But despite new measures adopted to cater to victims of trafficking, the Italian government’s Equal Opportunities Office, responsible for protecting these persons, is currently struggling to cope with the huge increase of arrivals and cuts in its budget.
In any case, the trauma and abuse to which the women are subjected during their journey often dissuades them from trying to obtain a residence permit when they reach Italy, and many of the women wind up as virtual slaves.
“I lived in Italy like a prisoner—not allowed to leave the brothel except to work for money,” said Osas, who has lived in Lagos since the Italians deported her two years ago. “I was required to bring back at least €120 [about $135] every night, and whenever I failed to do so, I got beaten by my madam.”
Osas said half of the money usually went into paying her debt and other bills, which required her to work for at least 12 hours a day. “I stayed in Italy for three years, and all through I was paying my madam for my food and accommodation, and to meet up with these demands, I had to hook an average of five or more clients per day.”
“They said I’ll be working in a garment factory,” Deborah told The Daily Beast. “But I didn’t get the job they promised me,” she said, and “unfortunately I was tied to an oath and I had to pay off the debt or face repercussions.”
But girls that return from Italy empty-handed are usually stigmatized, even by their own family members.
“It’s the reason why many stranded girls in Italy don’t want to return,” Deborah said. “People will say you are a fool for spending many years there without making money. Your family members might even kill you for that reason. Even if they don’t, the thought of failure and wasted years will.”
Friends for many years during their stay in Benin, Deborah, Osas, and Folake have reunited in Lagos where they live together in a miserable rented room and work as petty traders, hoping to rebuild their broken lives.
“We don’t want to return to Benin because people will point fingers at us, and call us terrible names,” said Osas. “Staying in Lagos will keep us safe from being stigmatized and offer us a chance to rearrange our lives.”