The latest US anti-slavery report says Nigeria is meeting minimum anti-trafficking standards. Yet tens of thousands of Nigerian women are being brought to Europe and forced to work as prostitutes, as a German film shows.
Human traffickers exploit Nigerian women's dreams of a better future in Europe
The US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released this week ranks countries according to efforts made to stop trafficking and help the victims. Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, was able to hold on to its Tier 1 ranking, joining Mauritius as the only African country with a top grade.
Yet German director Lukas Roegler portrays a different story in his film "Sisters of no mercy." Roegler spent several months researching and filming in Nigeria. His documentary tells the stories of four Nigerian girls whose dream of a better future turned into a prostitution nightmare on the streets of Europe.
Nigerian families often have many children, and can't provide all with a good education. For girls and young women in particular, it's often difficult to find an occupational perspective for the future.
So for many young women, Europe appears to be the answer to all their problems. They envision opportunities to work as nannies or housekeepers, and to earn their own money. As Roegler discovered, human traffickers brutally and mercilessly exploit these dreams. Instead of finding work as household help, these Nigerian women end up in German brothels or as prostitutes on the streets of Italy, where an estimated one in three prostitutes comes from Nigeria today.
Informing both sides
Four years after the film was released, the director was finally able to screen the film in Nigeria last week. For Roegler, the trip back to Nigeria fulfills a vision. He said right from the outset, it was his aim to show the documentary on both continents in order to close an information gap.
Anti-trafficking campaigns do exist in Nigeria
"The European side can be informed about the structures of this human trafficking, so that the authorities can better react," Roegler says. "We have achieved this. Today, the police and aid organizations in part use the film for training purposes and it has made a difference."
Now, Roegler is hoping to throw light on the issue in Nigeria. "Sisters of no mercy" was shown in Abuja, Lagos and Benin City - the most important screening for the director.
Most potential victims live in Benin City. The Nigerian city is considered the center of human trafficking. One of these victims told her story to Roegler in the film. For years, Faith was forced to work as a prostitute in Italy on the streets of Turin.
"So you have sex with someone you don't know, just to keep things moving because you must eat," she says.
Many Nigerian women believe they'll earn good money as housekeepers or nannies and can help support their families back home. Faith says she remembers the day she arrived in Europe with these dreams.
"It was a very nice day," she says. "In my mind I was saying, God, I want to be a nanny. I'll work, send money home to buy land for my father and take care if my family."
In these women's minds, Europe is paradise. But already the trip there turns out to be hell. Human traffickers don't put their victims in an airplane. Their journey often takes years, crisscrossing North Africa, squeezed into trucks - a fact also confirmed in the State Department's TIP report.
"Traffickers decreasingly relied on air travel to transport trafficking victims, and more often utilized land and sea routes, for example by forcing victims to cross the desert on foot to reach Europe," the report said.
Roegler says the treacherous journey is supposed to break their will. Several sources told him that the traffickers responsible for the transport from Africa to Europe deliberately incorporate concrete mishaps on the trip.
"The girls and women are then stuck in some little town in part for weeks," he says. "Of course, at some point, they run out of money or food and are forced to prostitute themselves. So they experience this as if it were all an unhappy coincidence. But there's a system behind it. These women are then brought to Europe and have already had to prostitute themselves out of necessity."
These women live in constant fear
Whoever actually survives the journey through the Sahara, the introduction into prostitution in Mali or Morocco and the crossing to Europe, lands immediately as a sex slave on the streets of Turin, Rome or Verona.
Here, the next nightmare awaits them: the so-called "Madams" - Nigerian female pimps, who make the human trafficking business from Nigeria the only major organized crime business worldwide controlled by women.
The Madams are unscrupulous and brutal. They take the young women's passports away and force them to prostitute themselves on the streets. There, they have to work off their transport costs of some 60,000 Euros ($86,000).
"We calculated that this means up to 1,500 customers that they have to serve sexually," Roegler says. "That can take years. If you consider a city like Turin, where it can be minus 15 degrees cold in the winter and you have to stand around burning garbage cans, that is of course completely unimaginable for these African women before they arrive."
Escaping the system is impossible. A large number of these young women are recruited in an animist region in southern Nigeria, where superstition is an integral part of their lives. This is also exploited by the traffickers, who force the women through an occult "juju" ritual.
This contract, which is made in a voodoo shrine before they leave Nigeria, ties them to their traffickers until they repay their individual debt. It's a pact with the gods, says Roegler.
"These women grow up with this so they believe that if they swear on the god of iron, Ogun, and then break their contract, the god will punish them here," he says. "These rituals are then devised accordingly that they say: we're keeping your hair here. Then we can punish you here and you will get sick in Europe or die there."
Platform for discussion
Faith also lived through this fear and described it in the film. She is just one of some 50,000 Nigerian prostitutes in Europe. In Nigeria, there are increased efforts now to educate women on the situation.
Last week, human rights activists, judges, district attorneys and potential victims, some 500 girls from a school in Benin City, watched the film at the Nawa Festival, which serves as a platform for discussion on human trafficking issues. Roegler was told there about furtive recruiting methods.
"One girl told us that there's a white Italian man who pays her school fees," he says. "As soon as she graduates, she supposed to be brought to Europe to work for him. And so you really notice that it's simply important to show this film here."
For this girl, Roegler's film came precisely at the right time to Nigeria. A human rights organization working against trafficking of women is now dealing with her case.
Authors: Beatrice Weiskircher, Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge