Nigerian girls lured into prostitution with promise of better future
The Bois de Vincennes Avenue, located in the outskirts of Paris is a well known joint of prostitutes. Some of them wear nothing more than their underwear.
Nadège was one of these women before she managed to escape.
The park’s central road is yet another point on the map of a massive cross-continental trafficking network that has channeled tens of thousands of Nigerian women and children throughout Europe and as far as Malaysia.
Like them, Nadège says she was trafficked from Nigeria to France and forced into sexual slavery, at €20 ($23) per client, to pay off a colossal debt to a female Nigerian pimp known as a “madam.”
At 15, Nadège says, she was raped and had her first abortion. Alone, she was easy prey for traffickers. A madam she met in Lagos promised her a better life in Europe, working as a waitress.
“I was told it was like a paradise,” Nadège tells CNN. “But getting here, it was like from a frying pan to fire.”
The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) says that recruitment for trafficking to Europe is strongly concentrated in Edo State, in southern Nigeria, the region where Nadège was born.
Before leaving, the madam made Nadège swear an oath at a “juju” temple with a native doctor of Ayelala,a traditional belief system from southern Nigeria. This was to repay her madam for sending her to Europe, and to never speak of her oath, or her debt, to anyone. It’s the same for so many Nigerian women trafficked for sex.
Yehudi Pelosi, a lawyer who specializes in asylum law and human trafficking, said that as part of the ceremony the women are often forced to eat a kola nut and a chicken heart, and drink a concoction of gin and blood. Some of their pubic hair is taken, and their head, breasts and shoulders are often ritually scarred.
Charities working closely with the women say they are petrified of the oath’s power. Nadège was convinced that breaking it meant going mad or dying.
Families suffer, too. Charities say madams pay “cultists” military-style gangs to threaten and sometimes kill the girls’ relatives back home.
Nadège flew on a commercial flight, with a fake passport her madam gave her. She was 20.
Her debt, she was told, was €50,000 ($57,690). Others pay €60,000 ($69,226).
Her madam gave her a €100 daily target and took away her passport and all her earnings, except money for food and rent.
According to a lawyer who represents a charity that works with sex trafficking victims, senior prostitutes are often entrusted with new arrivals and may be given a cut of their earnings.
Some of these women may in time buy trafficked girls of their own to pimp out. They become madams to free themselves from prostitution and earn the European riches they were initially promised.
Les Amis du Bus des Femmes (LABF), a charity that works with prostitutes in Paris, says the sex trafficking route from Nigeria to Paris has existed for 20 years. But since 2015 the charity has noticed increasing numbers of under-age Nigerians. It recently found girls as young as 12 working as prostitutes on the streets of Paris.
“There are brains and talent wasting in Vincennes,” Nadège says. “So many can sing, so many can dance; but the prostitution, the oath, the fear, just overshadowed everything.”
“Sometimes when you get home,” she says, “you have to sit in hot water for hours before you can get yourself back.” She would sleep with up to 10 clients a night.
After nearly a year of relentless work, the turning point came when Nadège became pregnant. She and her boyfriend decided to keep the baby, which meant escaping the vise-like grip of the network.
“I was waiting patiently for the death or the madness,” she says. “I was like… ‘Should I go over to the street and start working? Should I abort my baby?'”
She has escaped harm, for now; the networks have less of a physical presence in France. And with the help of a lawyer, she has been able to gain asylum there.
Women like her are eligible for asylum on grounds of persecution if they can prove they have been trafficked and have distanced themselves from the network. Pelosi says that judges and lawyers are “often overwhelmed” with asylum requests.
But Nadège’s family members in Nigeria are threatened every day, she says, and she can never return home: “This is the only place that is safe for me.”
The trafficking of Nigerian women for prostitution began in the late 1980s, according to the UN, when women were sent to Italy and forced into sex work. Returning home, they became the first generation of madams. They, in turn, made other young women suffer as they did.
Happy Iyenoma, aka “Mama Alicia,” the head of a Paris-based network called the Authentic Sisters, was jailed along with her husband Hilary in May. They were both sentenced to 10 years in prison for charges including human trafficking. In total, 15 members of the network were found guilty of trafficking roughly 50 women.
A charity that was a civil party in the case said one of the victims claimed the network assaulted her parents in Nigeria in 2015. She claimed her father died from his injuries.
In France, the maximum sentence for human trafficking is life imprisonment. But their juju oath forbids the women from speaking to authorities, making it more difficult for police to take down the networks.
A 2015 EASO report says it is often family members that recruit the victims: Sending daughters abroad has become a sort of status symbol for families.
Nadège says she is speaking out to warn other girls against falling into the hands of the traffickers.
“It’s not easy to be transported to Europe just like a bag of fruit and sold for men to eat,” she says, her voice trembling with emotion. “Don’t even think of it.”
Though she has refugee status and a full-time job and has begun learning French, Nadège still feels her life is ruined. The birth of her son, however, has given her a new purpose.