'For me, Europe was golden'
They offer us a moment of pampering; a manicure, pedicure, or perhaps a well-needed massage. They make sure Friday nights are free from cooking thanks to a myriad of cheap Asian take-aways.
They even provide sexual relief for tens of thousands of European husbands - yet we are constantly shocked to learn of their existence. Human trafficking victims are everywhere.
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Some things never change: Few have suffered so brutally from this modern-day slave trade as African women. Often a burden already at birth, they are lured to Europe by friends, neighbours or family members, hoping to make enough money to buy a place of their own, to ultimately gain a higher value in their communities. But what awaits those who cross the dangerous waters is a fate far worse than unemployment and inferiority to male family members.
This is Victoria’s story.
When a Christian charity found her on a red-light street in Stockholm a few years ago, she had been trafficked across the continent via Italy and Germany. She arrived in Sweden with the help of a stranger she befriended in southern Europe. Victoria was beaten, but not broken. She was also five months pregnant.
The first chapter of Victoria’s story is identical to that of millions of migrants across the world.
After a whirlwind romance, she had gotten engaged to her boyfriend, Tom, and was getting to know his family. One day, Tom suggested that they should relocate to Europe. It made perfect sense: His sister Theresa was already living in Italy, so Victoria could make a little money by looking after her child and help out in her hair salon. Tom was ambitious and more likely to find a job over there, where opportunities seemed to abound. Victoria was excited.
"For me, Europe was golden," she says.
But Victoria’s European adventure would take a cruel turn. Strange travel arrangements and fuss over documents led to her being kept in a cramped apartment in Lagos, waiting and waiting for months on end. The departure date changed constantly.
One night, she was raped by a friend of her fiance. She was too ashamed to tell anyone. Little did she know that this is the standard procedure of traffickers to ”break in” new girls, to make them more submissive.
When she finally arrived in Italy, everything crumbled.
There was no hair salon. There was no baby. ”Tomorrow night," Tom’s sister said, ”you start working the streets as a prostitute.”
"I couldn’t believe it. What kind of sister-in-law wants her brother’s future wife to sleep with lots of men?"
It was all too absurd. Theresa reacted angrily to Victoria’s shock. The situation was not the least bit strange, she claimed, saying husbands sell their wives and parents prostitute their children.
"Then she cut off my hair, stripped me naked and took my picture, and started imprisoning me during the day. I was only let out at night, to serve men in apartments, on the street, in hotels, down in the metro. To be free, I had to pay back a debt they said I owed them for the trip from Nigeria, a debt of 50,000 euro. And if I tried to escape or tell anyone, they would hurt my family."
Victoria had just turned 17 years old.
Theresa had spies everywhere. The system is the same across Europe. Pimps or their assistants drive by regularly to make sure the girls stay put. They turn them against each other, rewarding snitches. Some victims beg their clients for help. It’s a risky strategy. A few men take pity and arrange elaborate escape plans, aided by anti-trafficking groups.
Others buy them a meal and give them some extra cash. But many take advantage of the women’s desperation.
"I tried to flee once," says Victoria. "I met a guy and told him that I wanted to get to the airport. He agreed to help me, but instead stopped at his place and demanded that I sleep with him."
When she refused, he threw her back on the street early in the morning.
"By late afternoon, I’d had no food, no water, no clothes to change. I was so hungry. I couldn’t communicate with anyone. I went from station to station but couldn’t find the place where I lived. When I finally got there, Tom’s sister was furious that I hadn’t called her – but she had taken my mobile, and I had no idea how to use a public phone."
Victoria soon forgot about the episode. Theresa did not.
The trafficking networks exercise a powerful psychological hold over their victims.
"Before leaving Nigeria, they take you somewhere for voodoo," Victoria explains. "You swear an oath and promise never to do anything against their will. That gives them power over you. Then they bring you to different places to make sacrifices. This is where they do the dark, evil things. They give you a chicken heart, a live animal heart, still beating, and make you eat it. Then you swear that you will never disobey them."
From now on, no physical chains are needed as the slaves are constantly reminded of the threat to their own and their loved ones’ lives – even if that threat is only designed to keep them submissive.
This could have been true for Victoria, too, isolated as she was on a foreign continent, surrounded by men and women who planned to sell her as many times possible before her inevitable physical or mental downfall.
But one day, a call came.
”Victoria, your father is dead,” they said. Just like that.
The day Victoria was lost down in the metro, trying to find her way home, Theresa called Victoria’s parents to say that she had escaped. The execution order for her father was duly set in motion.
The Swedish charity that would help Victoria regain her life confirms that the murder happened.
The traffickers and those who abuse their victims are the weakest of humans, says one senior social worker.
"The women, on the other hand, are the strongest persons I’ve ever met. They’ve seen hell on earth and fought their way back."
Victoria comes across as a fighter, too. She would like a hard punishment for her tormentors. Today, she is working and trying to focus on her studies, despite being tortured by daily flashbacks. Of what, we ask? Of the first rape in Lagos. Of beatings from the female pimps.
There are glimpses of rough clients. "Swedish men sometimes just want to talk," she says. "In Italy, they are … more violent."
As we discuss her hopefully brighter future in Scandinavia and the pregnancy which was too late to terminate, Victoria lets down her guard a little. Her eyes glow with warmth.
"My child," she concludes, "is the only one who has ever loved me without wanting anything in return."
This article was first published in Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden) and Spiegel Online (Germany) in Jan/Feb 2014 and is part of series of investigations into human trafficking.The series was made possible by a working grant from journalismfund.eu