Tuesday

18th Dec 2018

'For me, Europe was golden'

  • Nigerian girls: The majority of victims from outside the EU come from Nigeria and China (Photo: World Bank Photo Collection)

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • The trafficking networks exercise a powerful psychological hold over their victims. (Photo: Marcus Walker)

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

Human trafficking is 'modern day slavery'

Human trafficking is the slavery of our times, with the victims a tiny cog in a corruption machine that involves criminal gangs working across several member states, say experts.

When protectors turn perpetrators

Corruption is a key reason for why human trafficking continues and traffickers remain free. Policemen, judges and government ministers play crucial roles. Yet little has been published on the topic.

The slaves on our streets

There are roads in Europe where African slaves are forced to wander, day and night, under scorching sun and pouring rain.

Off the road

Castel Volturno is something of the trafficking capital of Europe. Often, this is the first place victims end up in after arriving on the continent.

Muscat's one-man rule poses challenge for EU

Malta's PM already enjoys the kind of one-man rule Hungary and Poland are trying to build, but can the EU afford another political confrontation in sensitive times?

News in Brief

  1. 3,500 UK troops on standby for no-deal Brexit
  2. Brexit: Opposition disagrees over no confidence vote
  3. EU court confirms suspension of Polish judges law
  4. France to tax Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon
  5. EU negotiators agree CO2 targets for cars
  6. May: Brexit vote will be week of 14 January
  7. Rome finds extra budget funds to fit EU demands
  8. Polish climate talks end in agreement on rulebook

Opinion

EU parliament vote strengthens whistleblower protection

We must not undervalue what a massive step the European Parliament vote represents. The hard work has paid off. We can take a moment to celebrate, but the hard work begins again for finalising strong protection for European whistleblowers.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. Muscat's one-man rule poses challenge for EU
  2. Orban protests target state media in new front
  3. Brexit and the Queen Sacrifice
  4. EU gives Switzerland another six months for a deal
  5. Fiscal discipline rules in eurozone are devastating
  6. EU capitals see weekend of tear gas and water cannon
  7. Bulgarian 'EU passports' whistleblower wants justice
  8. No more Brexit talks, despite May's pleas

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  2. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  3. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  6. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  8. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  10. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  11. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  12. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us