EDO STATE, NIGERIA —
For many Nigerian victims of sex trafficking, coming home is as hard as the trip. In Edo State, sometimes the same kind of so-called "magic" that binds victims to traffickers is used to set them free.
After five years of sex work on the streets in Italy, Patience Ken had paid $40,000 to her madam, essentially buying her freedom. Before she could make any money of her own, she was arrested and thrown into a Roman jail.
Months later, she was handcuffed and brought to the airport. From there, she was shipped back to Nigeria. After she landed, they told her she was free. She fainted.
“They said I am free, so there I got faint," she recalled. "I got faint because what am I going to do? Where am I going to start from? There is no money. I am stranded. No clothes. Only the clothes that I am putting on. Only the shoes that I am putting on."
Ken sold her mobile phone to pay for her trip back to her village in Edo State, where most Nigerian sex trafficking victims in Europe originate. When she arrived, her family was not happy to see another mouth to feed.
Neighbors whispered: “Had she been a prostitute? Why then did she have no money?”
Solomon Okoduwa is the president of the Initiative for Youth Awareness on Migration, Immigration, Development and Re-integration, an aid organization for returnees. Okoduwa says returning victims do not just face poverty and isolation at home.
Many fear they will be killed by a juju spell, the supposed magical oath in which they swore they would pay traffickers for their passage to Europe.
Traditional West African magic called juju is used to both convince girls they are bound to traffickers for survival and that they have been freed. (VOA/Heather Murdock)
Okoduwa says the same traditional priests that administered the oaths have the power to release sex trafficking victims from the spell, or convince the girls they are released, which has the same practical result.
“What I do is help intervening, mediate between the girl and the man. I talk sense into them and the man says, ‘Okay, from today you are free.’ They make some incantation and say ‘today you are free,’” explained Okoduwa.
His organization runs a training program for returnees, teaching agriculture and business. But when students finish the program, they often find no available jobs, and have no capital to start up businesses.
This problem, he says, is why so many young people want to leave in the first place.
"The economic situation, that is the drive of our people that is chasing so many of them out of our country thinking that the grass is greener on the other side," he said.
To prove his point, Okoduwa takes us to the farming village of Abumwenre in the Edo State.
Aid worker Soloman Okoduwa (front) and resident Joy Joy Eriamentor (behind) listen to Naomi Benjamin tell her story. (VOA/Heather Murdock)
Sitting by a stack of firewood, 23-year-old Naomi Benjamin tells the story of her high hopes for Europe being dashed when she found out they brought her to be a prostitute. She attempted to run away from the traffickers and spent more than two years in jail before they deported her.
"It was... It was terrible. My mind was troubling me. This was not where I was supposed to be," she said.
Her neighbor, 18-year-old Joy Eriamentor, listens to the tale, curious and concerned, but not dissuaded from her own dreams of travel. She says she loves science but here in Abumere there is no chance for her to get ahead.
“We do not have any help here. Nothing, no work. Because my family is too poor, that is why I want to go to America," she said.
Officials say sex trafficking’s main enemy is awareness, and girls like Joy may be protected from a long, hard journey if they know they will have to repay facilitiators once they arrive in Europe.
Desperation from abject poverty, they add, drives all forms of human trafficking in Nigeria. Young people knowingly risk their lives and freedom to find a better life because they feel they have nothing to lose.