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Rights Group Decrys Trafficking of Nigerian Women in Ivory Coast

International watchdog group, Human Rights Watch, is urging Nigerian and Ivorian authorities to crack down on traffickers who lure Nigerian women to Ivory Coast and then force them into prostitution.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Nigerian women and girls in three Ivorian towns this July who had been brought there under false pretense and then forced to become prostitutes.

HRW researcher, Matt Wells, said though the group met with some 30 trafficked Nigerian women, authorities in one town told him there could be as many as 100 such women in their town alone.

"They are approached back in their homes in Nigeria, perhaps when they are no longer able to continue with schooling, and they are promised a job either in northern Nigeria or elsewhere in West Africa, generally as a seamstress or a seller of some sort. And then once they arrive in Cote d'Ivoire, they are handed a pack of condoms and told that they have to pay off their debt through prostitution," he said.

Wells said the women are forced to sleep with up to 30 men per night, earning about two dollars per client.

Human Rights Watch says the women are often from Delta and Edo states in southern Nigeria and can be as young as 15 years old when traffickers bring them overland to Ivory Coast. The trip costs around $200, but when they arrive, HRW says the women are told they must pay back as much as $4,000.

It is an exorbitant sum that several women told HRW they had not been able to repay after two, or even six years, of sex work in Ivory Coast.

"It is quite clear that the madams are taking their travel documents, their identity cards, as soon as they arrive to make sure that the girls cannot escape," said Matt Wells. "Even when madams in some cases have been run off, the girls know that they still have to send money back to Nigeria because there is the constant threat that if they fail to repay their debt that something will happen, either to them or to their families back home."

Wells said Nigerian and Ivorian authorities need to take a more proactive approach to dismantle, what he said, are very well-organized trafficking rings.

"The Nigerian embassy is certainly aware of the problem, and they have repatriated dozens of girls this year alone," he said. "The problem is that with both the Nigerian authorities and the Ivorian authorities, they're focusing on solely those girls who were extraordinarily brave enough to run away, but for the girls that are continuing to be in this situation, there is very little effort to provide protection, to go after the madams and to shut off the rings in general."

Civil war split Ivory Coast in half in 2002, and the country continues to struggle to hold long-delayed presidential elections that could bring an end to nearly a decade of political instability and internal conflict.

Wells said Ivory Coast provides fertile ground for impunity in human rights violations, like the trafficking of Nigerian women for sex work.

"In fact, a lot of the severe human rights abuses going on in Cote d'Ivoire right now are taking a back seat to simply getting to elections, which I think is a major concern," said the researcher. "A lot of these things are getting thrown under the rug and the average Ivorian, or in this case, the Nigerians who are being trafficked in, are those that are suffering as result."

Among its recommendations, Human Rights Watch has called on Nigerian and Ivorian authorities to investigate and prosecute traffickers taking women to Ivory Coast. HRW has also called on Nigerian authorities to educate Nigerian women about the existence and methods of these rings and offer assistance and protection to repatriated victims of trafficking.

HRW says the Nigerian women are brought to Ivory Coast through countries like Benin, Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

On a regional level, HRW is calling on the Economic Community of West African States to work with countries to protect women and girls from trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice.