BENIN CITY, NIGERIA— Tens of thousands of Nigerian women are bonded to sexual servitude in Europe through the use of local magic called juju. Lured out of Nigeria with promises of lucrative jobs, women find themselves forced to work grueling hours as prostitutes. Most of the victims are from Edo State.
Here in Benin City, it seems that everyone knows a girl who was or is in Europe.
Many have been away for a long time. Others are back with harrowing tales. They talk about deadly travels through the desert, forced prostitution, arrest, imprisonment and ultimately deportation, penniless, back to the extreme poverty they fled with such high hopes.
Last year, 22-year-old Amaka was approached by a woman who said she would take her to America and Europe. If she worked hard and was good, she would come home rich.
"I was like, ‘say, what kind of job?’ ‘You can work in poultry, you can work in the farm, you can work as a house help.’ I was like, ‘Ah, you know I guess I will go to a European country and work. It will be great.’ So I like it, even when I get there I was very, very happy. At first," she said.
Amaka says she was happy because she survived weeks in the Sahara desert. When they ran out of water, they drank urine to survive only to land in Libya at war, where many of her fellow travelers died.
However, her joy was short-lived. There never was a job waiting, only spiked heels, a skimpy dress and orders to work the streets day and night until she paid her madam nearly $80,000 - the bill for getting her to France.
Grace Osakue heads the aid organization Girls Power Initiative and has long researched human trafficking in Nigeria. Amaka’s tale, she says, is not unusual.
"A lot of people set out with the intention of migrating to greener pastures to escape the poverty in the environment but they become victims of trafficking because those who facilitate such movement are agents of traffickers," said Osakue.
When they get to Europe, she says, few girls dare run away because they are literally bound to traffickers by magical oaths that they took in Nigeria.
Even if you don’t believe in magic, she adds, there is no denying the power of the oaths. Many of the girls believe if they don’t pay back the travel fees, they and their loved ones will be killed by the juju spell.
At this café on the outskirts of the city, Inuaghata says she swore she would pay back $35,000 when she got to Europe.
"I promised them that I would pay, but the person didn’t believe me. So, we have to swear," she said.
Inuaghata, like Amaka, didn't know about the differences in currencies. She thought she was swearing to pay the equivalent of 35,000 Nigerian Naira - about $220.
Beatrice Jedy-Agba, the executive secretary for Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency, known as NAPTIP, says her agency is working to raise awareness among young women in Edo State, the home state of more than 60 percent of the victims, so they can't get tricked like this.
When asked why so many of the victims come from Edo State, home to just 4 million out of Nigeria’s more than 160 million people, she says the answer is largely a mystery.
"It does appear that the first people that made it across to Europe at the time and were successful - seemingly successful - in this business were from the state, and so then they started to bring their relatives and their friends and of course other people they don’t know into the trade," said Jedy-Agba.
Jedy-Agba says trafficking was big business here long before it was criminalized in the early 2000s. Current laws are being revised, she adds, to impose harsher penalties on traffickers and to punish the traditional priests who magically bind the victims.