Trafficking in Women from Nigeria to Europe
By Jørgen Carling
International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
Benin City in the state of Edo, Nigeria. Most women trafficked from
Nigeria come from Edo.
The Western European prostitution market has become increasingly
globalized during the past 15 years. The processes by which Eastern
European, Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Sub-Saharan African
women end up as sex workers in Western Europe are highly varied.
The largest group of prostitutes from Sub-Saharan Africa comes from
Nigeria, and they are usually recruited through a specific type of
trafficking network. The term "trafficking in persons" is restricted
to instances where people are deceived, threatened, or coerced into
situations of exploitation, including prostitution. This contrasts
with "human smuggling," in which a migrant purchases services to
circumvent immigration restrictions, but is not necessarily a victim
of deception or exploitation.
In West Africa, there is widespread trafficking in women and children
within the region as well as to overseas locations.
Nigeria has signed and ratified the United Nations Protocol to
Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women
and Children, often referred to as the Palermo Protocol. Domestic
legislation and legal practice in the area of trafficking remain
Among the other countries in the region, Ghana has been commended for
successful anti-trafficking initiatives, while Equatorial Guinea -
despite its oil wealth and ample resources - has failed to address
the problem and is a hub for trafficking in women and children.
The Nigerian Setting
Trafficking in women often takes place within a broader context of
migration. On the sending side, the Nigerian trafficking industry is
fueled by the combination of widespread emigration aspirations and
severely limited possibilities for migrating to Europe or the United
There is a sizeable Nigerian diaspora of almost 200,000 legal
residents in Europe. The largest number live in the United Kingdom,
followed by Italy, Germany, Spain, and Ireland.
Although academic researchers and the media have devoted substantial
attention to Nigerian trafficking, prostitution, and organized crime,
little is known about the vast majority of Nigerians in Europe who
are not involved in these activities. Given the size of the Nigerian
population in several European countries, it is a strikingly under-
While poverty and unemployment are not unique to Nigeria, the level
of peacetime violence, corruption, and organized crime surpasses most
other African countries. The fact that these evils have persisted
after return to democratic rule in 1999 has been a great
disillusionment to many Nigerians, thousands of whom have sought
asylum in Europe. In 2004, Nigerians were the fifth largest group of
asylum seekers in Europe, but very few were granted protection.
Trafficking in women from Nigeria is strongly concentrated in the
state of Edo in the South-Central part of the country. A survey by
Women's Health and Action Research Centre in Edo's capital Benin City
a few years ago showed that one in three young women had received
offers to go to Europe.
Some researchers have pointed to specific historical and cultural
factors as reasons for this geographical concentration, including the
particularly disadvantaged situation of women, the importance
attributed to luxury and material status, and the local tradition of
slavery. Much of the explanation, however, lies in the self-
reinforcing mechanisms that come into force once a migration flow has
When networks, infrastructure, and expectations have been
established, migration flows tend to increase, even if the initial
movement was a matter of coincidence. The success of many female
emigrants who went to Europe is highly visible in Edo, for instance
in the form of grand houses built with remittances.
Working abroad is therefore often seen as the best strategy for
escaping poverty. Ensuring a better future for one's family in
Nigeria is a principal motivation for emigration within and outside
the trafficking networks.
The most important European destination for Nigerian trafficking
victims is Italy, where there may be as many as 10,000 Nigerian
prostitutes. Other significant destinations include the Netherlands
and Spain, and, to a lesser degree, Germany, Belgium, Austria, and
the United Kingdom. Italy is the only European country where a clear
majority of legally resident Nigerians are women.
When Nigerians began migrating to Italy in the 1980s, they were one
of many migrant groups from developing countries attracted by Italy's
demand for low-skilled labor in agriculture and services.
The first Nigerian women who worked as prostitutes in Italy usually
did so independently and were not trafficking victims. In the early
1990s, however, the rising difficulties of travelling to and settling
in Europe meant that prospective emigrants were increasingly
dependent on large loans.
Coupled with the prospect of large revenues on the Italian
prostitution market, this provided an opportunity for traffickers.
Young women were enticed with promises of good jobs, and subsequently
coerced into prostitution in order to repay their debt.
An Example of How Trafficking from Nigeria to Italy Is Organized
The Emigration Pact
The victim's initial contact with the smugglers is often through a
relative, friend, or other familiar person. This is represented in
the diagram (right), which shows one example of the organization of
human trafficking from Nigeria to Italy.
After the initial contact, the victim is put in contact with a madam,
the network's most important person in Nigeria. In many cases, the
madam also has the role of sponsor, the person who finances the
journey. Typical costs range from US$500 to US$2,000 for documents
and US$8,000 to US$12,000 for the travel. The debt incurred by the
victim is much higher, however. Typical amounts are between US$40,000
At this point, the victim and her sponsor make a "pact" that obliges
repayment in exchange for safe passage to Europe. The pact is usually
religiously sealed by an ohen, a priest of the indigenuous religious
traditions. The ohen traditionally functions as a magistrate or
registrar. Increasingly, the victim and her family also sign a formal
contract with the sponsor, using the family's house or other assets
As part of the ceremony, the ohen usually assembles a parcel with
magic significance. This consists of hair, nail cuttings, or other
bodily substances, and a variety of other items that protect against
accidents. The parcel makes the woman attractive to men or otherwise
supports the pact and its fulfillment. The victims regard the pact as
a solemn promise to the sponsor, sanctioned by the ohen and monitored
by the local community.
The magic-religious element in Nigerian trafficking has received much
attention in Europe. What is seen as a mixture of "voodoo," organized
crime, and the sex trade appeals to the media. The police and
policy makers in Europe have embraced the notion that the women are
driven by fears of magic - a convenient explanation for enigmatic
Field research in Nigeria, by contrast, has shown that the initial
religious sanctioning of the pact is not necessarily intimidating in
its own right. Only at a later stage, if a woman is perceived as
challenging the pact, does the magic becomes an element in violent
Emigration pacts are frequently also sanctioned with prayer rituals
in the Pentecostal churches to which most of the victims belong,
further broadening the pact's legitimacy. As in the rest of Nigeria,
indigenous religious traditions coexist with Christianity and Islam.
Routes and Strategies
In most cases, trafficked women journey to Western Europe by air or
over land through the Sahara. Flying via other West African and/or
Eastern European countries lessens the risk of having forged
During overland journeys, men known as "trolleys" in the trafficking
network escort women individually or in small groups. Nigerians play
an important role in human smuggling in North Africa. The smuggling
infrastructure that traffickers and their victims use also often
serves asylum seekers.
In Europe, the women live and work under the control of a Nigerian
madam, a counterpart of the madam in Nigeria. In many cases, the
madam in Italy has a male partner known as "madam's (black) boy" who
undertakes certain tasks in managing the trafficking.
In Italy, Nigerian sex workers are usually street prostitutes and
constitute the low-wage end of the prostitution market. Their places
of work (joints) are often located in the suburbs or along intercity
highways. In the Netherlands and Belgium, Nigerian prostitutes are
more likely to work in the big cities' red-light districts.
The trafficking of women to Europe is now a well-known phenomenon in
Edo state. Many women therefore know they are likely to work as
prostitutes if they agree to travel to Europe. However, they may have
little understanding of the conditions under which they will work and
of the size of the debt they will incur.
In anticipation of leaving Nigeria and helping one's family out of
poverty, it is tempting for these women to believe in promises about
good jobs. Whether this means being duped, or deceiving one's self,
is not obvious. Importantly, the fact that the women may have known,
or ought to have understood, that they would have to work as
prostitutes does not excuse or legitimate subsequent abuse.
A Self-Reproducing Organization
It usually takes victims between one and three years to repay debts
to their sponsors. The debt is sometimes increased as punishment, or
the duration of the pact is protracted in other ways. Nevertheless,
there eventually comes a day when the debt is repaid. The fact that
the debt does not last forever may convince victims that adhering to
the pact is their best option.
Once the pact has ended, it is common for a victim to work for a
madam as a supervisor of other prostitutes, and eventually become a
madam herself. In other words, Nigerian trafficking is not only
characterized by female leadership, but also by a self-reproducting
In Italy, madams are usually between 25 and 35 years old. In the
Netherlands, where many Nigerians prostitutes arrive as minors, some
become madams around the age of 20. The prospect of upward mobility
in the trafficking organization is a strong incentive to comply with
Ironically, the strength of the Nigerian trafficking networks lies in
the element of reciprocity between traffickers and victims. The
religious and legal sanctioning of the pact between the two parties,
as well as prospects for a better situation when the indentured
prostitution ends, give the majority of victims a strong motivation
to comply. As a result, Nigerian trafficking networks are less
reliant on the use of violence than their Eastern European
The victims' commitment to the pact makes it particularly difficult
to combat this form of trafficking. In several European countries,
authorities have "rescued" women from their traffickers, but they
return to prostitution to fulfill their obligations towards their
For the police, the religious element has provided a convenient
explanation. For the media, the combination of vice and "voodoo" has
fueled sensational coverage.
Therefore, it is vital to understand the social and cultural context
of trafficking while recognizing that the most intriguing aspects of
this context, as in the Nigerian case, are not necessarily the ones
that can best explain it.
Jørgen Carling is a researcher at the International Peace Research
Institute, Oslo (PRIO). His research focuses on migration from Africa
to Europe, including human smuggling, trafficking, and transnational
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