By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
A British Court today sentenced a Nigerian woman, Franca Asemota, to 22 years in prison for trafficking in young girls.
Asemota,38, who was extradited from Nigeria to the UK by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, was found guilty of attempting to traffic Nigerian girls through Heathrow Airport to work as sex workers in brothels across Europe.
She was convicted on Wednesday at Isleworth Crown Court of eight counts of conspiracy to traffic persons for sexual exploitation, two counts of trafficking persons outside of the UK for sexual exploitation and two counts of assisting unlawful immigration.
According to court documents, she was part of a criminal network that trafficked girls, boys and women from Nigeria to Europe using threats to guarantee their compliance.
Franca Asemota was identified as a trafficking suspect in 2012 but fled from Italy to Nigeria when some of her co-conspirators were arrested by Immigration Enforcement investigators.
She spent time in Europe before the National Crime Agency (NCA) tracked her down to Nigeria. In an operation co-ordinated by the NCA she was arrested by the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crime Commission in Benin City in March 2015. Once her identity was confirmed Asemota was then extradited back to the UK in January this year.
She was found guilty of conspiracy to traffic for sexual exploitation and assisting unlawful immigration after a four-week trial at Isleworth Crown Court.
Reacting to the sentencing, David Fairclough, from the UK Immigration Enforcement Crime team, said: “Asemota was the lynchpin of a trafficking ring which targeted vulnerable young women in Nigeria, promising them a brighter future working in Europe.
“But it soon became clear that this was far from the truth. The victims, some as young as 13, were told they would be sold into prostitution. Asemota travelled with the girls in order to threaten them and keep them in line.
“Trafficking is a despicable crime, as this case shows. We work closely with our law enforcement colleagues internationally to identify the criminal gangs responsible and put them before the courts.”
Martin French, head of the NCA’s UK Human Trafficking Centre, said:
“Franca Asemota and her criminal network took advantage of these vulnerable young women in some of the worst ways possible.
“They promised them a better life but in reality treated them as nothing more than a commodity to be sold into slavery.
“Asemota thought she could evade arrest by fleeing Europe and hiding in Nigeria. But the NCA’s partnerships give us global reach and mean international borders are no barrier to justice.
“This conviction is the result of many years of dogged investigation and co-operation between the NCA, Immigration Enforcement and our law enforcement colleagues both at home and overseas.”
Asemota’s gang targeted teenage girls in remote Nigerian villages, some of whom had never left their home area before, telling them that educational work awaited them in Europe. The girls would stay with her before leaving, and in interviews with specialist officers from the NCA’s Vulnerable Persons Team many of the girls told how they referred to her as Auntie Franca.
Asemota travelled with the girls on flights from Lagos, Nigeria, to Heathrow, between August 2011 and May 2012, with the intention of reaching France. They remained airside during the transit at Heathrow so were not subject to Border Force passport checks.
However, the trafficking attempts were prevented when French Authorities identified the girl’s false documents on arrival in France. When they were then returned to the UK, Border Force officers carried out further investigations and the case was quickly referred to Immigration Enforcement criminal investigations.
During the trial, five of Asemota’s victims gave evidence against her. One of them was rescued from prostitution in Montpellier, France, during a joint operation by Immigration Enforcement and the NCA.
The cases are part of Operation Hudson, an Immigration Enforcement-led investigation targeting a number organised crime groups suspected of trafficking young women, via London, for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
Two other people were convicted in 2013 as part of Operation Hudson. Odosa Usiobaifu, of Enfield, London, and David Osawaru, of Benin City, were sentenced to 14 years and nine years respectively.