In Benin City, Nigeria’s capital of illegal migration, no one says the word “prostitution”. The word on the street for the young girls who leave for Italy or France is “hustling”.
About 37,500 Nigerians arrived in Italy by boat in 2016, more than from any other African country, and most of them were from the southern city, the capital of Edo state.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has recorded an explosion in the number of Nigerian women trafficked into Europe.
In 2013, there were 433 but the following year, it rose to nearly 5,000. There was a “substantial increase” in “more easily-manipulated” under-age victims, the IOM says. Most are destined for sexual slavery.
“Why Edo? Why Benin City? I am trying to understand and it gives me a headache,” says Sister Bibiana, who helps young women when they return from Europe, voluntarily or otherwise.
“But they’re itching to go back.”
– ‘Like Jesus’ –
The benevolent smile of Jesus radiates down on the meeting room of Sister Bibiana’s small charity in Benin City.
“In Europe, people are good people. They are like Jesus,” says one woman, Miracle, explaining why she left Nigeria in 2012.
“I pray to God every day. I ask him to find me a way to go back.”
Miracle returned from Italy two years ago. The story she tells is sketchy. She claims only to have been a sex worker for a few weeks before being rescued.
But the nun who knows her background insists Miracle was a prostitute from when she arrived in Europe until the time she left.
The women, who come from poor backgrounds with little education, do not have the means to get to Italy.
But in Benin City, “cartels” of human traffickers are everywhere. Women need only find a “madame” to organise the trip and get false papers, with the promise of a job.
Some believe they will become hairdressers, others that they will be high-class prostitutes in big hotels. Few ask questions.
Once in Europe, they find themselves on the streets of Palermo or Paris, selling sex for between five and 10 euros ($5.50-$11) a time to pay back a debt of 50,000-60,000 euros ($55,000-$66,000).
Divinity went to Dubai rather than Italy. She says her debt was “only” 15,000 euros and going overseas had been a long-held dream.
“All my life, I’ve dreamt to travel abroad and see the world,” says Divinity, who was 18 when she left.
But she later realised she would never be free of the people who trafficked her and decided to go to the police. The authorities didn’t want to know.
She’s now back on the streets of Benin City, where poverty and evangelical churches mix with Western Union money transfer bureaus, where parents pick up money sent by children who left to “hustle” abroad.
Among those who “failed” to make it in Europe, many go back onto the streets when they get home with traumatic tales about seeing dozens of clients per night along country roads, the “sexual practices of white people” and sleeping rough in railway stations.
Worse still, they recount the journey through Libya.
The traffickers tout the European dream to village girls who haven’t even been to Lagos, the country”s economic capital, about 300 kilometres (190 miles) away.
They have little idea of the world but are sure life is better elsewhere.
Patience says she moved to Dubai by choice and not because she was forced by a madame.
“I went by myself, by road,” she says, explaining she had hoped to find self-improvement and travel opportunities in a country not hit by recession.
– ‘Self-recruited’ –
Nigeria’s economy, over-reliant on oil revenues, has been in trouble since the price of crude slumped on the worldwide market, weakening the local naira currency.
Even a small salary in euros is a huge sum when sent home, and earns more respect among families.
Sociologist Edoja Okyokunu, from the University of Benin City, says many Nigerians don’t want to be cut off from the chance of going overseas and escaping poverty in their homeland, even if it means getting involved in human trafficking.
“Who is complaining here? People don’t want NGOs against human trafficking to help,” he tells AFP.
“I call it self-recruited human cargo, that’s why policies are not working. People are not victims of trafficking, they are only victims of poverty.”