How Boko Haram’s Sex Slaves Wind Up as Sex Workers in Europe
Fleeing from jihadists, thousands of women and girls wind up in camps where they’re sexually abused. To them, prostitution in Italy sounds like escape.
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—It’s minutes past 4:00 p.m. local time, and Sarah, as we’ll call her, has just returned to her tent in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp at the outskirts Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s war-torn Borno state.
She had spent much of her day in the heart of town meeting with a woman who’s promising to take her to Italy and find her a job. The young girl, who said she was 17, hasn’t been told where she’ll be working once she arrives at her destination. Yet she isn’t bothered. All she wants is to get to Europe.
Sarah is not naïve. She knows that many of the girls who are taken from Nigeria to Italy end up as sex workers. She even suspects that will be the job she’ll be asked to do once she arrives in Europe, given the way her would-be benefactor has been communicating with her.
“She always tells me ‘you are a fine girl,’ whenever we are discussing,” she told The Daily Beast at the camp where she has been for about a year now. “She says it wouldn’t be difficult for a girl like me to find a job.”
Living a life of abuse is what Sarah has faced since 2015, the year Boko Haram militants invaded her compound in Bama, about 50 miles southeast of this city, and dragged her from her home. She says she was taken to the terrorists’ hideout in the Sambisa Forest where a number of jihadists took turns raping her.
Weeks after her abduction, she escaped from her captors in the middle of the night when those guarding the camp had fallen asleep. She walked for long hours before reaching a settlement from which she was able to make her way to Maiduguri.
But the difficult life in many IDP camps here, where food is hardly enough for everyone, forced Sarah to turn to prostitution to survive.
“I was looking for money to feed myself and to buy medicine as I kept falling ill,” she said. “Men don’t give money without first sleeping with you.”
Reports of female IDPs in Maiduguri prostituting for money and food have been on the rise for months.
A survey taken last September by NOI Polls, a Nigerian research group, indicated that almost 90 percent of people displaced by Boko Haram in the northeast of the country do not have enough to eat. The survey discovered that many women are trading sex for food and the freedom to move in and out of IDP camps.
State officials have been accused of stealing food rations, and also of raping and sexually exploiting women and girls living in the IDP camps in Maiduguri.
NOI Polls reported in the survey that 66 percent of 400 displaced people in the northeast said that camp officials sexually abuse the displaced women and girls.
Human Rights Watch in a report it released last October, that in July 2016 it documented sexual abuse, including rape and other exploitation of 43 women and girls living in IDP camps in Maiduguri.
Sarah is one of the many young girls who say they have suffered sexual abuse by men giving out aid in the camp.
The first time she had sex after arriving in Maiduguri was with a member of the city’s vigilante group who sometimes distributed food to displaced persons.
“I had to [agree to the man’s advances] because I thought he will stop giving me food if I didn’t.” She said. “He kept putting pressure on me to go to bed with him.”
After that first incident, Sarah continued to offer sex to those she thought had the money to pay, moving deep into the heart of Maiduguri to look for clients. It was in one of her outings that she met the woman who is promising to take her to Italy.
“She saw me enter a small restaurant to buy food and then came after me,” Sarah said. “She said she had been seeing me in the area for some time and was monitoring me.”
While Sarah is excited about traveling to Italy, she is anxious to find out what exact role she’ll be playing once she gets to Europe, and what those helping her achieve expect to gain in return. The teenager is likely to be deceived in the same way thousands of vulnerable girls like her have been tricked in the past.
Usually, Nigerian women are fooled into believing they’ll be given good jobs once they get to Europe. Often, traffickers take them to traditional shrines where they are forced to undergo a juju oath-swearing ritual that commits them to repay the money they owe to their smugglers on pain of death or insanity, and not to denounce them to the police.
Once in Europe, the women are told by their benefactors that they must work as prostitutes until they pay off debts ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, according to a number of girls who returned recently to Nigeria after working for years as prostitutes in Italy.
Should Sarah make it to Italy, she’ll be adding to the over 11,000 women who have crossed the Mediterranean within the last 13 months, of whom 80 percent go on to live a life of forced prostitution, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
They journey isn’t easy. The nearly 3,000-mile trip across the Sahel in pick-up trucks, in minivans and on motorcycles that will take Sarah to Libya’s Mediterranean coast usually takes months to complete, and migrants on this route face possible beatings, rape, and forced labor by criminal networks in North Africa (PDF). At the end of it, not everyone seeking to reach Europe is successful.
Recently, over a hundred female migrants voluntarily returned to Nigeria after being detained for several months in Libya by border authorities as they tried to get to Italy. Some of the returnees said they were abused by Libyan immigration officials while in detention. It took the intervention of the IOM for them to be freed returned home.
“Most of the young ladies in detention camp were raped by Libyan officials,” Bridget Akeama, who returned from Libya four months pregnant, reportedly told the News Agency of Nigeria. “If you refused their advances, it will be hell for you.”
Nearly all the women who arrived at the Lagos airport come from southern Nigeria, a predominantly Christian region that has for years been a hub for smugglers taking advantage of girls desperately in need of “lucrative” jobs. Figures show that 80 percent of women trafficked to Italy come from Benin City, Edo State, in the same region.
But Sarah’s impending move to Italy is an indication that traffickers have created a solid base in the northeast region where an eight-year-old insurgency has created a huge refugee crisis and made thousands of women vulnerable.
Stories of trafficking of women displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency began to circulate more than two years ago when the jihadists seized a part of northeast Nigeria about the size of Belgium, forcing hundreds of thousands people to flee to overcrowded IDP camps in relatively calm cities. The vulnerability of these women and poor structuring of these camps created an opening for traffickers to explore.
A report by Nigeria’s Abuja-based International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) published in 2015 alleged that hundreds of young girls have been trafficked from IDP camps, although most victims were from unregistered, makeshift camps established when official camps could no longer cope.
The report quoted an unnamed nurse as saying many children were brought to her hospital after being raped in the IDP camps, and it also alleged that refugees were being sold as unpaid domestic workers, raped repeatedly, and in some cases burned and wounded with knives.
One of the patients admitted to the hospital was a 15-year-old girl who said some government officials came to the camp she stayed in and took many young girls away and later sold them as slaves. She ended up in the house of a man whose brother repeatedly raped her.
As IDP camps offer little protection to inhabitants, they is growing concern that more young girls like Sarah will be exploited, a major concern for aid organizations and for the United Nations, which is offering extensive help in the region.
“Many [camps] are in fact the settings for violence, exploitation and abuse of the most vulnerable,” Chaloka Beyani, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, said in a statement at the end of his visit to Nigeria last year. “The situation of women and girls in IDP camps and conflict affected areas is of particular concern and requires urgent action.”