After reading “We Have No Choice: the Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl” by Ben Taub in the 4-10 issue of the New Yorker, I’m struck yet again by the incredible suffering caused by unnecessary poverty. Unneccessary because it’s created by capitalism and capitalism’s evil stepsisters, economic imperialism and war. Taub’s article focuses on teenage girls from Benin City in southern Nigeria, thousands of whom risk death and endure forced labor and sex work each year to try to get to Europe, where they believe they can earn money to help their poverty-stricken families. And this is just one example of people around the world risking everything to try to survive in the cruel world created by our current system.
Migrants leave Africa from the coast of Libya in 30-foot rubber dinghies. “Officially,” Taub says, “at least 5,098 migrants died in the Mediterranean last year, but Libya’s coastline is more than a thousand miles long, and nobody knows how many boats sink without ever being seen.” Blessing, Taub’s 16-year-old subject, got to this point six months after leaving Benin City. “In recent years, tens of millions of Africans have fled areas afflicted with famine, drought, persecution, and violence. Ninety-four per cent of them remain on the continent, but each year hundreds of thousands try to make it to Europe. Last year, more Nigerians crossed the sea than people of any other nationality. Nigeria is Africa’s richest country, but the money that’s set aside for public infrastructure is often embezzled or stolen by government officials. As Nigeria’s economy has grown – spurred by oil extraction, agriculture, and foreign investment – so has the percentage of its citizens living in total poverty.
Blessing’s family used to own a house and a small plot of land. Her father was a bricklayer, but he died in a car accident when Blessing was a little girl. The family was close to penniless, and Doris, Blessing’s mother, was left to raise her four children alone. Blessing’s older brother began repairing cars in the marketplace, and her sister Joy went to live with an aunt. When Blessing was thirteen or fourteen, she dropped out of school and started an apprenticeship with a tailor, but he wanted money to train her, and after six months he let her go. Despondent, she believed she had no future. Through friends, she learned of a travel broker in Lagos, who said he could get her a passport, a visa, and a plane ticket to Europe. Once Blessing found work there, he promised, she’d earn enough to support her whole family. Doris sold the house and the land, and gave the money to the broker, who promptly disappeared. Blessing, who blamed herself for her family’s troubles,” found another “deal,” and left “without telling anybody.
In 2003, Nigeria passed its first law prohibiting human trafficking, but a UN report published the same year concluded that the industry was ‘so ingrained in Edo State, especially in Benin City and its immediate environs, that it’s estimated that virtually every Benin family has a member involved.’ Madams in Italy have their surrogates in Nigeria take girls to a local shrine, where a juju priest performs a ritual” believed to guarantee the girl’s death if she doesn’t keep her end of the agreement.
“Before Blessing disappeared, she met with a Yoruba trafficker, but balked when she discovered that the woman wanted her to become a sex worker. Soon afterward, her friend Faith introduced her to an Igbo woman with European connections, who was elegant, well dressed, and kind. The woman promised Blessing and Faith that she’d take them to Italy, pay for their journey, and find them jobs, so that they could pay her back. Blessing dreamed of completing her education and buying back the home her mother had lost. She climbed into a van, along with Faith, the woman, and several other girls, and began a perilous journey north. Avoiding territory controlled by the terrorist group Boko Haram, they crossed an unguarded part of Nigeria’s border with Niger. After several days and a thousand miles, they reached Agadez, an old caravan city at the southern edge of the Sahara, where by 2014 the value of the migration trade had surpassed that of any other business in the city. Migrants arrive in Agadez with the phone number of their connection man, usually a migrant turned businessman of their same nationality. Once a week, Tuareg and Toubou drivers go to the migrant ghettos, collect cash from the connection men, and load 5,000 sub-Saharans into the beds of Toyota pickups, thirty per vehicle.” They then drive northeast through the Sahara to Libya. “Before leaving Agadez, migrants are given the phone number of a connection man in southern Libya. A recent report commissioned by the UN estimated that nearly half the female refugees and migrants who pass through Libya are sexually assaulted, often many times along the route. A young Nigerian told me he’d witnessed female migrants being murdered for refusing the advances of their Libyan handlers. Last spring, Blessing, Faith, and the madam left Agadez, crossed the desert, and made it to Brak, just north of Sebha, where they stayed in a private home. Their journey through the desert had been a blur of waiting, heat, thirst, discomfort, beatings, dead bodies, and fear. The madam continued to promise the girls education and lucrative work in Italy, but it’s unclear whether she was ever in a position to decide their fate; women who accompany girls across the desert are often only employees of traffickers in Italy. One day in Brak, the madam sold Blessing and Faith to the owner of a connection house, to work as prostitutes. ‘It’s not what you told me!’ Blessing cried, starting to sob. She hadn’t sworn a juju oath, but the madam threatened to kill her. In Benin City, Blessing’s mother received a phone call from a Nigerian woman with an Italian number. It had been three months since her daughter had disappeared, and the caller told her that unless she paid 480,000 naira (about $1,500) Blessing would be forced to work as a prostitute. That Sunday, at the weekly traders’ meeting in the market, Doris explained Blessing’s plight and asked for help. Although Doris’s shop was already running on loans, the group approved her request, charging 25% interest. Godwin, Blessing’s brother, dropped the cash off at a MoneyGram exchange service, using the details given by the woman on the phone. After that, there was no further word.
Blessing was delivered to another connection house in Brak. A few days later, armed men put her and several other migrants into the back of a truck, covered them with a blanket, and stacked watermelons on top, to conceal them from rival traffickers. The truck set off north, toward Tripoli. Faith stayed in Brak, because her family didn’t pay. The drive to Tripoli from Brak takes all day and is plagued with bandits, who, like the connection men in Sebha, rob black Africans, beat them, hold them captive, demand ransoms, and murder, sell, or enslave those who disobey orders or are unable to pay. Packed on top of one another in the trucks, and concealed under tarps and other cargo, the passengers can hardly breathe. Sometimes, after unloading the cargo in Tripoli, the smugglers discover that they have suffocated. [Taub has already described how migrants are dumped in the desert to die whenever traffickers have a problem with jihadis or the military.]
Blessing was taken to a large detention center, a concrete room in an abandoned warehouse somewhere near Tripoli. For months, she stayed inside with more than a hundred people, huddled next to other Nigerian girls for safety. Arbitrary beatings and rapes were common. Sometimes the migrants were given only seawater to drink. People routinely died from starvation and disease. Finally, late one night guards roused the migrants and ordered them into a tractor-trailer. The truck dropped them at a beach west of Tripoli. Armed smugglers crammed them into a dinghy, and sent them out to sea” with only enough fuel to reach international waters, where they depended on European ships to rescue them. Sure enough, “the Dignity I, a boat operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, was patrolling a stretch of the Libyan coast – eight hours east, eight hours west, just beyond territorial waters – searching for migrants.” It picked up Blessing and the other migrants on her dinghy. “More than 11,000 Nigerian women were rescued in the Mediterranean last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, 80% of whom had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. Italy is the entry point; from there, women are traded and sold to madams all over Europe. Madams coach the girls to say they’re 18 or older, so that they’re sent to Italy’s main reception centers where migrants can move about freely. Otherwise, they end up in restrictive shelters for unaccompanied minors. ‘Sometimes I feel as if we are the smugglers’ delivery service,’ an MSF staffer said. But at least 2,300 people were saved from 18 rubber dinghies on the day Blessing was picked up, and, without the work of MSF and several other NGOs, many of them would have drowned.
The Dignity I headed for the port of Messina, on the eastern coast of Sicily, a journey of two and a half days with 355 migrants on board, the youngest three weeks old. In Messina, humanitarian workers introduced themselves to some of the girls they suspected of being under eighteen, but none of them accepted help. The UN refugee agency had sent a representative, who carried flyers outlining the migrants’ legal rights, but they were printed in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Many people who might have been eligible for asylum told me they’d never heard of it. The Egyptians and Moroccans were pulled out of line and directed to sit under a blue awning, where they remained for the rest of the afternoon, likely unaware that Italy has repatriation agreements with their home countries. Most of them would be taken to Sicily’s expulsion center, in Caltanissetta, and flown home. The other migrants were led to a line of buses. Many migrants were temporarily kept at Palanebiolo, a makeshift camp in a former baseball stadium on the outskirts of Messina, before being distributed among other centers throughout Italy. Many contracts to provide services for the migrants are connected to the Mafia. The government allots reception centers 35 euros per migrant per day, but the conditions at Palanebiolo and elsewhere indicate that the money isn’t spent on those who stay there. A few years ago, in a wiretapped call, Italian investigators heard a Mafia boss tell an associate, ‘Do you have any idea how much we earn off the migrants? The drug trade is less profitable.’
Sex work isn’t a crime in Italy, but it attracts the attention of the police, so trafficking networks try to get residency permits for every girl they send to work on the streets. Italian police wiretaps show that Nigerian trafficking networks have infiltrated reception centers, employing low-level staffers to monitor the girls and bribing corrupt officials to accelerate the paperwork. An anti-trafficking agent from the International Organization for Migration explained that, at centers like Palanebiolo, ‘the only thing the girl has to do is make a call and tell the madam she has arrived – which city, which camp. They know what to do, because they have their guys all over.’ In Palermo’s underground brothels, trafficked Nigerians sleep with as many as fifteen clients a day; the more clients, the sooner they can purchase their freedom. ‘There’s an extraordinary level of implicit racism here, and it’s evident in the fact that there are no underage Italian girls working the streets,’ Father Enzo Volpe, a priest who runs a center for migrant children and trafficking victims, told me. ‘Society dictates that it’s bad to sleep with a girl of thirteen or fourteen years. But if she’s African? Nobody cares. They don’t think of her as a person.’ Twice a week, Father Enzo loads a van with water and snacks and, in the company of a young friar and a frail old nun, sets off to provide comfort and assistance to girls on the streets. ‘In Italy, we’re very good at the process of emergency reception – the humanitarian aspect,’ Salvatore Vella, a prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, told me. “But after that? There’s no solution. Let’s be honest: these reception centers, they have open doors, and we hope they leave. If they go to France, for us that’s fine. If they go to Switzerland, great. If they stay here, they work on the black market – they disappear.’”
Taub describes a Nigerian mafia selling drugs and managing the sex trade in Palermo, a nearby Sicilian city, under the auspices of the Italian Mafia. “The most powerful group, called Black Axe, has roots in Benin City and cells throughout Italy, and has carried out knife and machete attacks against other migrants. According to Vella, the Sicilian prosecutor, violence against Nigerian prostitutes is rarely investigated, because ‘the tendency, here in Italy, has been to not look at criminal organizations as long as they’re only committing crimes against non-Italians.’ Besides, ‘during a trial, I have to call up the interpreter to testify. Her name and birthplace are written into the public record, and the trafficking networks are so well established that, with a Skype call or a text message, they have the ability to order their associates to go into a small village in Nigeria and burn down houses with people inside them.’
After two months in Italy, Blessing, Cynthia, another Nigerian girl, and a 16-year-old girl named Juliet were the only migrants from the Dignity I still at Palanebiolo. Blessing told me that several girls from the boat had left the camp in the company of their traffickers. Blessing wanted to leave the camp, too. She missed her mother, and was eager to pursue an education in Italy. Minors are supposed to be enrolled in schools, but the girls had been left in Palanebiolo because all the centers for underage migrants in Sicily were full. In Benin City, Blessing’s schoolbooks are piled on a shelf in her former bedroom, now occupied by her younger sister, Hope, 15, who’s dropped out of school to help her mother at the shop. In order for the family to keep the apartment, Godwin helps with the rent, $30 per month. The debt Doris took on to free Blessing in Libya continues to mount. ‘I don’t know how my mummy will recover that money. But I can’t go and sell myself, even though I need money for them,’ Blessing said. ‘I better go to school. I promised myself, and I promised my mum.’ Blessing dreams of building her mother a house that’s surrounded by a wall so high that thieves break their legs when they try to scale it. The compound will have an electric gate. ‘My mum, I will spoil her,’ she said. ‘The reason I’m here now is my mummy. The reason I am alive today is my mum. The reason that I will not do prostitution is my mummy.’ Tears streamed down her face. ‘I am my mummy’s breath of life.’
Blessing, Juliet, and a Nigerian girl named Gift walked down the hill singing church songs and drawing smiles from locals. The sky was gloomy, and soon it started to drizzle. But they kept walking, farther from the camp than they’d ever been. Eventually, they reached a pebble beach, a few miles north of the port of Messina. The rain stopped, and for a moment two bright rainbows shone over the short stretch of water separating Sicily from the mainland. ‘It comes from the sea,’ Blessing said of the double rainbow. ‘Look at it now. It is going down.’ A cloud shifted. ‘It’s finished now,’ Blessing said. Gift nodded. ‘It’s gone back to the sea.’ The girls prayed. Then Blessing stepped into the water, spread her arms wide, and shouted, ‘I passed through the desert! I passed through this sea! If this river did not take my life, no man or woman can take my life from me!’”