Thousands of stranded Nigerian migrants in Libya have been sent back home in an effort to save them from Libya’s slave markets. But for many of these migrants, escaping slavery in Libya doesn’t mean they’ve escaped human traffickers in Nigeria. Experts warn that returned Nigerian women are dropped in the middle of the country’s thriving sex trafficking industry, often in deeper debt and with fewer options than they had before.
The Washington Post reports that more than 80 percent of returnees are from Edo state, a part of the country where poverty is widespread and unemployment is high. Surprisingly, sometimes a trafficker is a woman’s own mother:
Nigeria has grown rapidly to become one of Africa’s largest economies, but inequality also has increased. Generations of Edo women have worked as prostitutes, voluntarily or involuntarily, in Europe, sending home remittances from sex work that pad the local economy.
Sex work is so ingrained that officials have witnessed families trafficking their daughters, with the expectation that they will benefit from the girls’ earnings.
“When you want to arrest the traffickers because the daughter is suffering abroad in Libya, are you going to jail the mother?” asked Mercy, a police officer who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity to protect herself from professional retaliation.
Many of the biggest prostitution bosses are Nigerian “madams” who were once trafficked themselves. Women make up more than 40 percent of convicted traffickers, according to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, or NAPTIP, Nigeria’s primary anti-trafficking authority.
Today, fewer African migrants are making it to Europe, instead becoming stuck in Libya where armed groups kidnap and enslave migrants, holding them for ransom and selling them for forced labor. Women are often forced into sex work to pay off “debts” to earn their freedom.
One man interviewed by The Washington Post admitted to trafficking Nigerian women for sexual exploitation to Libya for nearly a decade. When asked how long it takes a woman to pay off her “debt” to traffickers, he replied “They don’t.”
While returned migrants are given a small stipend and access to job training, most say they are worse off than before. One woman, Loveth, who was raped while in Libya — and became pregnant — is now back home. She said she was happy to have left Libya but not to be back in Nigeria “because I have no place to go.”