A group of migrant men rest in the desert during their journey in northern Niger | Photo: Getty Images/AFP/S. Ag Anara
A group of migrant men rest in the desert during their journey in northern Niger | Photo: Getty Images/AFP/S. Ag Anara

Human trafficking between Africa and Europe has not only thrived in recent years, it has grown into a highly abusive system involving corrupt elites and political networks. Jan Philipp-Scholz, the author of a new book on the migration business, has spoken with migrants in Africa on nearly every step of their journey. Their testimonies reveal the extent of abuse and human rights violations happening on Europe’s doorstep.

Jan-Philipp Scholz spent several years in sub-Sahara Africa as a correspondent for Deutsche Welle. His new book "Human trafficking, migration business and modern slavery" investigates the criminal human trafficking industry spanning from Africa to Europe. This business has professionalized significantly in recent years, a development Scholz attributes not only to Europe’s investments in border security and exploitative trade relations but also Europe’s complicity in abusive political systems in Africa.

InfoMigrants: During the last five years, you have met and talked with many migrants headed for Europe. Some were just starting their journey, some had returned after becoming victims of the trafficking business.

What kind of experiences did the returning migrants talk about?

Jan-Philipp Scholz: They talked about horrible abuse in the desert, of detention centers in southern Libya. In that region, there are many so-called private prisons run by human trafficking networks where thousands of migrants end up. I have met people with terrible burns and deep flesh wounds returning from there. They were severely abused and mistreated for ransom. The abusers do everything simply to get a few hundred euros.

The women are often raped and sexually exploited. I heard stories from the Ali Ghetto, one of the most notorious ghettos in southern Libya, where women are paraded and auctioned off. Female pimps or "Madames" come there, grope the women to see how much they are worth and then negotiate with the camp owners to buy the women. Many women are either forced into prostitution in the area, others are transported to Europe by prostitution networks.

Refugees have reported severe human rights abuses in Libya reaching from slavery to extortion torture and rape

Do the migrants know about the dangers ahead of them?

I was struck by how little some knew what to expect. Some had no idea of the distances, of what it means to cross the Sahara from Agadez or how far it truly is.

With regard to the potential dangers from traffickers, there are many returning migrants who try to warn the others. Particularly in Agadez you can see these two groups – the ones waiting for their next chance at a smuggler, and those migrants who return and report horrible abuse.

But many are not stopped by their reports. They are either still a bit naive and don’t know about the full extent of the risks. But what is more striking is their willingness to try, despite the odds. They say: "I’ve heard those stories, I’ve heard them all. But I will be one of the lucky ones, I will make it."

Faith plays a large role in that, no matter whether they are Christian or Muslim. They say they put themselves in the hands of God who will protect them. Unfortunately, that often goes wrong and they end up in the hands of traffickers.

 African migrants at a detention camp in Tripoli Libya March 22 2017  REUTERSIsmail Zitouny via ANSA

Do awareness campaigns help? Is there not enough information available?

There are many campaigns by international organizations or the media to make people aware. I think that while people know about the dangers, they try to suppress that information, and they also don't realize just how bad the situation in the transit countries is.

There’s also the fact that migrants who have suffered abuse don’t want to talk about their awful experiences. They’re ashamed and also traumatized and cannot talk openly about what they have been through.

Then there are those who do not want to be seen as a failure and want to keep their families and friends at home believing that they’ve been successful. So they post something on social media about how well they're doing when it’s not the case. They’re not to blame for not wanting to talk about bad experiences, but this of course adds to the problem that the information is not passed on to others.

Many start their journeys with a local smuggler who might be their next door neighbor. At what point in the journey does the abuse start?

Many migrants – especially in western and central Africa – try to travel in stages. They might start with a low-scale smuggler. In the ECOWAS  region where migrants can travel without visa, they can simply take a bus to the typical transit hubs like Agadez or Gao.

For most migrants, the abuse starts in the transit countries where they don’t know their way around. So-called "coaxers" (touts) await the migrants at the bus terminals to lure them into having coffee and organizing their next smuggler. Many migrants are on their own at this point, and end up with the wrong people who will turn them over to traffickers.

Unfortunately, traffickers have taken over many regions and it’s become much harder to differentiate between smugglers who merely offer a service in return for money and traffickers who will deliberately deceive the migrants.

This is especially striking in the more remote areas around Agadez to where traffickers have moved as a result of a crackdown on trafficking networks by the Nigerien government: Smugglers promise to bring the migrants to the Mediterranean coast within a few days. But instead, they transport them to the next private prison, hand them over to human traffickers and pocket a commission. So they play a double game, and the traffickers are in business with the smugglers.

Aisha 28 moments before returning home to Nigeria on a Voluntary Humanitarian Return flight from Libya Credit Mohamed HmouziIOM

What happens once the migrants are detained in these prisons?

Thousands end up here. The most common way is that they are detained there and the families will be extorted for ransom. The migrants are tortured while the traffickers are on the phone with the families so they hear their screams, their suffering. I’ve heard the most dreadful stories of different types of torture that are used.  

In your book, you explain the systematic trafficking of women for prostitution. What have you experienced on the ground?

For women, the abuse often starts in the country of origin because the traffickers operate there directly. This is especially the case for women in Nigeria. The traffickers trick the women with Juju rituals  and promise to bring them to Europe for free. Along the route, they will be monitored much more strictly than men who travel in stages.

Once in Europe, the women will be forced into prostitution. There, you will find the typical "slavery contracts" that force the women into earning 40,000 euros on the street in order to be released.

This business has existed for decades, but it used to run by smaller groups. Nowadays, mafia networks such as the Black Axe have taken over, it has become very professionalized and also ruthless.

Nigerian prostitutes wait for clients in Castel Volturno near Naples Italy in February 2018  Photo Picture Alliance  AP  Alessandra Tarantino

But many women, as you said earlier, are also sexually exploited in transit countries. What about sexual abuse of men?

I believe this is a much larger issue than we think. We hear more about women who are sexually abused along the way. Sexual abuse of men is a big taboo. But I talked to many male migrants who have hinted at this, again and again.

If migrants seek help in transit countries, how likely is it that they will be helped by local authorities?

It’s hard to generalize but I think it’s safe to say that there is a lot of corruption and that the local authorities know exactly what’s going on and also make money off the trafficking themselves. They clearly profit off the migrants: Even in the ECOWAS region, migrants have to pay a bribe at every roadblock. Oftentimes, the authorities are involved at a higher level, shamelessly exploiting people’s vulnerability. Many of the transit countries are vast deserts, there is no centralized governing state, and it’s basically a legal void.  

The IOM intervenes a lot, and I have heard many good things about what they do. But of course, they are not a police unit and are powerless if confronted with armed militia, which you find in some of these areas.

Jan-Philipp Scholz  Photo DW

In your book, you analyze the political structures behind the migration business. One of your theses is that Europe is complicit, on many levels, in the business. In a nutshell, what’s the main problem?

It’s highly complex and there are so many layers to this. Complicity is a strong word, but Europe does add to the problem in many ways. You can go back to unfair terms of trade between Europe and Africa, the subsidies on European agricultural products which add to the poverty in African countries. European companies cooperate with corrupt elites in Africa to exploit the resources in the countries of origin. Many African countries are rich in natural resources, but the elites keep the population poor, causing them to migrate. Europe does not do enough to distance itself from those elites.

There is also this hypocritical approach by European countries. One the one hand, they welcome the Global Compact for Migration, the Global Compact for Refugees and never hesitate to stress the right to asylum for those in need. But on the other hand, they also do a lot to prevent people from ever getting to Europe. For example, they invest massively in technological border security infrastructures reaching all the way to the Sahel zone. Plus there’s this highly questionable cooperation with groups that are supposed to fight trafficking networks, which at the same time also keep people from leaving Africa. In the end, an isolationist policy creates the conditions that fuel a demand for trafficking gangs in the first place.

Of course, African elites also have to be held accountable so they will create more opportunities for their own people. And they need to cooperate in terms of repatriation because, as it is, many simply refuse to take back their own people and leave them stranded in a legal limbo of European asylum.


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