An insidious trend has emerged across Germany: More and more young women from Nigeria are being trafficked into prostitution. It is one of organized crime's most lucrative business models, but the ringleaders are rarely caught.
In the red-light districts of German cities, business is thriving – and so is the trade in young Nigerian women. Every year, more young women from the West African country are being smuggled into Germany and forced into prostitution.
Vulnerable become prey for traffickers
Generally, girls and women who fall prey to trafficking networks are already vulnerable because of their circumstances – often they are the children of single parents or orphans, says Barbara Wellner from Solwodi, a German non-profit organization for trafficked women.
One victim, Anna*, lived in her grandmother‘s house in Nigeria together with her mother, brothers and sisters. She had four years of schooling before she was put to work on the farm, German national radio Deutschlandfunk reported.
"When I was 16 years old, the family decided that I should be circumcised. I didn‘t want that, I was scared, so I refused. My mother hit me because I wouldn‘t conform to tradition. I couldn‘t see any other way to escape from being circumcised except to run away. I had no home anymore, so I walked the streets and tried to find help."
Young Nigerian girls and women in vulnerable situations are easy pickings for human traffickers. The person who offers to "help" them is often a relative or family friend, Wellner says. But "help" means being caught in a trap via a criminal network controlled by a Nigerian "madam" and leading all the way to Germany. The young victim is told that she will have to pay a lot of money to get to safety in Europe, but once she is there she will get a good job and easily repay the debt.
Last year, a young Nigerian woman arrested by German police told them how she had become the victim of one of these networks. Born into a "relatively poor family" in Nigeria, she said she was told that she could earn huge amounts of money working in Europe.
The woman's story led to a major trafficking investigation – Operation Redroot – and the prosecution of the ringleader of a network that brought young Nigerian women to Europe and forced them to work as prostitutes -- a woman known to her victims as "Madam Sandra."
The real story – Madam Sandra
It was during the long legal trial of Madam Sandra, whose real name was Josephine Iyamu, that the extent and the grisly details of how victims of trafficking are subjected to abuse were revealed.
Iyamu, a British nurse, had promised to arrange for her victims to travel to Europe if they paid her a staggering 30,000 euros each. First they had to swear that they would not betray her to police or fail to repay their debt. This pact was sealed in a voodoo or "juju" ceremony, in which the women were forced to eat chicken hearts, drink blood mixed with worms and have powder rubbed into cuts.
The process gave Iyamu "crushing psychological control" over the women, according to Nigeria's National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, NAPTIP, which was part of the joint operation that led to her arrest and conviction.
The victims were then sent on a journey across the Sahara desert from Nigeria to the Libyan coast, during which they were shot at and raped, according to the UK National Crime Agency‘s senior investigating officer, Kay Mellor. From Libya, they took an inflatable boat to Italy, where they were given false identification papers, allowing them to travel on to Germany.
More than 20,000 Nigerian women have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy in the past three years. The UN estimates that roughly 80 percent have ended up in prostitution. For most of them, the journey to Europe ends there, on the streets on the outskirts of Rome or Verona.
Now, however, smugglers and traffickers are bringing increasing numbers further north, to Germany. There are at least two possible reasons why: First, organized prostitution, such as brothels, is legal in Germany. Solwodi says Germany's liberal laws on prostitution, which were reformed in 2017, have turned the country into "the bordello of Europe."
Second, Germany isn't doing enough to stop the traffickers. The authorities say they are making a greater effort -- this year, for example, a Nigerian madam was convicted and sentenced in Duisburg to five years imprisonment. Each year the national criminal police agency, BKA, publishes the figures on trafficking. In the report for 2018 it notes that it identified 61 Nigerian victims, reflecting a continuing upward trend for that group. Germany has also been part of an EU-wide project ETUTU, cooperating with Nigerian authorities to crack down on international Nigerian trafficking networks.
But German authorities could be doing much better in tackling organized crime, including traffickers, says Sandro Mattioni, a German writer and expert on mafia groups. "Organized crime can be fought on a number of levels," Mattioni told Deutschlandfunk. "If a state acts against organized crime in a significant way, then the state becomes unattractive for such groups."
The market prevails
But with the value of just one woman trafficked into prostitution estimated at 55,000 euros, according to Deutschlandfunk, the business remains highly attractive to criminal groups.
Nigeria has been active in trying to expose and discredit people who misuse "juju", and in targeting traffickers. But where this has led to gaps in the trafficking business, new operators have moved in – the so-called Nigerian mafia, whose tactics of absolute terror have replaced the trickery and psychological conditioning of the past.
"In the end, it all comes down to money," says John Omoruan, a former member of prominent Nigerian trafficking gang the Black Axe. The trafficking of Nigerian women will go on for as long as there is demand in Europe for younger and younger girls, he told Deutschlandfunk. "Europe is hungry, hungry for drugs, underage girls, anything that's forbidden."
*Anna is an assumed name. The woman did not want her real name used.