Increasing numbers of Nigerian women are being trafficked into prostitution in Burkina Faso’s gold mining camps, an investigation has revealed. Lured by traffickers who promise them jobs, they end up with huge debts and no way out.
Blessing was lured to Burkina Faso, a landlocked country west of Nigeria, with promises of a job in a hair salon. It sounded like a good way to support herself and her family. But once she arrived, the 27-year-old was drugged and beaten: her captors dragged her from one gold mine to the next, where she was forced to have sex with dozens of men.
She was told she would be killed if she tried to run away, Blessing explained in an interview with journalists from the Associated Press. "Nobody comes to your rescue."
In December 2019, Blessing finally had a chance to escape. With the help of local residents, she and six other women left the encampment and walked to safety, ultimately ending up in a United Nations transit center for migrants in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou.
In an investigation into sex trafficking and the gold mining industry, the Associated Press (AP) met with nearly 20 Nigerian women who said they had been brought to Burkina Faso under false pretences and forced into prostitution. Some of the women said they knew hundreds of others with similar stories. The stories of the trafficked women, who are identified by pseudonyms to protect their safety, were verified through interviews with aid workers, lawyers, police, local anti-trafficking activists, health workers, a trafficker, and members of the Nigerian community in several towns throughout Burkina Faso.
According to AP, people with knowledge of the trafficking industry say that most of the women come from Nigeria's Edo state. Once in Burkina Faso, they are sent to work off debts in squalid conditions at or near small-scale gold mines.
Both Burkina Faso and Nigeria have signed the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, but neither country has finalized a joint plan on how to combat trafficking, AP reports. In addition to struggling with trafficking within its borders, Burkina Faso has been identified as a transfer point for trafficking women into other countries, according to reports from the US State Department.
One man arrested and detained by local authorities for trying to traffic three women across the Burkina Faso border into neighboring Mali told AP that he didn't consider it human trafficking because, according to him, the women knew they would be working as prostitutes. "I feel somehow bad because it's not a good job for them to do. They say it's just a voluntary decision," said the 48-year-old from Nigeria.
He told AP that he had bought the women for $270 (€225) each in Benin and was planning to sell them for more than twice that to a Nigerian madam in Mali. In 2019 he had done the same with two other women.
Gold boom fuels exploitation
In a little over a decade, gold has become Burkina Faso’s most important export, according to a February report by the German-based research group GLOCON. The industry employs about 1.5 million people and was worth about €1.7 billion in 2019. More than 70% of the industrial gold mined is sent to Switzerland, but much of the gold from around 800 smaller-scale mines is believed to be smuggled across Burkina Faso's borders with Togo, Benin, Niger and Ghana, probably ending up in Dubai. The government of Burkina Faso estimates the illicit market produces more than €330 million worth of gold a year. Experts and local officials say most documented human trafficking cases of women happen at the small-scale gold mines, not the larger industrial mines, according to AP. Salofou Trahore, the general director for Burkina Faso's regulatory body for small-scale mines, told the news agency that he was unaware of the problem.
Livia Wagner, a senior expert at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said people had to be aware that gold is being produced in a context of exploitation. "People are being bought and sold, that’s basically putting a price tag on a person," she told AP. Human trafficking experts are urging the mining industry, including jewelers and electronics makers, to take responsibility for where the gold originates.
'I want to survive'
In Secaco, a makeshift mining town tucked behind uneven dirt roads, trafficked women live in small, ragged ‘huts’ made from plastic sheeting. They have sex on thin mattresses with 30 men a night, trying to "earn" their freedom.
27-year-old Mimi said recruiters told her she would have a job to support her three children when she arrived in Burkina Faso. Two months later, she still owed her madam nearly €1,000. "It's a jungle and I want to survive," she said.
Before being forced into sex work with miners, Love thought she would be working in a boutique and earning enough to support her 13-year-old daughter. "In Nigeria, there are a lot of graduates but no jobs," Love explained.
Joy said she arrived in Burkina Faso in early 2020 because she could not make enough money in Nigeria to support her four children. The 31-year-old was told she would be working in a shop. When she arrived, she was given a condom and taken to a mining site for prostitution, she said.
The women told AP that the men, mostly local miners or men from neighboring Mali or Ivory Coast, often refuse to pay and become physically abusive.
According to interviews with several women, a trafficker, and local authorities, Nigerian women are usually taken to the western city of Bobo-Dioulasso and sold for around €500 or more to different Nigerian madams. The madams confiscate the women's passports, phones, and money, then force them into sex work in brothels in mining settlements next to the small-scale mines or in larger towns near the mines. Few of the women speak the local language or know the area.
Recruited or sold
Some of the women AP interviewed said they were recruited by the madams themselves, approached randomly on a bus or in the market in Nigeria, and asked if they wanted to earn a better living. Others were referred by friends or acquaintances, usually young boys paid to recruit women. After they are recruited, the women travel for about three days with the traffickers, usually through Cotonou, a large port city in Benin, and then north, sometimes passing through Togo, into Burkina Faso. They travel on public buses with the traffickers or in private cars.
Underage girls are given fake identification cards made in Benin, according to the women. In some cases, a family sells a girl. Natasha, who is 17, said she was told nearly two years ago that she would be going to school, but was sold to traffickers by her aunt for about €500. "I was like, oh God, is this how my life's going to be? This isn't my dream. I didn't dream of coming to this place for prostitution. I was thinking of better things, like school,'" she said.
Having managed to escape, Blessing told AP that she wants to start a business selling sugar and flour with her mother in Nigeria, where she has returned. She knows that others have lost hope. "Many girls that had good dreams of becoming something meaningful in life. (The traffickers) use this stuff to damage their thinking, to damage their hopes," she said.
This article is based on a report by Associated Press correspondent Sam Mednick.