Sex-trafficked Nigerian teens: Why so little reporting on religious roots of this tragedy?

There’s been some amazing articles out there about the modern-day slave trade involving Nigerians who think they’re fleeing to Europe for jobs, but end up getting forced into prostitution or crime.

The British press has been particularly astute in tracking this horrific trend, which involves west Africans, the majority who come from Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana and who head north via Libya only to end up in a tangle of slave markets patronized by Arab buyers. The Guardian, BBC, the Washington Post and many other media are describing how Libya is outdoing India in being the world capital of sex trafficking.

But not enough has been done when you consider there's a bizarre mix of voodoo and Pentecostalism undergirding it all. After all, CNBC calls Libya the “torture archipelago” for poor African migrants. The Guardian asks the world why it’s ignoring this African holocaust in its midst.

Possibly the best story of them all was the New Yorker’s “Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl” that ran in April. Now The Times of London did a piece on what happens to the few lucky Nigerian teenagers who get through this hell to reach Italy. 

 The Nigerian prostitutes working on street corners in Castel Volturno this summer look like schoolgirls dressed up for a fancy dress party in their mothers’ clothes and make-up.
The reason: they are schoolgirls, as young as 14, part of a new wave of children tricked into crossing the Sahara and forced by voodoo threats, beatings and gang rape to become prostitutes.
“No-one acknowledges what is going on, but customers are coming here from miles away just for a chance to have sex with these 14-year-olds,” said Blessed Okoedion, a Nigerian woman who escaped from prostitution and now helps working girls.

We’re not talking Sicily here; we’re only 12 miles south of Naples. And this is not a topic where one would expect religion to be an issue but the author does find a “Sister Rita,” who is an Italian Ursuline nun helping these girls. Then:

“Setola’s clan, the Casalesi, have since been decimated by arrests, leaving the Nigerians alone to work, and business is so good that east European girls and even Brazilian transsexuals are showing up,” said Vincenzo Ammaliato, who covers Castel Volturno for Il Mattino newspaper. The same thing is happening in Palermo, Sicily, where the Nigerian mafia is flourishing as Cosa Nostra bosses are locked up. “In Castel Volturno, you don’t see the Nigerian bosses -- they rely on local shopkeepers and priests to funnel the profits back to them,” Ammaliato said.
Among the Nigerian Christian pastors who open up back street churches, some are surreptitiously assisting in the voodoo rites used to terrify the girls into submission, according to Sister Rita.

Priests? Nigerian Christian pastors?

Are we talking about Roman Catholic priests? Pentecostal  (which is the major flavor of Protestant in Nigeria these days) clergy helping in voodoo rites? The reporter doesn’t say. These are important details, creating gaps and confusion.

I’ll skip back to the aforementioned New Yorker piece to get an explanation of the voodoo.

Madams in Italy have their surrogates in Nigeria take the girls to a local shrine, where the juju priest performs a bonding ritual, typically involving the girl’s fingernails, pubic hair, or blood, which the priest retains until she has repaid her debt to her trafficker… In exchange for the madam covering travel expenses, the girl agrees to work for her until she has paid back the cost of the journey; the madam keeps her documents, and tells her that any attempt to flee will cause the juju, now inhabiting her body, to attack her.

Back to the Times: Are we talking about juju priests, then?

Then the reporter runs into what’s obviously a Roman Catholic priest.

Antonio Guarino is a priest who helps run a local migrant shelter. “The women treat new girls as cruelly as they themselves were treated because they cannot go back to Nigeria without being blessed, meaning having money,” he said.
Father Guarino, 58, is used to seeing girls “dumped like rubbish” on the doorsteps of the shelter when madams discover they are pregnant. To save them from going back to the streets he uses prayer to combat the voodoo rites in which they hand over hair samples, giving madams “magic power” over them.
“I lay hands on them and ask the Lord to remove what needs to be removed — I cannot say too much because it would look like I accept the voodoo is real, but it does help,” he said.

It is curious why religion has not been more a part of this story. I did a search and found very little out there except for this 2015 PBS program that points out how nuns are essential to helping trafficked African women. Like the Times of London story, it’s set in Castel Volturno and goes into a lot more details about what the nuns do plus more on the voodoo rite.

What’s depressing is that sexually trafficked women from Nigeria have been around Italy for at least 15 years, as this 2003 Christian Science Monitor piece illustrates. The Voice of America reported in June that they’re in Belgium as well.  And this Los Angeles Times piece points out the situation isn’t going to improve until Italian men stop patronizing these women and or the Nigerian economy improves. I'd add that Italian police do absolutely nothing about these women.

But few publications bring religion into the mix. This ParisMatch piece fortunately does, by pointing out how powerful the voodoo lobby is. An excerpt:

Black magic is at the core of this booming transnational trade in human beings.  A few days before they left Nigeria, the mama had taken Diana along with other girls to the house of a sorcerer, the "jujuman". 
The ceremony includes trances, taking of potions, collecting of blood, hair and nails. The future prostitutes are convinced that they have been put under a spell: they must obey the mama to keep their families safe from harm. The sorcerer gives them each an object: a padlock wound around with string in a plastic bag and sprinkled with dried blood. 

There are so many fascinating stories that could be done here. The prostitutes all seem to come from Benin City in southern Nigeria, where the culture is Christian, so what are churches there doing about this? According to this Agence France Presse story, the churches aren't doing much. And This Day, a Lagos, Nigeria newspaper, reports that some pastors are part of the trafficking racket themselves. 

Also, this research paper suggests that Nigerian Pentecostal churches are very much part of the problem, as they sanction these voodoo pacts. Why are these girls allow themselves to undergo this ceremony? Are Nigerian immigrants to the United States active in helping these women? Are there any exorcists who work with the immigrants? 

Last week, Newsweek did this piece on how Europe's efforts to persuade Nigerians not to emigrate aren't working. I know that not everyone can get an International Reporting Project grant -- as did the reporter of that piece -- to travel to Africa to report on this problem. But surely in states like New York, Texas and Maryland, which have the highest numbers of Nigerian immigrants in the USA, there are stories about this.

This recent Voice of America story explains how difficult it is to interview such girls, so I'm not suggesting it's a fun assignment. Still, cities like Washington, D.C., New York, Atlanta and Houston have the largest numbers of Nigerian-Americans and the United States has more immigrants from Nigeria than any country in the world. We should definitely be hearing a lot more about this problem.

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