World

‘Don’t struggle if you’re raped’

A smuggler’s chilling warning

In a hotel room in Edo State, southern Nigeria, a trafficker is arranging to smuggle us to Libya — and ultimately Europe.

We are posing as would-be migrants attempting to reach Italy with the help of our “pusherman,” a broker who works alongside smugglers on the Nigerian end of the migrant route from Africa to Europe.

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UNICEF

Edo State is Nigeria’s trafficking hub. Each year, tens of thousands of migrants are illegally smuggled from here. They’re fleeing conflict or searching for better economic opportunities.

They often don’t leave Libya because they can’t pay the money to cross the Mediterranean. They’re then held in grim living conditions, deprived of food and sold as laborers in slave auctions, sometimes for as little as $400 each.

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We told smugglers little about our situation, saying only that we hoped to reach Italy and then travel to London. Our real plan was to secure a deal, set off from Auchi in Edo State and then quit the journey when we were out of the sight of smugglers.

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Setting up the deal was easy. We negotiated a deal with a pusherman: 500,000 Nigerian naira for each us, about $1,400.

Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

As part of our travel package, we were offered condoms for the journey. The pusherman was dismayed that I hadn’t packed any, because I would need men in Libya “to be kind to” me.

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He has a chilling warning for me: “Listen, don’t struggle if you’re raped.”

Women and children routinely face sexual violence, abuse and detention along the route from North Africa to Italy, according to a 2017 UNICEF report.

IOM citing Italy’s Ministry of Interior

Within one day of securing a deal, we met the pusherman at the hotel to embark on the first stage of the journey. Very quickly, we were taken to the local bus depot in Auchi, where the pusherman flagged down a bus traveling north to Kano.

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Public transport offers good cover for smugglers in Nigeria. It’s difficult for authorities to keep tabs on buses running through their usual routes than it is to chase down vehicles specially used by the traffickers.

Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

We squeezed down the aisles of the busy overnight bus before the doors were locked shut from the outside (a precaution against potential hijackers). Once out of sight of the smugglers, we disembarked on the outskirts of the city.

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Had we kept going, we would have arrived in Kano 14 hours later and been put on a bus to Niger, and then we would have traveled to southern Libya, a place where survivors of the slave trade have said they were marched off the bus at gunpoint, later to be sold at auction.

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Luckily for us, none of that is our future. For others, it’s a horror they cannot escape — and paradoxically, a journey still all too easy to make.