A row of dirty vans is parked on a broad, tree-lined avenue in the outskirts of Paris. In the dark of night, fluttering candles light up the faces of the women in the front seats.
None of them wear more than their underwear. Others, wearing miniskirts, stand outside underneath street lamps, facing out onto the empty road.
Nadège was one of these women before she managed to escape.
She is softly spoken. “Even now I don’t have hope for myself,” she says. “My past already destroyed my future.”
The Bois de Vincennes, a sprawling park on the outskirts of eastern Paris, is home to horse riding schools and a zoo. It has also been part-commandeered by human traffickers.
The park’s central road is yet another point on the map of a massive cross-continental trafficking network that has channeled tens of thousands of Nigerian women and children throughout Europe and as far as Malaysia.
Like them, Nadège says she was trafficked from Nigeria to France and forced into sexual slavery, at €20 ($23) per client, to pay off a colossal debt to a female Nigerian pimp known as a “madam.”
‘I was told it was like a paradise‘
Nadège, who could not give her real name for safety reasons, grew up in southern Nigeria. She says that when she was just six, she was raped by a group of neighbors. Her parents sent her to live with an aunt. But Nadège says her aunt was murdered after refusing a local gangster’s marriage proposal for her niece. Nadège discovered her aunt’s dead body.
At 15, Nadège says, she was raped once again and had her first abortion. Alone, she was easy prey for traffickers. A madam she met in Lagos promised her a better life in Europe, working as a waitress.
“I was told it was like a paradise,” Nadège tells CNN. “But getting here, it was like from frying pan to fire.”
The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) says that recruitment for trafficking to Europe is strongly concentrated in Edo State, in southern Nigeria, the region where Nadège was born.
Before leaving, the madam made Nadège swear an oath at a “juju” temple with a native doctor of Ayelala — a traditional belief system from southern Nigeria.
Nadège swore to repay her madam for sending her to Europe, and to never speak of her oath, or her debt, to anyone. It’s the same for so many Nigerian women trafficked for cex.
Yehudi Pelosi, a lawyer who specializes in asylum law and human trafficking, said that as part of the ceremony the women are often forced to eat a kola nut and a chicken heart, and drink a concoction of gin and blood. Some of their pubic hair is taken, and their head, breasts and shoulders are often ritually scarred.
Charities working closely with the women say they are petrified of the oath’s power. Nadège was convinced that breaking it meant going mad or dying.
Families suffer, too. Charities say madams pay “cultists” — military-style gangs — to threaten and sometimes kill girls’ relatives back home.
“Your parents are not safe… I love my mum, I don’t want anything to happen to her,” said Nadège.
Nadège described her journey to France. She flew on a commercial flight, with a fake passport her madam gave her. She was sent to work in the Bois a week after she arrived. She was 20 years old.
Her debt, she was told, was €50,000 ($57,690). Others pay €60,000 ($69,226). Her madam gave her a €100 daily target and took away her passport and all her earnings, except money for food and rent.
“Sometimes you work from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the morning, maybe get home by 8 a.m.,” she says.
She would start work again, elsewhere, from 3 p.m., she says. “Until 6 p.m., then you have to go to your normal place of work.”
Most of the Nigerian women working in the park are “slaves,” she says. “Some are free, but the prostitution has eaten deep into them.”
Nadège once asked a man why he came to the street, she says, wiping away a tear. “He said, ‘I’m a divorced man, so I have to make myself happy.’”
She says she is sure that he and the rest of the clients understood the Nigerian women’s situation.
“There are brains and talent wasting in Vincennes,” Nadège says. “So many can sing, so many can dance… But the prostitution, the oath, the fear, just overshadowed everything.”
“Sometimes when you get home,” she says, “you have to sit in hot water for hours before you can get yourself back.”
After nearly a year of relentless work, the turning point came when Nadège became pregnant.
She and her boyfriend decided to keep the baby, which meant escaping the vise-like grip of the network.
Nadège continued working as a prostitute briefly while she was pregnant, but stopped making payments to her madam.
“I was waiting patiently for the death or the madness,” she says. “I was like… ‘Should I go over to the street and start working? Should I abort my baby?’”
She has escaped harm, for now; the networks have less of a physical presence in France. And with the help of a lawyer, she has been able to gain asylum there. Women like her are eligible for asylum on grounds of persecution if they can prove they have been trafficked and have distanced themselves from the network.
Breaking away from the network, she says, was “the best decision of my life.” But Nadège is profoundly traumatized.
“I’m no longer beautiful,” she says, “my glory’s been taken.”
“I complained I was raped when I was 15. Imagine me coming to Europe to sleep with 10 men per night.”
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