West Africa to EU: Major Sex Trafficking Circuit

by Amanda Kloer

slaveryModernA report released by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime this week identified a major and continuous trafficking route from Western Africa to Western Europe.  Most of the people moved along this route are women and girls from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Cameroon on their way to be forced into prostitution in the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and other EU countries.  You can read the report here.

According to the report, this trafficking circuit is huge.  It moves between 3800 and 5700 women into the EU annually, to the tune of over $200 million dollars a year. And yet despite those huge numbers, it is estimated that West African trafficking victims comprise only about 10% of the trafficking victims enslaved in commercial sex in Western Europe.  If $200 million dollars is only a tiny percentage of the money being made through forced prostitution in Europe, imagine how much money exists in the industry as a whole.  We’re talking billions of dollars generated by the enslavement of human beings all over Europe.  And when there is that much money to be had by the criminals, you can be the crime becomes harder to fight. 

The system usually used on this circuit is debt bondage.  The trafficker gives the victim a “loan” of somewhere between $40,000 and $55,000 to cover the costs of entry into the EU, usually including false documents, transportation, housing, etc.  The trafficker then creates a “contract” detailing the method and time period of repayment.  However, victims are often deceived about the nature and conditions of work awaiting them.  Even if the victims know they will be engaging in prostitution in Europe, they are often lied to about the working conditions, their ability to leave or say “no”, or the amount of money they will get to keep.  Victims are then forced into prostitution on the traffickers terms “until the debt is repaid”, which is sometimes never.

More often than not, victims are flown in (another reason we need better training for immigration personnel at airports).  Adult women may be presented as the trafficker’s wife or newly hired maid.  Minor girls are often told to ask for asylum, after which they are placed temporarily in a juvenile shelter.  It’s easy for the trafficker to then take the girl from the shelter.  Once in the EU, the victims are often rotated between countries or cities.  This serves the dual purpose of keeping the faces (and bodies) changing for the male buyers and keeping the victims disoriented and confused. 

This route is one which the international community has known about for a long time.  But because of the hidden nature of the crime, it is still thriving.


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