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Human traffickers lead young Nigerians on a dangerous path

Modern-day human trafficking begins in places like rural Nigeria, where young people dream of economic opportunity and a better life for their families, and are willing to give up everything to try and find it. But as many Nigerians learn, the journey to Europe is often much harder and more dangerous than advertised, and most don’t make it. William Brangham reports from Benin City.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have become almost inured to the site, thousands of refugees afloat on the Mediterranean trying to cross into Europe.

    In recent years, a growing number of Nigerians have joined this migration. In fact, Nigeria is now one of the most dangerous places for young people, who often fall into the hands of human traffickers.

    William Brangham recently traveled to Benin City in Nigeria to see what's driving so many young people to set off on this desperate journey.

  • William Brangham:

    This is Evelyn here?

  • Joy Oghagbon:

    Yes, this is Evelyn.

  • William Brangham:

    She has such a nice smile.

    The story of modern-day human trafficking often begins in neighborhoods like this in rural Nigeria, places where young people like Joy Oghagbon's daughter Evelyn dream of a better life for their families and give up everything to try and find it.

    A year ago, Evelyn was a happy and ambitious student finishing her last year of high school, but then she disappeared without warning.

    Days passed before her brother Stanley's phone rang.

  • Stanley Oghagbon:

    I was shocked to see a Libya number. Who is this? She say, it's Evelyn. I say, Evelyn, what are you doing in Libya?

  • William Brangham:

    Evelyn had joined thousands of other Nigerians who traverse the Sahara Desert to reach Libya, where they crowd into boats to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

    But, like nearly a million other migrants, Evelyn got stuck in Libya, apparently held captive by those she'd paid to take her across.

    Joy Oghagbon demanded that the captors return her daughter.

  • Joy Oghagbon:

    The woman say, no, no, she can not come back, unless we give them 750,000. Then me say, I don't have that kind of money.

  • William Brangham:

    Oghagbon couldn't come up with the roughly $2,000. They haven't heard from Evelyn since.

    Nigeria is one of the top countries in Africa as far as the number of people who try to leave here to go find a different life up in Europe. And Edo State, which is where we are right now, accounts for the vast majority of Nigerians leaving the country. Almost half the people who depart come from right here.

    While Nigeria makes a lot of money from oil, corruption, poverty and high unemployment have sent young people looking for opportunities elsewhere for years. The money those migrants send back helps their families build houses and buy cars, propping up the local economy and fueling the cycle of more migration.

    This young man — he prefers to be known only as Amos — was told he could find work easily in Europe. At the time, Amos' life wasn't bad. His family lived in a large home. He took vacations with friends. He had a girlfriend, and he was going to school to become a nurse. But he says the smugglers promised him an easy journey.

  • Amos:

    They told me, in two, three weeks' time, that I would be in Europe.

  • William Brangham:

    In two to three' weeks time? You give us the money, and, in two weeks, we will put you in Europe?

  • Amos:

    Yes.

  • Frantz Celestin:

    It's embedded in their cultural fabric in that part of the country that people migrate.

  • William Brangham:

    Frantz Celestin is deputy chief of mission of the U.N.'s Migration Agency in Nigeria. He says the cultural pressure to go abroad and find a new life, like here in Italy, is a powerful force on young Nigerians.

  • Frantz Celestin:

    It's a source of pride to say that I have two kids in Atlanta, or I have a son in London, I have a daughter in Geneva. and, because of that, that then puts the pressure on the next family to send their son or daughter to those countries.

  • William Brangham:

    But, as many find out, the journey to Europe is often much harder than advertised. Immigration crackdowns in Europe and tighter controls on visas are now sending people on this dangerous path.

    Those caught on the Mediterranean are often sent back to detention centers in Libya, where conditions are bleak. Amos spent two weeks crossing the Sahara, most without food or water. They became so dehydrated, he said he and others resorted to drinking their own urine.

    Once in Libya, his smugglers betrayed him, selling him off in a slave market, much like this one seen in video obtained by CNN.

  • Narrator:

    "Big, strong boys for farmwork," he says, "400, 700."

  • Amos:

    I spent more than a week in that place because I was sold off to someone.

  • William Brangham:

    He says he was bought and sold three times, and ended up in a cell, where he was beaten with a pipe. He was told his freedom could be bought for about $1,100.

  • Amos:

    I was asked to call my parents to send money, so that they would release me. They told me to tell my parents to send 400,000 to release me, which I did. I called my mother.

  • William Brangham:

    Amos' mother back home in Benin City was horrified. She hastily sold the family home to pay the ransom for her son. That's it behind the gate.

    Amos was let go, but then got kidnapped again. During a final melee, he was shot in the arm. Some of the bullet is still lodged in his elbow. He can't afford surgery to get it fixed.

    Can you bend it this way?

  • Amos:

    Just like this.

  • William Brangham:

    That's it?

  • Amos:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you really cannot use your arm?

  • Amos:

    No.

  • William Brangham:

    Many of the women who attempt this journey are forced into doing sex work. We visited this Catholic shelter where several women have returned from Libya.

    This woman in the tan scarf asked that we not use her name and hide her identity. She left home last year after being promised a fashion job in Europe. But when she arrived in Libya, she discovered there were other plans for her.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I was begging the man, he should please, he should please, even if it is housework, he should find me work, so I don't have to go to a prostitution house. The man will say no, and he will be beating me every, every morning.

  • William Brangham:

    She resisted and says she was raped.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I was raped going to Tripoli by some Arabs. Since that time, I was pregnant.

  • William Brangham:

    I'm very sorry.

    She said she hadn't yet told her family she was back in Nigeria. The U.N.'s Migration Agency flew more than 2,000 Nigerians home last December. That's more than double the number in all of 2016. More than 6,700 were returned from Libya in 2017, but far more are setting out than are being returned.

    This man has helped smuggle people on that journey. He says he's helped over a dozen get through Libya and into Europe. He showed me pictures of people he says he's helped land in Italy and Spain.

    Despite what we heard from nearly every migrant we spoke to, he claims everyone knows the risks.

  • Man:

    I said, the journey's bad. The journey's not good. Out of hundreds, only 10 survive it. I saw it with my eye. You will not…

  • William Brangham:

    So, you knew hundreds were going, and only a few make it through?

  • Man:

    Only a few, yes, few.

  • William Brangham:

    He also says that almost all women will end up doing sex work.

  • Man:

    Ninety percent of them do sex work.

  • William Brangham:

    Ninety percent of them do?

  • Man:

    Ninety percent, yes. They are doing it.

  • William Brangham:

    And you explain that completely to them before they begin the journey?

  • Man:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Do the parents know that their daughters will end up doing sex work?

  • Man:

    Not all parents. Some knew.

  • William Brangham:

    Does knowing how hard the journey is, how dangerous it is for people make you feel like maybe I shouldn't be doing this job?

  • Man:

    You see, they'd rather go and die in Libya than to be remain here suffering, doing nothing.

  • William Brangham:

    But it's not money alone that compels migrants to stay on this risky path. Traffickers often demand young people undergo this unique ritual before they leave.

    Eziza is a Juju priest in Benin city. Juju is a spiritual practice common in West Africa. For a fee, Eziza demonstrated the protective blessing he performs on migrants who are about to go.

  • Eziza (through translator):

    To cross that big river. That river is very bad.

  • William Brangham:

    The ocean?

  • Eziza:

    The ocean. There is many spirits in that ocean.

  • William Brangham:

    But anti-trafficking groups say the rituals often serve another purpose, to threaten the young people that, if they run from their smugglers, they will be cursed and will suffer terribly.

  • Roland Nwoha:

    People generally believe that there is power in these. They believe.

  • William Brangham:

    It's just a tool of coercion.

  • Roland Nwoha:

    Exactly. Exactly. Just a tool of coercion. They fear that if they run away, something will happen to them.

  • William Brangham:

    Roland Nwoha runs a local nonprofit that's been sounding the alarm about trafficking. His group, Idia Renaissance, tries to reach vulnerable kids and teach them skills they can use to earn a living here in Nigeria.

    But he says it's hard to combat the pull of Europe, especially in the digital age.

  • Roland Nwoha:

    We live in a society where we have become very Westernized. We see a lot through the media, the social media. Especially now, everyone has access to Facebook. It creates a general feeling that, once you arrive the Western world, everything is good, everything is perfect.

  • William Brangham:

    Despite all their efforts to stop them, young Nigerians continue to leave the country by the truckload. Some make it. Most do not. Some are never heard from again.

    A year later, Evelyn Oghagbon is still missing.

  • Joy Oghagbon:

    I'm looking for my daughter, yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Every time her mother, Joy, hears a rumor that more young people are being returned, she goes to the drop-off spot, hoping today will be the day Evelyn comes home.

    There's an expression in Nigeria says, it is better to lose your child than for your child to be missing. It's an expression of the anguish and the worry that thousands of parents like Joy have to endure every day.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Benin City, Nigeria.

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