I walk down a muddy road, past wooden stalls full of bananas and smoking barbecues full of suya. Few high-rise buildings, lots of unpaved roads, a cacophony of car horns, street vendors hawking their wares on every corner.
On the surface, there’s nothing special about Benin City, Nigeria. But something extraordinary is going on in Nigeria’s fourth biggest city. You won’t find a single person here without a family member in Europe.
The majority of Nigerian migrants in Europe come from this city of fewer than 1.5 million people. It’s as though every Mexican immigrant in the US were from, say, Tijuana. The largest group of African migrants in Europe are Nigerians – though it would be more accurate to say that the largest group are Edos or Binis, natives of Benin City.
I’m here to learn about one of the most complicated issues in European politics: migration from Africa to Europe. I want to look at migration from an African perspective – from the perspective of Africans who leave and, more specifically, from the perspective of those who stay behind.
I’ve spent months here, talking with old people, young people, rich people, poor people, people with and without a job, with and without an education, and – without exception – people whose everyday lives are intimately affected by migration to Europe.
The issue is many times more complex than I could ever have expected. In Benin City, nothing is as it seems. It’s a place where the categories that we westerners use to help us understand migration are irrelevant. Trying to understand the issue, it’s as though you’re turning a prism in your hand, the colour constantly changing as the light hits a new angle.
The city that Europe built
I walk down the muddy road with Omo, a slender man with bright eyes who grew up here. The house we’re heading to can’t be missed. It’s two storeys, painted a fresh bright green, and towers above the low, corrugated roofs of the neighbouring houses. “Thank U Mummy” is chiselled into a black plaque above the Ionic columns that frame the arched door.
Omo, who works for a local NGO, points to the palatial house: “Here you see the revolution.”
Europeans would never call the horrific trek through the Sahara and the drifting boats on the Mediterranean Sea a revolution. But here in Benin City, it’s different.
Signs of the revolution are everywhere. Omo poetically calls them “testimonies to travel”. “Proceeds” is the term that’s frequently used.
Once someone tells you about the “proceeds”, you notice them everywhere. It’s as if someone has handed you 3D glasses at the Imax and the film has snapped into focus. You see what had been invisible: that petrol station is being built with money from Europe. That red Land Rover was paid for in euros. Those new hotels are being erected with European money. Those little boutiques with fabulous names – “Glitz ’n Glam”, “Exclusive Choice Collections”, “G-Armany Fashion” – have been set up thanks to European sponsors.
Enter a church and you’ll hear the priest praying: ‘Your children shall cross in Jesus’s name. They shall cross well, they shall not die.’
Omo and I go round a corner. Another gigantic house, this one with shiny grey tiles. Must be family in Europe. Further along, a new roof reflects so much sunlight that it temporarily blinds me. Must be euros.
The small stalls with bottles of liquor also sell cases of wine from Italy. The lingerie on display in large piles was discarded by Europeans. The second-hand electronics being sold at the side of the road were sent from Europe. The red-yellow vans used for public transport are called “Belgian buses”, a reminder of their country of origin.
Enter a church and you’ll hear the priest praying: “Your children shall cross in Jesus’s name. They shall cross well, they shall not die.”
“The city that you see,” says Omo, “has been built by Europe.” Not through development aid or investments but by irregular migration.
“If you conduct a poll on the street here,” predicts Omo, “eight out of 10 families will have children in Europe.” His own uncle, aunt and three cousins have “crossed”. They are now working in Spain and Austria. His grandmother lives in a big house with shiny new floor tiles, paid for in euros.
Omo and I put his theory to the test. And it’s true – it really doesn’t matter whom we ask. The barman, the barber, the receptionist at the hotel. The priest, the taxi driver, the peanut seller on the street corner. Whether they’re 14 or 44, male or female; whether they’ve attended university or just primary school, whether they speak English or not.
Everyone in Benin City has family or friends in Europe. And given the chance, just about everyone would want to go themselves. “[I would go] right away, even without saying goodbye to my mother,” says Sandra (29), who volunteers at her church. “Wouldn’t think twice,” says Sunny (25), who is studying at university. Just last year, his cousin drowned in the Mediterranean.
Among European Union (EU) policymakers and migration experts, alarm bells have been ringing for a while about Benin City. The statistics don’t lie. Around 60% of Nigerian asylum seekers who arrive in Europe are from Edo state (the capital of which is Benin City). The overwhelming majority come from the city itself, according to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). A local NGO staffer calls it a “massive exodus”.
How one single city came to rely so much on migration
How can it be that one single state – in effect, one single city – has come to depend so much on irregular migration to Europe?
To understand the present, we have to return to the 1980s. At that time, Italian businesses were establishing themselves in Edo state. Some Italian businessmen married women from Benin City, who moved back to Italy with their spouses. They began conducting business, trading in textiles, lace and leather, gold and jewellery. These women were the first to bring other women from their families to Italy – often legally, because Italian agriculture badly needed labourers to pick tomatoes and grapes.
Suddenly, many Edo women in Italy had just one alternative: prostitution. This last resort turned out to be a lucrative one.
But when plunging oil prices brought the Nigerian economy to a virtual standstill at the end of the 1980s, many of these businesswomen went bankrupt. The women working in agriculture also had a rough time: their jobs went to eastern European labourers.
Suddenly, many Edo women in Italy had just one alternative: prostitution. This last resort turned out to be a lucrative one. In a short space of time, the women earned more than ever before.
And so they returned to Benin City in the 1990s with plenty of European currency – with more money, in fact, than many people in their city had ever seen. They built “four-flats”: houses made up of four apartments to earn rental income.
The women were called “talos”, or Italian mammas. Everyone looked up to them. Young women saw them as role models and wanted to go to Europe too. Researchers call this “cumulative causation theory”: each successful migrant leads to more people from their community wanting to migrate.
Almost no one in Benin City knew where exactly the money had come from.
‘Dollars are no taboo’
The talos began to lend money to girls in their families so that they could also travel to Italy. Not until these women arrived were they told how they would repay the loan. Some accepted, others were forced. All of them earned money.
In the early years, the secret of the Italian mammas was kept within the family. But more and more women paid off their debts – at that time, it took about a year or two – and then decided to go for big money themselves. As so-called “madames”, they began to recruit other women in their home city. Then, slowly, the penny began to drop in Benin City: huge numbers of their women were working in the Italian sex industry.
“Yet no one was really offended by it,” recalls Roland Nwoha. He works for Idia Renaissance, an NGO in Benin City dedicated to helping victims of human trafficking. He grew up in the city and saw women he knew depart for Italy. “Yes, we knew what they did there, but we didn’t condemn it. It helped families out of poverty, so it was accepted.”
‘Dollars are no taboo,’ a Benin City saying goes. Another way of saying: we couldn’t care less where your money comes from.
“In our four-flat lived a family that was so poor that they were three years behind on rent. The landlord threw them out. Their family of seven had to go live in one room in a slum.”
Encouraged by her mother, that family’s eldest daughter left for Italy. “Three years later, she had sent so much money home that her parents built a two-flat themselves! I remember how shocked I was at the transformation. Now her mother has even opened a small supermarket.”
“Dollars are no taboo,” a Benin City saying goes. Another way of saying: we couldn’t care less where your money comes from. And that is still true today.
There are Western Union and MoneyGram signs all around Benin City, yet much of the money and goods from Europe do not arrive via official channels. On Erie Road is the “local Western Union”, as the people in Benin City call the dilapidated building.
The moss-covered block of flats, which also serves as a mosque, has a steep staircase full of rubbish. There is no electricity, so the hallway to the little office is dark. The family that runs this enterprise has “contacts” all over Europe, where Nigerian migrants can bring money or goods if they pay a commission. With a secret numeric code, their family in Benin City can then receive the money.
A woman in a blue-and-yellow wrappa is sitting against the wall with her head in her hands. Her daughter in Italy hasn’t given her a code yet. “Don’t worry, the money will come,” another woman says to comfort her before walking out with two large plastic bags.
Trick, trap, transport
The system for getting Edo women into the European sex industry has been fine-tuned through the years. The woman’s travel arrangements are made for her and the costs are paid as an advance. She then has to pay it back with interest. Not until she has paid it back is she free to do what she wants in Europe. The most obvious career choice is often to start recruiting others herself.
In Benin City, this approach is called the “three Ts”: trick, trap, transport. Originally, it went like this:
- Trick: tell the woman that she is going to Italy to work in an African supermarket or as a babysitter.
- Trap: get the woman to take an oath before a traditional juju priest. For most Edos, this is a life-or-death contract. If a woman runs away or goes to the police after taking such an oath, something terrible will happen to her or her family.
- Transport: send the woman off to Europe with a fake visa and plane tickets (which is more expensive, leaving the girl with a bigger debt), or via the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea. The smuggling networks from Benin City control every step of the journey, from the trucks and rubber boats to the brothels in Italy, Brussels or Copenhagen.
It is often said that the poorest of the poor cannot migrate because migration is so expensive. That is not true in Benin City. All women can migrate if they go into debt. “I see women who can’t even write their own name, who have never used a toilet,” says Nwoha. “They could never get to Europe without help.”
And unless they are willing to work as a prostitute. Whereas the Italian mammas in the 1990s could keep their profession a secret, now everyone here knows what happens in Italy. Surveys by the University of Benin City Observatory show that almost 100% of respondents know about the work of Nigerian women in Europe.
If everyone knows – and the T for trick is actually redundant – then why do women still go?
The women are pressured into prostitution ... by their mothers
In a flat on a side street of one of Benin City’s busiest thoroughfares, 10 women and two babies are sitting around a heavy wooden table. A woman in a garment that most closely resembles a nightdress (shapeless, white, patterned with little ribbons and hearts) is speaking, and the other women uh-huh softly. “Thomas did not believe that Jesus stood before him until he touched his scars,” says the woman in the nightdress. Her voice is deep. “Jesus asks us not to doubt. We should believe what is written in the Bible.”
This is the morning prayer at the women’s shelter of Sister Bibiana Emenaha. Her NGO, Cosudow, provides a place to stay for women who have returned from European prostitution, or, more and more often, from Libya.
The shelter is badly needed. Families will often not take in women because their trip has been a failure. Because they have not earned any money.
The woman in the nightdress asks if anyone would like to share something about the prayer. One of the women – who was in Italy, locked in a room where one man after another had his way with her – sighs: “People always want to see first before they believe. But we should believe right away.”
Sister Bibiana thinks that is precisely where it often goes wrong. She looks well put together in her light-blue habit, but her eyes betray her fatigue. “98% of these women know that they will work in Europe as a prostitute. What they do not know is the gravity of what that means. That they will be stripped of every human right, that they will become sex slaves. That their bodies will no longer be their own. They hear the horror stories but think: I’ll believe it when I see it. That is not my portion.”
‘Everyone here is competing to send their child to Europe, to build a house, to buy a car. "Ashawo no dey kill," they say.’ Prostitution won’t kill you.
Those were the thoughts of 28-year-old Faith – she thought she would work as a babysitter. Instead, she stood at the side of a wooded road near Naples, seven days a week for eighteen months. “I was a slave.”
And then there is the pressure. I speak to Sandra – 29, petite, an “I ♡ Human Rights” button pinned to her pink blouse – who is currently looking out for travel opportunities. She says she doesn’t want to work in prostitution. “But I am the eldest of four. My father is deceased, my mother is old. I have to take care of my brothers and sisters. I have to make my mother forget that my father is dead. You can imagine the pressure ... ”
Family pressure – often from mothers – is the major reason that women continue to go, according to Sister Bibiana. “Everyone here is competing to send their child to Europe, to build a house, to buy a car. ‘Ashawo no dey kill,’ they say.” Prostitution won’t kill you.
In some neighbourhoods, there are even clubs for mothers who have daughters in Europe. Not as support groups, but as status symbols. Visibly distressed, Sister Bibiana says: “Mothers here are ruining their own daughters!”
Adesode is such a mother, one who “encouraged” her daughters to travel. She has 10 children, four of whom are abroad. She saves the snapshots they send her in a thick, red photo album. Her favourite is the one of her daughter in a Santa Claus suit. “Thanks to them, I now have a house with a real fence around it,” she says, pointing to the imposing cast-iron monstrosity.
A few minutes’ ride away is the home of Philomona, who has been caring for her grandson in the 10 years since her daughter left for Europe. She shows me the extra rooms that have been built with her euros. But when I ask about the work her daughter does, the conversation founders. Philomona begins to stutter.
“She ... she works in a factory ... ”
Me: “What kind of factory?”
“I’m not exactly sure ... A factory in Belgium ... ”
And what about the men?
For a long time, more women than men migrated from Edo state, but that pattern has changed.
Of those from the state who sought asylum in Europe in 2017, nearly 60% were men. And of those who returned from Libya – those migrants who didn’t reach Europe – half were men and half were women. For irregular migrants, statistics from the Edo state government even place the ratio of men to women at 70 to 30.
This is logical: if the smuggling networks are so deeply intertwined with the city, why would men not make use of them? Especially since opportunities for young men in Benin City aren’t exactly abundant.
In one of the city’s slums, Loveth, a mother of three, runs a small cafe where a grey parrot speaking pidgin entertains customers. Her establishment is mainly a place for unemployed people to hang out. “Look around,” says Loveth. “These should be tomorrow’s leaders. But where are the jobs?”
The economy of Edo state has tanked in the past decade. Jobs have disappeared left, right and centre. The state bus service went belly up. The state brewery did so poorly that they did not pay any salaries for 36 months. Okadas, the motorcycle taxis, were banned.
Loveth says: “Here you are seeing graduates working as waiters, cement carriers, builders, mechanics. So why would you go to school?”
‘That’s the funny thing ... that friend never went to school and he builds a house. I have my master’s and I lay the tiles ...’
Edwin (34) knows that frustration like no other. He has a master’s degree in social work but has been doing volunteer work for years because no one can pay him. To get by, he does odd building jobs.
He takes me to a gigantic house – surrounded by a wall with watchtowers and a “God is Great” plaque – where he laid tiles a few years ago. The house belongs to a friend in Europe. “That’s the funny thing,” Edwin says, his wavering voice betraying the tragicomedy. “That friend never went to school and he builds a house. I have my master’s and I lay the tiles. That’s the funny thing ... ”
Of course, the women are not the only ones who know how to earn money in Europe. The men send money home too. Frederik has two younger brothers, aged 18 and 22, who have just crossed to Italy. They haven’t been able to find work yet because they are in a detention camp awaiting their asylum procedure. And yet Frederik is already calling their departure an “enormous relief”. “They each receive €50 a month from the Italian government. They send that money home. My mother is overjoyed.”
Osamuyi and Osaro are also in Loveth’s cafe. Osamuyi has just returned from Libya, where he stayed for eighteen months in the hopes of crossing to Europe. Twice he got into a boat. Twice he didn’t make it. His story terrifies me: in Libya, he was sold as a slave. He watched friends die right in front of his eyes.
His friend Osaro has just sold all his belongings so he can begin the same journey. In his small room just behind Loveth’s cafe, only the mattress remains.
I ask Osaro if he isn’t dettered by the stories about slavery and murders.
“No. Whether by land, sea or river, I am leaving this country. There are no opportunities here. I’m fed up.”
I ask if Osamuyi won’t advise Osaro to stay here after all of his experiences. “No, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going. Of every 500 who try, 300 make it. I had bad luck; maybe he will be lucky.”
Benin City: Nigeria’s migration hub
People here need to get lucky before they even leave Nigeria. Osaro knows that well enough. Among the many smugglers in Benin City, it’s pretty difficult to find a reliable “connection man”. Two years ago, his trip failed the day before his departure, when his smuggler ran off with his money (and that of his seven fellow travellers). Now he has a new connection, via a friend who has already arrived in Germany.
I meet a connection man – or “boga” – who specialises in filling out visa applications. He actually feels more like a middleman because he doesn’t do the falsification of the accompanying documents. He only puts his clients in touch with the “right people”. He operates from his official business, a hole in the wall where he repairs computers and printers. He is surrounded by dusty devices.
This connection man got his start by helping two family members to get visas for Cyprus and Russia. “Since then I have not had a moment’s rest,” he laughs. “People from all over Nigeria are beating my door down! This year alone I have already helped 15 people cross.”
In the past decades, Benin City has become a migration hub for the whole of Nigeria. Every Nigerian knows that in Benin City you can find contacts who can help you get to Europe.
The entire economy runs on migration, just like in other migration hubs, such as Agadez in Niger or Sabha in Libya. Seen through that lens, it’s not so strange that Omo calls this migration “a revolution”. He adds with dramatic flair: “[A revolution] to free us from slavery and the shackles of poverty!”
Fighting human trafficking
You can imagine that the average family in Benin City is not keen on measures to curb migration.
Around the year 2000, when Roland Nwoha’s NGO began a campaign against human trafficking, they became the target of extortion, voodoo assaults and threats. A group of women actually marched, naked, to the king’s palace in protest against the NGO. Nwoha says: “They were furious. They shouted, ‘Do you want to steal food right out of our mouths?’”
Now, too, there is still plenty of resistance. As the governor of Edo, Godwin Obaseki, says: “During my election campaign, I was told that I was not to talk about human trafficking because it would lose me votes.”
When he was elected at the end of 2016, he did, in fact, start a robust campaign against human trafficking – with the support and encouragement of the EU.
Step one is a brand new unit: the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. The only things in the office are two desks, a refrigerator and some boxes. The walls are still perfectly white, with nothing hanging on them. “There is firm resistance from the communities that now profit from migration,” says Oyemwense Abieyuwa, the secretary of the task force. “But we must do something. The massive migration is an embarrassment; it makes our state look bad.”
The new unit and a new anti-trafficking law now afford the state the opportunity to convict human traffickers, whereas before that was possible only at the national level. The unit is now investigating 28 cases. “We want to hit them hard,” Abieyuwa says. “We are showing human traffickers that it’s no longer business as usual.”
And that is having an effect. Everyone in Benin City is talking about the fact that many bogas are now in hiding. Especially since the king began to get involved in March of 2018, putting a curse on human traffickers and forcing traditional priests to revoke the juju oaths of women in Italy.
People smuggler, parent, victim of human trafficking – in Benin City, one person can fit into all of these boxes at once.
The question is: who is profiting from this crackdown and the trafficking networks going underground? Experience in other countries, such as Niger, shows that harsh measures do not result in less migration – rather, they lead to higher prices for migrants, greater profits for smugglers, more dangerous routes, and stronger ties to organised crime. And, potentially, to greater instability.
“The main thing is that we must offer alternatives for earning money,” Abieyuwa says. The governor intends to build factories with international money – for example, for processing cassava and palm oil – to create jobs.
Such long-term development initiatives cannot, however, count on much confidence from the local population. The people of Benin City have seen governors come and go, seeing little change in their daily lives. A local NGO staffer says: “As long as our system does not work, it does not matter how much development money the EU gives our government. That money does not get to us. But the money of migrants goes directly to those who need it. Migration is the only way to survive here.”
This dilemma is what you see if you keep turning the prism of Benin City. An illegal system that also benefits many. A dehumanising system that is also a lifeline.
You can’t simply stop people migrating
In the EU, we like to think about migration in terms of neat little boxes. A person is either trafficked or smuggled (and the former has more right to a residence permit). A person is either a victim or a perpetrator (and the latter must be “broken”).
But in Benin City, those dividing lines are not firm. They’re fluid. It all depends on the angle of the prism. A Nigerian man who hires a smuggler can suddenly become a victim of trafficking in Libya. Women sometimes start out as victims and, once in Europe, become traffickers themselves.
People smuggler, parent, victim of human trafficking – in Benin City, one person can fit into all of these boxes at once.
And when Europe uses this narrow understanding of migration to inform policy, the industry gets more brutal. In recent years, it has become just about impossible for trafficked women to pay off their debts because the costs of their journey are now so high. But if they recruit five other women, they can reduce their debt by half.
Sister Bibiana sees the effects. During our conversation, she keeps fiddling with a Post-it. There’s a phone number scrawled on it. All of a sudden, she says: “I know a girl who has returned from Libya. She has gone mad; she is in a psychiatric hospital. She didn’t make it to Italy, but the people who paid for her journey are still demanding that she pay off her debt! I have never heard of that before. How can she possibly pay? Yesterday they beat her up. This is the number of the madame. I have to call her ... ”
Naturally, taking a tougher line on migration requires more involvement from the authorities, more assistance for victims, and that the issue be put higher on the political agenda. But even Nwoha, who fights human trafficking with his NGO, knows that in Benin City every attempt to stop migration amounts to nothing. “This migration, even though it is human trafficking, lifts so many people out of poverty. You can’t simply end it.”
This article was first published in Dutch on De Correspondent. It was translated by Diane Schaap.