The dream of finding a “normal” job in Spain: the story of Naomi, a survivor of trafficking in women

“Oh, Lord Father, may your name rise above all names and may it be glorified, because you deserve to be praised.” Sitting on the gray sofa in the living room of her apartment, the woman prays in English, in a low voice. Behind her, a large screen shows a man on top of a stage, surrounded by disco lights: he is young, wears traditional Nigerian clothing, and moves nonstop from left to right. He also prays, in a language that the woman does not understand but that she defines as “that of the people who have the blessing of the Bible.”

The 46-year-old woman, who prefers to identify herself as Naomi (not her real name), is from Edo State, in southern Nigeria, of the Ika language and ethnicity. She arrived in Spain in 1999 through an aunt of hers, already settled in the country, who for three years forced her to prostitute herself in Madrid and Valencia to pay an alleged debt of 22,000 euros for the trip. Spain is one of the main destinations for victims trafficking for the purpose of forced prostitution, according to United Nations, and also an important transit country. The UN estimates that globally there are more than 40 million people, mostly migrant women and girls, in a situation of trafficking. Forced prostitution is their main (but not only) purpose: others are forced labor or begging.

Like Naomi, most of the Nigerian women who work in forced prostitution in Spain come from the state of Edo: “In general in West Africa, but especially there, for a long time, women have moved to trade,” explains Kristin Kastner, ethnologist expert in mobility and migration. “Conditions there are very tough and there is a lot of pressure to be successful and make money.”

The UN estimates that globally there are more than 40 million people, mostly migrant women and girls, in a situation of trafficking

If Naomi was brought by an aunt, in other cases there are large criminal groups behind her. The main Nigerian criminal organization dedicated to trafficking is the Supreme Eiye Fellowship, originally a university brotherhood that later, in the context of instability and violence in the country, became dedicated to crime. Naomi says that, as soon as she arrived in Madrid, her aunt pointed out some compatriots who were prostituting themselves on an avenue and told her: “Thanks to that they have what they have in Nigeria.” “I was blank,” she remembers. “For me, money is not worth everything.” Gema Fernández, lawyer of the association Women’s Link Worldwide, points out: “Many of these women know that they are going to work in prostitution, but they do not know the conditions or the violence they are going to face; others, until they arrive here, do not know what they are coming for”. Until then, Naomi thought that in Spain she could find a “normal” job. In addition, “with the help of God”, she wanted to resume the studies abandoned during adolescence.

Many years later, on an afternoon in late August, with his eyes closed and his hands together, he follows a religious service on YouTube. She used to go to a church in the city where she lives, but not anymore. It bothered her to come across the men who bring the girls from Nigeria, and some madam either Mommy, as the women who collect the debt money are known – often themselves former victims of trafficking. “On top of that, most sit in the front, wearing the best dress, jewelry and shoes; when it’s time to dance they proudly display themselves, and when meals are arranged, they are served at will. Some try to run the church directly,” he says by video call. As he gestures, his long dreadlocks wave. “Sometimes the pastor says: ‘You do things that are not of God, that you have to remedy’ and everyone knows who he means. But the pastors who ask that they not do it, because it is not clean money, are very few and have fewer members in the church, or they lose them for it. That is why I now follow the Bible with my heart.”

Naomi (not her real name) covers her face with a bible.

The link between Pentecostal churches and trafficking

Pentecostal churches are part of the evangelical and were born in the United States in the early 1900s. In Nigeria (where half the population is Muslim) Pentecostals represent 63% of the 95 million existing Christians, according to The Database of Religious History. In Europe, the network Pentacostal European Fellowship meets 60 moves.

The possible link between some Pentecostal pastors or churches and trafficking is a subject that has not yet been investigated. In South Africa in 2017, Nigerian pastor Tim Omotoso was accused of trafficking, rape and fraud. He now awaits the ruling of the Supreme Court of Appeals. In Spain in 2016, in Torrevieja (Alicante), the National Police dismantled a network of which a Nigerian shepherd was part. In his church the passports of eight of the 12 victims were found.

“All meeting centers are places where debts can be recruited or paid,” says Lluís Moreno, chief sergeant of the Central Human Trafficking Unit of the Mossos d’Esquadra. “From intelligence information we know that, especially at the origin, the recruiters are often people who have credibility in the community and take advantage of it, but we do not have more information.” The 2016 event was an isolated event, according to the head of the Second Group of the Central Unit of Illegal Immigration Networks and False Documents of the National Police (UCRIF), which emphasizes that it cannot be concluded that the relationship between Pentecostal pastors and human traffickers is habitual.

Estefanía Acién González, a social anthropologist who is an expert in the reality of Nigerian women who work as prostitutes in Spain, warns of a possible risk when linking churches and tries: “When the idea is launched that they have something to do with it – just like when the deals with voodoo – the stereotype of women as not very rational, as if they were not capable of deciding what to do with their beliefs, is solidified; that places them in a place that makes their integration impossible”. In her opinion, one should first understand the importance of spirituality in Nigeria: “Spiritual needs are channeled into voodoo (wow) and in the Pentecostal Christian faith, and sometimes the two are mixed. This does not mean that the church is a key element in understanding trafficking, although there may be people who use it to have power over women”.

“The pastors in Nigeria are very rich and they show it openly. The narrative of making money is central, the media is secondary”

Kristin Kastner, ethnologist expert in mobility and migration

The ethnologist Kastner, an expert in mobility and migration, points out that before leaving Nigeria many women participate in rituals wow and in huge prayer camps at Pentecostal churches as a kind of travel insurance. He also believes that the Pentecostal pastors know perfectly well what is happening: “In ceremonies in Spain, they often say things like: “It is difficult for you in Europe, but if you work hard, you will achieve it. In this way they link being successful and being good Christians with the price that must be paid for it.” And he adds: “The pastors themselves in Nigeria are very rich and they show it openly. The narrative of making money is central, the media is secondary.”

Joan Toulupe, intercultural mediator for Nigerian women in Madrid, points to a change in the discourse of religious leaders: “Before it was normal for a woman to bring a girl to work and pay a debt. Now the shepherds say to the mommies that they no longer come to church if they do that.”

Kastner points out the difficulty of drawing boundaries in a community based on strong bonds: “You will always be the daughter of, or a member of; the interdependencies are many”. An element that Kastner does not mention but that perhaps influences the interdependencies is that, in the Pentecostal church, the payment of the tithe (a tenth of the earnings of the faithful) is obligatory. The Web Pentecostal Generation cites, among the reasons for paying: “If I don’t, I’d be robbing God.”

A drama for which everyone is responsible

Kastner is convinced that the Pentecostal church is one of the actors that takes advantage of the plight of migrants, but there are many others responsible: “First of all, the circumstances that lead people to migrate.”

The expert Acién affirms: “Focusing attention on the fact that everything horrible that happens to these women has to do with trafficking removes the responsibility from immigration policies that make it impossible to migrate legally, from inequalities between countries that force people to emigrate. and to a structure of the labor market that classifies people and expels some of them. It is all of this that promotes trafficking.” Marta González Manchón, Project Hope awareness coordinator, adds gender inequalities to the list. “Many of the women we work with are experiencing situations of exclusion and violence because they are women, poor and often racialized.”

During the three years she lived with her aunt and ‘madame’, stripped of her passport and isolated, Naomi prostituted herself under the threat of black magic.

During the three years she lived with her aunt, her madamStripped of her passport and isolated, Naomi prostituted herself under the threat that, if she did not pay off the debt, she would perform “black magic” with the panties, locks of hair and nails that she had previously given her. He wasn’t just afraid for her. “Many do not explain what they are experiencing so as not to put their families at risk,” says mediator Toulupe.

For Naomi, being a survivor of trafficking – a term she prefers to victim – was a very traumatic experience, but not the only one. In the late 1980s, due to political instability and corruption in Nigeria, her family went from one day to the next from wealth (her father was a banker) to homelessness. At just 15 years old, she was forced to take care of an older aunt and her grandchildren with the promise that one of her daughters would one day take her to Europe. The night in the forest, before crossing the Ceuta fence, is still one of her worst nightmares. There, as in every difficult moment, her only hope was to pray: “God, please, let me survive and I will praise you forever.”

They spent the years practicing on the street until, in the early 2000s, he began a romantic relationship with a client. He helped her finish paying off the debt and free herself from her aunt. Then, Naomi remembers, she started throwing it in his face and hitting him. When he left her, Naomi stayed, at age 35, with their daughters in common, then five and 10 years old, without papers and with a domestic worker’s salary of 600 euros to pay rent of 400 – shortly after she suffered an attempted eviction. Thanks to a teacher of her daughter, who discovered that they had been eating only bread with oil and ketchup for months, she managed to get the attention of social services and an NGO for food and temporary housing, where the three of them stayed for more than a year. . Working in the submerged economy and also thanks to help to pay the rent, little by little she was getting back on her feet.

Thanks to her willpower, that which her daughters give her, to occasional help from social services and NGOs and, in her opinion, to God’s, Naomi found a job in the formal economy. Today she is a member employed in a cooperative of ecological products, she has obtained the long-awaited identity document for foreigners and has returned to study. This year she has finished a medium degree of care for people in a situation of dependency. “Now I want to do social integration and work with survivors of trafficking, so that they become aware that they own their bodies. I want to be an example for them that, although it is not easy, there is a second chance”.

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The dream of finding a “normal” job in Spain: the story of Naomi, a survivor of trafficking in women