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Becky is dead

Becky’s life represents the world in microcosm. She isn’t the first of the migrants I’ve worked with to have died and will unlikely be the last. Becky was 28 years old.

Thousands start afresh in Niger. Photo Unit//flickr.cc(by-nc-nd)

Rest in Peace, Becky. You will always be in my heart”, it said on a Facebook page a couple of months ago. I often receive Facebook messages and posts, text messages and calls from the female migrants I have interviewed during my research as an anthropologist on migration and trafficking from Nigeria and Thailand to Europe.

Everything from travel plans, questions about the best routes to Europe, selfies with kissy faces and sunglasses, photos of new-born babies, food pictures, to quick messages on whether they can borrow money from me.

Death notices come up from time to time. A brother is dead in the Sahara desert on the way to Europe, a Thai woman was stabbed by a client in a brothel in Denmark, another one killed in a traffic accident in Thailand. A friend of Becky wrote the notice about Becky’s death.

I hadn’t heard from her in a few months. It wasn’t unusual. She had earlier lost her telephone to armed robbers, had countless new numbers, no money for internet, or had been in her village or the Sahara without coverage.

Last time we spoke Becky was about to cross the border from Nigeria to Niger. This was her third attempt to reach Italy through Niger and Libya. I had been waiting to hear from her. Then came this sad R.I.P. I asked her Facebook friend what had happened. I thought she might have died on the way to Europe – in the desert or the sea. But that’s not how she died.

Europe is real

I knew Becky for five years. She died aged 28. The first time I met her, she was laughing when she entered a small hot living room with red painted walls in a house on the outskirts of Benin City, Southern Nigeria. A city from which most of the Nigerian women who sell sex on the streets of Europe begin their journey.

In the living room I was interviewing Faith and her mother. Faith had just been deported from Italy after selling sex on the street for six years. She knew more women who had been deported from Europe and women who, like Becky, dreamed of going there.

After the first meeting with Becky, she and I spent a lot of time together. Becky was a driven zipped lip girl – a woman who, as Becky explained it, doesn’t say anything about anything to anyone, because that is the best way to protect yourself in Nigeria. But she did want to tell, vividly and with rich detail, about her life and her travels towards Europe to a harmless anthropologist.

We ended up making the documentary film Becky’s Journey with a small Nigerian film crew. Because Becky had a dream of becoming someone – to be famous – a dream of being seen and heard. She was fearless and sensitive. She had many and conflicting reasons for dreaming of Europe. Poverty was just one of them. One day Becky emptied the fridge for the chocolate I brought from Denmark for late field note writings. “Yes – I ate it all”, she admitted bluntly. “I love your chocolate. It’s real. Everything in Nigeria is fake. I love the shoes my aunt in Italy sent me too. They are real. That’s why I love Europe. Europe is real”.

Women’s migration from Nigeria

Becky travelled from Edo State in the Southern Nigeria. The number of asylum-seeking Nigerians who arrive in Europe has tripled in the last eight years, and even though the chances of being granted asylum are minimal for Nigerians, the numbers continue to rise.

What is unusual compared to other groups of migrants and refugees is that much more than 50 percent of the Nigerian migrants are women. The Edo State in Nigeria is thus one among a few places primarily in the Global South, from where women in particular travel to the Global North for marriage, the sex industry or to become involved in trafficking. From here women most often travel through so-called ’intimate migrations’ – that is, the migration is linked to contact with a man or men,  sex clients or husbands.

The flows of intimate migrations are growing rapidly on a global scale. The research project I am responsible for, Women, Sex and Borders – Seeing Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking from the Global South, looks at this phenomenon through fieldwork in two sites – Edo state in Nigeria and Isaan in the North-eastern Thailand. In these areas, female migration is an everyday condition, a strategy, and an emotional state. Children miss their mothers abroad, old parents are dependent on the money being sent home, and everyone knows someone with a daughter in Europe.

Here, information on new migration laws are received over the phone from the people who already left, read on Facebook or heard through village gossip. In these areas, both families and development depend on the money migrants send. But things are getting harder, as migration control is blocking the usual routes to Europe. Becky is not the first migrant I have worked with, who has died as a result – direct or indirect – of migration and/or border control.

As long as the man pays

Becky didn’t want to go to Europe just because she was poor or wanted ‘real’ goods. She also wanted to be free. She wanted to free herself from her family’s and Nigeria’s shackles. Before she attempted to get to Europe the first time she converted from Islam to Christianity. She was raised in a Muslim family in the inland state of Adamawa, where Boko Haram are now raging. But “Muslim women don’t travel to Europe and do what I want to do”, Becky explained. So she travelled to Southern Nigeria and became a Christian. She wanted to decide for herself whom to date; her family didn’t want to meet her non-Muslim boyfriends. But as she explained, “I want to live like a white woman – I want to decide for myself’.

The first time she tried to reach Europe she used the money that her father had given for school to pay for her counterfeit travel documents. But she was stopped at the airport. Nigerian border control officers are trained by European police officers to detect counterfeit documents and in particular to prevent women who are under suspicion of travelling via a trafficking network. The women are stopped before they get on the plane – and this causes great frustration, costing them a ticket and the chance to reach Europe. They are often placed in counter-trafficking centres in Nigeria, paid for by donations from European countries, in an attempt to make them give up their dream of Europe.

This didn’t stop Becky – for her it meant that she couldn’t get on a plane, but had to choose a longer and even more dangerous and expensive journey through the Sahara desert. Becky knew that she was going to sell sex to make money if she came to Europe. “If you don’t want to sell sex, then stay away from Europe”. She knew someone who sold sex in Italy, and this woman told her: “We make love anywhere – as long as there is a man who will pay for it”.

If you don’t want to sell sex, then stay away from Europe

Becky believed that migration and selling sex was the best option she had to improve her life. “The people I have met, who have sold sex, they have looked beautiful when they came back to Nigeria”. Thus, in 2011 she began her second attempt at migration. A female ‘madam’, who was already in Italy, now paid for the travel costs.

With 36 other migrants she travelled through the Sahara desert to Libya. From Libya they would cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. After 10 days in the desert there was no more food and water. A young man, sitting right next to Becky on the back of the truck, died.

When they finally arrived in Libya, the civil war broke loose, and it was no longer possible to cross the sea. After hiding in Libya for two months she had to go back to Nigeria. On the way back her friend died.

The friend was nine months pregnant with a Libyan man’s baby, a sex client she had met while they were waiting to cross the ocean. She went in labour in the desert, but the placenta was stuck. A fellow travelling woman told them that the placenta could be pushed out, if the woman giving birth bit hard in a spoon. The little group of women and men stood by helplessly and watched as she died.

Now Becky had a dead friend and a new-born baby in her arms. She delivered the baby to its grandmother in Benin City with a message that her daughter would call soon. Since then the film about Becky did well and sometimes it was possible to get money from screenings around the world. We sent the money to Becky. But the small amount of money and two failed attempts did not make her give up her dream of Europe, and towards the end of 2015 she tried again.

Women as smugglers

Becky’s third attempt was also through the desert. Before that she asked me if I knew whether boats were still arriving in Italy from Libya. “Yes, they do”, I said. “But Becky, it’s very dangerous. Don’t travel that way. Have you heard about all the boats that sink in the Mediterranean?”

If I die, I don’t care. If I get the opportunity to cross the sea, I will do it.

“Yes, of course I know”, Becky replied, “I watch everyday on CNN. But I’m not afraid. If I die, I don’t care. If I get the opportunity to cross the sea, I will do it. I won’t stop before I reach Italy. I’ll do it for me and my family. But I hope that my madam can take me on a plane to Italy”. Becky’s madam wanted €60,000 to get Becky to Italy by sea. But then something happened – Becky negotiated the amount down to €30,000. In return, she would travel around Edo state and find five other women to bring along. Becky became an agent and a smuggler herself.

Typically, the images we see of trafficking or smuggling are dominated by tragedy, exploitation and death – and all are perpetuated by men. We see images of the trafficker – a man in handcuffs – and what arises are thoughts of the criminal, deviant man from the Global South.

Women, on the other hand, are portrayed as victims who are transported passively, and – as I have earlier written – often drown. But women are not just passive in this process. They may not be the captains of any ship, but research shows that women also take part in this and other parts of the ‘migration industry’. Women recruit, negotiate prices, instalment plans, collect wire transfers, clean the temporary housing where migrants sleep before they can be smuggled, cook the food, and some are drivers.

Research on human trafficking and smuggling shows that there are three typical ways into the world of smuggling: 1) via social networks or “the entrepreneurship of coincidence”; 2) the person seeks out or is at the place where the demand for smuggling exists; 3) the smuggling act is part of the woman’s own migratory journey – as it was for Becky.

One of the last photos she sent me was a selfie of her with four other woman – all of them all dressed up with make-up. These were the women who were going with her to Europe, and they were drinking beer at a bar on plastic chairs in Benin City to celebrate that they would begin their journey to Europe the next day. A farewell party.

Becky against the world

Becky’s life is a portrait of political and economic reality. A kind of microcosm of the world situation. Her life provides important insights into the many conditions that determine the routes of migrants, of small, lived and dreaming human life that is complicated and made impossible by conditions that are out of control.

Becky’s trajectories were entangled with everything from Islam (which she converted from); Boko Haram (who up until now have killed six of her family members); the fall of Gaddafi in Libya (which thwarted her second attempt to reach Europe); the EU’s migration controls (which forced her to indebt herself to get to Italy); and corruption in Nigeria (a rich country where wealth is not distributed fairly).

Becky asked me: “What do I say Sine when I get to Italy, if the police take me? Do I say that I’m a victim of trafficking or that I escaped Boko Haram?” The line between migrant and refugee is not always clear. Many are both at the same time.

Her third attempt to reach Europe did not succeed – she had to turn around, and was stopped in Niger. On the way back she got pregnant. The baby died in her womb, and she died, because the doctor’s attempts to get the baby out in a worn down clinic failed. Becky died of something as common as pregnancy. Just like her friend in the desert.

About the author

Dr. Sine Plambech is a post-doc anthropologist at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and a former research fellow at Columbia University in New York. Her research interests include Nigerian sex workers in Europe and their deportation, as well as the sex work and marriage migration of Thai women. She combines her academic work with directing documentaries, most recently Becky’s Journey. This has so far resulted in four award winning documentaries on the topics of international migration, sex work and human trafficking. Follow her on Twitter @sineplambech.


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