Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Violence in the safety of home: life in Nigeria after selling sex in Europe

Many women find themselves returning to situations of everyday violence after being ‘saved’ from selling sex in Europe. Why are some types of suffering seen as more legitimate than others?

Sine Plambech
12 August 2015


Sigi for The Advocacy Project/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Identifying and separating ‘victims of trafficking’ from ‘criminals’—the undocumented migrants considered guilty of violating immigration laws—is a complex daily practice in anti-trafficking work. Who is worthy of assistance and who is not? What are the continuing effects of these designations on women after they are deported for selling sex in Europe?

Crossing from Nigeria to Europe is expensive, in large part because increasingly strict border controls have forced more and more migrants to employ smugglers to secure their passage. The price for this service ranged, according to the Nigerian migrant women with whom I work, from €40,000 to €60,000 in June 2015. The route takes a prospective migrant through the Sahara desert to Libya before transporting her across the Mediterranean to Italy. While the women trying their luck in Europe may not know all of the conditions and hazards of their job upon arrival, most know that they will work for two to three hard years under a ‘madam’ to repay their debt.

I refer to the movement characterised by this debt—seen by the women as part of a joint migration arrangement between them, their families, and their ‘sponsors’—as indentured sex work migration. The women who undertake it are vulnerable to violence and severe exploitation, and share common experiences of living undocumented in Europe and doing sex work to repay this debt. Despite these commonalities, those who are discovered may have remarkably divergent fates: some are deported as undocumented immigrants, while others are identified as ‘victims of trafficking’ and returned to Nigeria through the so-called assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme (AVRR). The former are given nothing, while the latter receive a small amount of money and psycho-social assistance to ‘re-integrate’ themselves into Nigeria.

It is difficult to decipher from their narratives why some women were designated ‘victims’ while others ended up ‘criminals’. Their experiences in Europe were remarkably similar. Instead, what becomes apparent when listening to their stories is that their labels have been shaped by arbitrary encounters and chance, and the unsystematic consequences of meeting a particular immigration official or social worker who might or might not take an interest in their case.

The case of ‘Grace’

Grace is a Nigerian woman who spent six years selling sex on the streets of Italian cities before she was identified as a ‘victim of trafficking’ by the Italian authorities. She felt forced to accept the AVRR because she had no other options. I met Grace seven months after her return from Italy at a food stall she had opened on the edge of Benin City, Nigeria. Her customers were truck drivers and local sex workers, and the business was doing well. She recounted to me that, two months after her return, armed men came to her stall and stole the cooking pots, the food, and most of her money. Her motivation for accepting the AVRR in Italy—the financial assistance—was lost in the robbery and the local NGO could not obtain any more funds from the Italian donors.

A common argument against repatriation is that traffickers might lie in wait for women at the airports to claim unpaid debts. That is not what happened to Grace. Instead, she entered into a situation of increased vulnerability in Nigeria because while she could not afford a secure lifestyle, she was imagined to have returned with assets from Europe. Grace, like many other women who have been ‘returned’, live and work on the outskirts where rents are lower. These are dangerous areas with few paved roads and even less streetlights, and many women cannot even afford lockable doors. Yet she had been given money to open a stall, and this made her a target. In other words, while Grace was vulnerable to deportation in Europe, she became vulnerable in Benin City because of deportation.

What happened to Grace is emblematic of the dangers faced by ‘returned’ Nigerian sex workers. As the experiences of these women make clear, violence, vulnerability and victimhood are not exclusively connected to sex work and migration abroad but are part of everyday life ‘at home’ in Benin City. They are regular and expected occurrences that transpired outside the state of indenture. This truth too often remains hidden because the focus on the perceived violence of trafficking “renders other forms of violence invisible or normal”, in the words of Baye and Heumann, and excludes both ‘victims’ and ‘criminals’ from protection. Moreover, this focus obscures the violence perpetrated by actors other than the individuals who facilitated or caused their migration. Thus, when I asked the women to compare Europe to Nigeria, many told me that it was safer to sell sex on the streets of Rome or Hamburg than to run a food stall in Benin City, even though many experienced intense violence in Europe as well.

The danger of the victim/criminal dichotomy

The concept of ‘home’ represents a key juxtaposition for the two groups of women in the politics of migration governance. The ‘criminals’ are perceived as having left their homes and violated immigration law in order to obtain upward-social mobility in Europe, whereas the ‘victims’ are thought to want to return home after an involuntary migration journey. Only for ‘victims’ is home considered a moral space of safety. For ‘criminals’, returning home is not presumed to mean safety but rather punitive downward economic mobility.

Women, in order to ‘rescue’ them from trafficking, are regularly removed from violent or vulnerable situations in Europe only to be put into violent situations back home in Nigeria. This kind of thinking results from a hierarchical structure of sexualised violence, in which the presumed violence of selling sex is somehow imagined to be worse than the everyday violence experienced prior, during, and after migration. The everyday violence and vulnerability of Benin City does not grant women any additional rights to protection—in contrast to ‘trafficking’—because everyday violence is, apparently, not a morally legitimate way of suffering.

It is evident that the current ‘exceptionalist’ approach to trafficking does not account for the continuum of violence and struggles experienced by both victimised and criminalised women. The social reality of Benin City does not distinguish among migrants or provide a protective space for selected groups. In other words, the distinction between ‘victims’ and ‘criminals’ dissolves upon return to Nigeria. In this process, conflicting meanings of home and hierarchies of sexualised violence emerge as critical for understanding the logic—and therefore the failures—of would-be humanitarian migration management within the field of anti-trafficking.

This is a shortened version of the article “Between “Victims” and “Criminals”: Rescue, Deportation, and Everyday Violence Among Nigerian Migrants” published by Social Politics in the Special Issue: ‘Sexual Economies and New Regimes of Governance’, Guest Edited by Elizabeth Bernstein.

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