At 23 years old this young Nigerian woman, let’s call her Tess, is feisty and full of rage. She is being held against her will, with nothing to do but wait until she is free. She wants to return to her family in Edo State, attend church in the morning, and continue her work as a hair dresser. Yet she is free- she was rescued less than a month ago from the Netherlands as a trafficking victim.
With fake documents and posing as the daughter of a “Madam” (an older woman that trafficks and/or act as a keeper of victims), Tess boarded a KLM flight with several others to fly through the Netherlands and finally to Italy. Tess was to meet her uncle in Italy and was hopeful that work there would provide her with adequate means to send money to her brothers and sisters back in Edo State to support them.
Tess may or may not have been aware that her work in Italy would be in prostitution, but most likely she was aware. What Tess probably was not aware of, though, was that her work may have been lucrative, but not for her. She would not probably be expected to pay the usual $30,000-$50,000 US dollars to her Madam for “helping” Tess find work. She would most likely have been exploited, abused, forced into unsafe living conditions, and perhaps even killed, as 116 dead Nigerian prostitutes were reported murdered in Italy in 2004, according to NAPTIP (the Nigerian government agency mandated to protect trafficking victims).
For better or worse, Tess never made it to Italy. She was intercepted in the Netherlands and kept in a detention center for a month before being deported back to Nigeria, held in prison for four days, and finally released to NAPTIP. She is an angry but spirited young woman. For a moment the tear in her eye goes unnoticed as she speaks forcefully that she does not want to be here. She wanted to go to Italy to help her family and now she will never do that. She accepts that but wants to return home so she can continue her work as a hair dresser and at least make a life of her own.
Listening to Tess makes me question what it means to be a victim and what it means to be a criminal. She is defined as a trafficking victim, although treated as a criminal through deportation procedures. She would define herself as a trafficking victim, but rather a victim of having her plans of working in Italy foiled and now held against her will at a rehabilitation center when she wishes to return home. She is outraged and determined. I do not know if Tess will ever recognize her precarious position she was put in on her way to Italy, or if she will ever consider herself a victim of human trafficking or be thankful for being “rescued.” When does smuggling become trafficking and how do our institutions cope appropriately with such people that walk that fine line?
Posted By Jessica Sewall (Nigeria)
Posted Jul 12th, 2006