How much is a human worth? With just $2,000, an underage girl is sold as a slave in Egypt where human traffickers are making fortunes smuggling women for forced cheap labour and domestic servitude. Wale Ajetunmobi reports the travails of Nigerian girls trapped in slavery in Egypt.
About 200 metres from the cenotaph that welcomes visitors to Nasr City, a lively suburb in Cairo governorate, Egypt, a row of constricted streets laden with grocery stores and boutiques shoulder one another.
The narrow but untarred streets open into El Ashiru, a slummy neighbourhood, which offers shelter to foreigners from different countries.
A great number of Egyptians, who are artisans and food vendors, live in the neighbourhood. El Ashiru is also home to a sizeable number of undocumented immigrants, mostly Nigerians, Ethiopians, Somalis, Senegalese, Kenyans and Sudanese.
Being the commercial hub of Nasr City, El Ashiru booms with activity. Traders move around, pushing their wares for sale. But not every item in this shanty market is material commodity.
Human beings are also offered for sale in the market, and they are sold as domestic slaves to wealthy Arabs. Underage girls trafficked from West Africa and war-torn countries, such as Somalia and Sudan, are part of the commodities being traded in El Ashiru, but the slave trade is done in the most discreet manner.
No one, except members of the trafficking rings and their contractors, understands the forces of demand and supply in this human trafficking market. Findings showed that traffickers sell victims in groups to a set of suppliers who enslave them for years.
Depending on the cost of bringing the victims to Egypt, the price placed on each trafficked girl in El Ashiru could be up to $3,000. A supplier could buy three girls or more in a single trade, and enslave all of them to make an annual return of $5,000 per slave.
Posing as a dealer, this reporter visited the El Ashiru slave market. Having contracted the services of a repentant human trafficker, entry into the market was seamless. The repentant smuggler introduced him to dealers in the market.
Thus at his entrance into the market, the reporter was pulled to a street corner by a couple, whose major business in Cairo is trading off trafficked girls. After a brief haggling on price, a deal was struck and the reporter offered to buy two girls for $5,000. One of the girls, apparently underage, was produced on the spot.
The transaction, however, failed because the reporter couldn’t produce the cash to seal it with the couple.
The engagement took a dangerous turn when the traffickers suspected the reporter could be an undercover agent for security agencies. He was only allowed to go in peace after the couple placed a call to the ex-trafficker who facilitated the meeting.
Further investigations revealed that beyond El Ashiru, undocumented girls trafficked from West Africa are sold as slaves in other districts, including El-Sallab and Taba. Despite regular raids of the slums by the police, traffickers make profitable business buying and selling helpless girls into slavery.
Ayisat Oyekunle, 50, experienced an unimaginable torment for three years. This was after she succumbed to the lure of a human trafficker, who deceived her and her 15-year-old daughter, Modinat Oyekunle, with promises of riches and profitable labour in Egypt.
Mrs Oyekunle, a barely literate widow and petty trader, was deceived by one Alhaja Gold, a trafficker who had no known physical address in Nigeria. Alhaja Gold visited Mrs Oyekunle at her Ibadan home and regaled her with stories about how she could earn quick cash and escape the dragnet of poverty, simply by releasing her daughter, Modinat, to be taken abroad for a job.
After the demise of her husband, Mufutau, a truck driver, eight years ago, life had been tough for her and her three children. To survive, she and her children are forced to live off meagre proceeds from her petty trade and handouts from neighbours and family members.
Even though she narrated her ordeal to Alhaja Gold, it struck no chord of sympathy in the human trafficker. While she sought empathy from Alhaja Gold, the latter schemed to exploit her. To convince Mrs Oyekunle to release her daughter, Alhaja Gold told her lofty stories of good fortune to be made only if the young girl followed her abroad to work.
Thus Miss Oyekunle, the widow’s 15-year-old daughter, was withdrawn from school and smuggled to Egypt to do menial work. As a minor, her consent was not sought; she was handed over to Alhaja Gold who subsequently took her on a trip that she would later regret.
The promise of a better life for her family ostensibly beclouded her mother’s wisdom, preventing her from further probing into the journey on which she was enlisting her second child.
In the second week of March, 2016, she was smuggled to Egypt through a tourist visa obtained on a passport with false identity. On her arrival in Egypt with Alhaja Gold, the trafficker seized the travel documents she used for her trip and drafted the young girl into Chagala – an offensive term used by Egyptians to describe domestic workers and jobs reserved for migrants.
Two years after Miss Oyekunle was conscripted into Chagala, her mother regretted handing her out and leaving her in care of Alhaja Gold. She became worried that the fortune promised by the smuggler did not materialise, neither did she hear from her daughter. At that point, when she reached out to Alhaja Gold to know what was going on, the smuggler explained to her, the hidden terms in the dishonest deal she struck with her.
The widow was told that her daughter would need to work for 36 months (three years) to pay back the money spent in smuggling her to Egypt. Afterwards, Alhaja Gold said she would be free from her custody and allowed to make money for the family.
At that point, it was too late for the bewildered widow to revoke the contract she signed with the trafficker. She was stuck between two dicey options: she either loses contact with her daughter forever or allow her complete the terms of the deal.
Mrs Oyekunle patiently waited for the three years to elapse, with the hope that she would start enjoying returns from her child’s labour abroad. But she was in for a rude shock. The widow was broken to the marrow when her daughter was brought back to her empty-handed, after three years.
Modinat Oyekunle, now 19-years-old, was deported four years after she was trafficked to Egypt to work as a housekeeper for two Arabian masters. Although, the Egyptian authorities deported the young lady after being accused of theft, the unplanned journey back to Nigeria was deliberately plotted and contrived by Alhaja Gold, who reportedly exploited the girl’s youthful energy for financial gain.
Smuggled by ‘family members’ at 16
Under the Egyptian law, child labour is prohibited but the knowledge of the law did not stop Mr and Mrs Tijanni from smuggling Olaide Mustapha into the country at 16 and enslaving her for profit. Now 20, the native of Iwo in Osun State, said she was tricked into slavery by her mother.
Ms Mustapha was smuggled out of Nigeria as a teenager, on the pretext that she was going to complete her studies in Cairo. Her mother said she would stay with the Tijannis who were described as family members.
Unknown to the teenager, her mother had sealed a five-year contract at N80,000 monthly with the traffickers on the agreement that Ms Mustapha would live with them and work in Egypt within the agreed period.
Thus when she was taken to Egypt in 2014, she bore the family name of her traffickers, the Tijannis, on her international passport and other supporting travel documents. This was to facilitate easy passage at the Egyptian entry point.
But contrary to the agreement with her mother, the couple enlisted her as a domestic maid to a wealthy Arab family, living in an upscale district in New Cairo city.
“If I knew I was coming here to work as a slave, I wouldn’t have agreed to travel with the couple. But it didn’t occur to me that I would be in this situation, because I was made to believe that the people who brought me here were my family members,” she told the reporter in Cairo, few weeks ago.
She still works as a domestic servant and only enjoys the rare privilege of going out of her master’s house on errands. In the last three years, she said she enjoyed the semblance of a break when her master and his family go on holiday overseas; when they are around, she barely has time to rest. While looking after the family’s babies, she is also required to cook, wash utensils, mow the lawn and keep the house tidy.
When it dawned on her that she was a victim of human trafficking and exploitation, there was nothing she could do about it. Realising that she was helpless, the teenager made no attempt to escape from her master’s house. “I initially nurtured the plan to run away but I realised that the travel documents I used are still with Alhaji (Tijanni) and his wife. Even if I run away, I don’t know where I would run to, since I have no family member in this place. The pain I face in this place is too much, but I’m only enduring the pain because of my mother who begs me every time to be patient,” she said.
She stressed that her mother’s frequent plea to her that she endure the pain for the period of her contract, makes it difficult for her to attempt breaking free of her bond or absconding from servitude.
From Modinat Oyekunle’s fruitless journey to Egypt and Olaide Mustapha’s horrifying ordeal at the moment, a lucid picture manifests, and illustrates how underage girls from impoverished Nigerian families are economically exploited and physically abused by a network of human traffickers, who offer to take them to Egypt in search of greener pasture. Ultimately, they end up as helpless victims of Chagala.
The abusive work called Chagala
Chagala is a classic narrative of impoverished young African girls entangled in a web of slave trade, physical abuse, economic exploitation, ritual killing and sexual slavery in Egypt. The desire for economic survival pushes victims into the circle of human traffickers, who lure them with tales of fortune to be made abroad only to exploit them for financial gain on arrival in Egypt.
Consequently, the victim always loses while the traffickers smile to the banks. Oftentimes, most of the victims are rendered useless, even after they regain their freedom.
Egypt has its peculiar geography. Because of its location on the North Africa sub-continent, majority of Egypt’s landscape is desert. Wind blowing across the desert amasses sand dunes that could peak at more than 100 feet high.
Consequently, dust regularly blows from surrounding deserts to towns and districts, thus necessitating domestic cleaning services in most homes. The service is widely demanded, especially in governorates bordering the Sahara desert.
To fulfill the demand, undocumented immigrants, mostly young girls, are recruited by wealthy and middle-class Egyptian families to keep their villas and apartments tidy and free of dust particles.
Most of the time, the cleaning services require residential cleaners who live in their masters’ houses to work. The cleaners are made to combine other domestic tasks, which usually include washing, cooking, babysitting and gardening, without additional payment. The cleaners earn a monthly stipend that ranges between $350 and $450 (EGP 5,000 and EGP 6,000), depending on the location where the services are rendered.
The bulk of this stipend goes to the traffickers that enlist the girls. The enslaved victims only hear about their earning. The earnings from their hard work are paid to their traffickers, who, in turn, give a fraction to the victims as hand-out for sustenance. This is barely sufficient for the victims to feed for one month.
According to some victims, their earnings are not commensurate with the services they render and the cost of living in Egypt. The money is never sufficient for them to rent a decent apartment in the city.
Sometimes, the traffickers receive the victims’ stipends three to six months’ in advance from their Egyptian masters, while the victims are expected to work for the period without being paid.
On many occasions, ‘smart’ Egyptians take advantage of the victims’ exploitation by their traffickers to violate the contract signed by deliberately withholding payment of the salary. In such situation, the traffickers and their victims run at a loss.
When this happens, the traffickers and their victims have no legal rights under Egypt’s laws to make complaints against any Egyptian who breaches the informal contract of services rendered by immigrants.
Domestic workers are excluded from Egypt’s labour law, which means they have no social, health or legal protection from the government.
Randy Egyptian masters also take advantage of the situation to physically and sexually abuse the victims. Even after they are abused, victims are wrongly accused of theft to facilitate their arrest and eventual deportation from Egypt.
In extreme cases, the victims are murdered by their Egyptian masters for no just cause, claimed Mojirola Taiwo, a former victim and returnee.
Some other victims disappear under mysterious circumstances without trace. Despite these calamities, more underage girls and their families fall prey to human traffickers and their collaborators in Egypt.
We have no hand in smugglers’ business – Nigeria Immigration
The Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) bsolved itself and officers of culpability in the smuggling of Nigerian girls to Egypt. Rather than abet human traffickers to push their nefarious trade, NIS said it had strengthened the capacity of its officers to work in partnership with relevant agencies to stop human trafficking in all the nation’s borders.
Its Public Relations Officer, Sunday James, said the NIS was not aware of the smugglers’ activities at the airport. He said the service apprehended a group of smugglers at Seme – Nigeria’s border with Republic of Benin. The suspects, he said, were handed over to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) for prosecution.
Mr James said NIS has stringent disciplinary measures for erring officers who aid traffickers to smuggle human beings, noting that the service had upheld professionalism in the management of the nation’s border.
Asked if NIS was aware of Nigerian girls being enslaved and sold in Egypt? He said: “We are not aware of any such activity. But, as far as we are concerned and to our knowledge, we have our officers stationed at all entry and exit point in Nigeria to intercept suspected smugglers and their victims.
“This has been a routine and whenever we suspect any person, whether at the airport, seaport or land borders, we intercept and interrogate them. If they are found wanting or maybe it is confirmed to be a trafficking issue or they are smuggling people, we stop them immediately. That we have been doing for many times.”
Reacting to allegation of culpability of NIS officers at the airport, Mr James said: “Which of the airports? You are supposed to go to our airports; there are comptrollers there. Go there and meet the comptrollers to ask questions. Your story will not be complete without you going to airports.
“We don’t support smugglers to carry out their business. The NIS Comptroller-General regularly sounds a note of warning to officers who may want to compromise professionalism and aid in the trafficking of persons. We have strict penalties for erring officers. We are not interested in issue of Nigerians who probably travel out of the country on their own and they end up being exploited.
“We are interested in preventing smugglers from taking victims out of the country through our borders. We advise anyone travelling out of the country to go through the right process and carry the right documents. Immigration Act frowns at trafficking in persons.”
We’re working to stop the perpetrators – NAPTIP D-G
The Director-General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Dame Julie Okah-Donli, confirmed that the agency was aware of the situation in Egypt. She said NAPTIP is working with Egyptian officials and travel agencies to stop the smugglers.
Excerpts of the interview…
Smugglers seem to have stepped up the tricks they employ in pushing their human trafficking business. Is NAPTIP aware that underage Nigerian girls are being sold and enslaved in Egypt?
Certainly. NAPTIP is aware of the tricks and tactics employed by smugglers who traffic Nigerian girls to Egypt. The agency has intensified its awareness programme and sensitisation in this direction. The programme is mainly targeted at the rural communities where it is observed that these victims are being recruited from. The awareness programme takes the form of sensitisation in schools, markets, motor parks, town hall meetings and advocacy visits to stakeholders in some of the identified vulnerable communities.
The agency has also held series of dialogues with travel and tour operators in Nigeria believed to be facilitating the trafficking of these girls to Egypt and other countries for the purpose of sexual and labour exploitation. We have paid visits to the Egyptian ambassador on the need for joint collaboration to address the issue.
Investigations established that some airport officials aid and abet human traffickers to smuggle underage girls to Egypt for domestic work. Are there measures being taken by NAPTIP to expose and stop this official conspiracy?
NAPTIP officials are only permitted at the Lagos and Kano airports. So, it is very difficult for the agency to confirm any level of compromise on the part of other airport officials. However, as part of our inter–agency collaboration, NAPTIP has stepped up synergy with other sister law enforcement agencies currently operating at the airports so as to enhance their effectiveness.
Have there been efforts made by NAPTIP to reach out to repatriated victims in order to prevent more girls from falling for the traffickers’ tricks and also to curb the activities of the smugglers?
We have a comprehensive rehabilitation programme that ensures that victims of human trafficking are adequately rehabilitated. Aside the usual empowerment, the agency has a procedure of monitoring the victims with a view to ensuring that they are not re-trafficked.
Those that have been trained and empowered are being closely monitored by our team of counsellors in collaboration with other stakeholders in line with the content of the National Referral Mechanisms (NRM), while the agency maintains constant communication and interaction with victims who are yet to be fully empowered.
Will NAPTIP make efforts to engage Egyptian officials about these problems?
As part of the strategic moves to address the issue of trafficking of Nigerians to Egypt, I personally paid an advocacy visit to the Egyptian Embassy in Abuja and I was received by the ambassador.
The visit was part of the agency’s strategic interface with stakeholders in the fight against human trafficking. It was aimed at addressing the root causes of irregular migration and trafficking of persons across Nigeria and Egypt and proffer solution to stop the phenomenon.
Given the intelligence at our disposal, I told the Egyptian officials that a greater percentage of victims of human trafficking to Egypt are used for labour exploitation in form of domestic servitude and stressed the need to straighten the channel of communication between Egypt and NAPTIP in order to prevent irregular migration and trafficking of Nigerians to their country.
We emphasised the need for both parties to monitor the activities of some self-styled labour recruiters as well as tour operators whose activities are questionable in this regard.
EDITOR”S NOTE: Names of the victims have been changed to protect them. This investigation was conducted with funding support from the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who provided permission to publish the report).