West African slavery lives on, 400 years after transatlantic trade began

A woman, who says she was a victim of sexual exploitation and calls herself Claudia Osadolor to protect her identity, works as a tailor after training with the support of Nigerian charity Pathfinders Justice Initiative in Benin City, Nigeria July 20, 2019. Picture taken July 20, 2019. REUTERS/Nneka Chile

By Angela Ukomadu and Nneka Chile

LAGOS (Reuters) – Blessing was only six years old when her mother arranged for her to become an unpaid housemaid for a family in the African Nigerian city of Abuja, on the promise they would put her through school.

In her home town in southwest Nigeria, her mother had trouble making enough money to feed her three children. But when Blessing arrived in Abuja, instead of going to school, the family worked her round-the-clock, beat her with an electrical wire if she forgot one of her chores and fed her rotten leftovers.

When her mother later moved to the city to be closer to her daughter, Blessing was unable to be alone with her when she came to visit.

“They would tell me that my mother was coming, that I should not tell her what was happening to me, that I should not even say anything,” she says of the family.

“If she asks me how am I doing I should say I am doing fine, they said.”

As the world marks 400 years since the first recorded African slaves arrived in North America, slavery remains a modern-day scourge. Over 40 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labor, forced marriages or other forms of sexual exploitation, according to the United Nations.

Blessing, now 11, is one such victim. She was rescued in 2016 by the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), an anti-human trafficking group, after two years of isolation and abuse. She is still under the care of WOTCLEF, which gave consent for her to be interviewed for this story.

Africa has the highest prevalence of slavery, with more than seven victims for every 1,000 people, according to a 2017 report by human rights group Walk Free Foundation and the International Labour Office. The report defines slavery as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.”

Trafficking of sex workers, many of them tricked into thinking they will get employment doing something else, is one of the most widespread and abusive forms of modern-day slavery.

The experiences of Claudia Osadolor and Progress Omovhie show how poverty increases women’s vulnerability to exploitation.

After Osadolor’s family in Benin City in southern Nigeria hit hard times, she dropped out of university and headed to Russia after a cousin told her about someone who could help her get work there, with travel expenses paid. She left Nigeria with three other girls she did not know in June 2012. When she got to Russia a “madam” came to pick her up.

Osadolor, now 28, says she was forced into prostitution and suffered internal injuries after being made to sleep with up to 20 men a day. She was trapped for three years, with the madam coming round every two weeks to take almost all of her money.

She cries as she recounts the trauma and her relief at escaping thanks to a chance meeting with a representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) at a metro station.

“I feel like I paid the ultimate price for my family,” she says. “But I thank God that I came back alive.”

Osadolor has been able to reintegrate into society after training as a tailor back in Benin with the support of Nigerian charity Pathfinders Justice Initiative.

Omovhie, 33, also found herself enslaved after leaving Nigeria in 2015 in search of work. She paid an agent 700,000 naira ($2,290) – money she had borrowed – to smuggle her on a journey across the Sahara desert to Libya, hoping eventually to go to Europe.

The intended final destination of people smuggled across Africa like this is often Europe, but few make it that far. Many are jailed or sold as indentured laborers when they get to Libya. Some are even sold on slave markets, according to aid groups – a chilling echo of the trans-Saharan slave trade of centuries past.

Once in Libya, Omovhie says she started working long hours as a cleaner for a well-off Arab family in Tripoli, often on an empty stomach.

“I worked three months and they did not pay me in that house,” she said.

Another agent promised to help Omovhie escape by sending her to Italy, but she was rounded up by police on the Libyan coast and detained there for six months. She returned to Nigeria in July under a state program to help refugees and migrants. It has helped over 14,000 Nigerians return home since 2017.

Blessing and Claudia Osadolor are pseudonyms requested to protect their anonymity.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Tim Cocks and Susan Fenton)

Determined to reach Europe, migrants defy Moroccan crackdown

African migrants stand in a hiding place in the mountains near Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Ahmed Eljechtimi and Ulf Laessing

TANGIER, Morocco (Reuters) – Senegalese migrant Ismail, 26, is back in the forests around the northern Moroccan port of Tangier, not long after being stopped there by authorities and bussed 872 kilometers south in an attempt to stop him reaching Europe.

But his desire to get to Spain is unrelenting, and so the cat-and-mouse game with authorities continues.

Last year Morocco became the main departure point for migrants to Europe, overtaking Libya where the coast guard has prevented more departures with help from the European Union.

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Morocco is only 14 kilometers south of the Spanish coast and shares land borders with the small Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on its northern coast, which are surrounded by a 6 meter-high fence topped with razor wire.

Under a new crackdown this year, authorities are sending undocumented migrants they pick up to southern towns, far from the land and sea borders with Spain. They are also clearing migrant camps in the forests and halting the sale of dinghies and inflatables.

According to official figures as of May, the country had stopped 30,000 people from illegally crossing to Spain this year and busted 60 migrant trafficking networks.

Authorities say the clampdown on traffickers, in particular, saw migrant arrivals from Morocco to Spain drop in the first six months of 2019 to 12,053 from 26,890 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Morocco is also about to complete a new 3 meter-high fence within its own territory around Ceuta to deter crossings, according to residents near the enclave.

“Authorities conduct surprise raids to comb the forests looking for us, therefore we have to sleep in a spot where we can anticipate their arrival and run before they catch us and send us south again,” said Ismail.

He and other migrants live from begging and wait for their chance to jump the fence surrounding Ceuta.

   ”We do not have 3000 euros ($3,360) to pay smugglers for a sea crossing to Spain,” Ismail added.

He made his way back north hiding even deeper in the forests and avoiding walking in the streets by daylight.

“Our brothers who crossed to Spain are now having a good life,” said Ibrahim from Guinea Conackry, showing scars on his hand from a failed attempt to jump the fence last year.

The displacement campaign has drawn criticism from rights groups such as ASCOMS, a coalition of 27 Sub-Saharan civil society NGOs.

Authorities say they take migrants south to protect them from smugglers and prevent migrants from storming the borders with Ceuta and Melilla.

STAYING PUT

As crossing to Europe becomes ever harder, many Africans are now deciding to stay in Morocco and seek work, benefiting from a legalization policy launched by Morocco in 2013.

Over 50,000 migrants, 75% of whom are from Sub-Saharan Africa, obtained residency cards since 2013, according to official figures.

After five years in Morocco, Sonya, 35, from Cameroon, gave up on the idea of reaching Europe. She now sees in Morocco home for her and her daughter Salma, who attends a local school.

Sonya is taking a training course with a local NGO, hoping to boost her chances of finding work. But work is not easy to find in an economy where informal labor abounds and the unemployment rate stands at 10%, with one in four young people jobless.

Ahmed Skim from Morocco’s migration ministry said state agencies could help migrants find work, and some 400 were employed in the private sector. Moroccan schools received 5,545 children of migrants in 2018, while Moroccan hospitals treated 23,000 migrants.

Most migrants work in the informal sector doing low-paid jobs shunned by Moroccans, however.

The President of Tangier region, Ilyas El Omari, urged the EU to help Morocco and his region integrate migrants through training programs and investment to create jobs and avoid tension between locals and migrants.

The EU promised last year to give 140 million euros in border management aid to Morocco.

For Ismail, only Spain will do, however.

“I want to go to Europe for better living standards and better jobs. Salaries are not that good here,” he said.

“We are exhausted, but we will continue trying to get to Spain.”

($1 = 0.8923 euros)

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Special Report: They fled Venezuela crisis by boat – then vanished

Carolina Gil shows a picture of her daughter Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman who, along with her children, her husband's sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler's boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, at her home in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Angus Berwick

GUIRIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – A taxi dropped Maroly Bastardo and her two small children by a cemetery not far from the shore in northeast Venezuela. She still had time to change her mind.

A view of a maternity room of Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH "BASTARDO VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A view of a maternity room of Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, Venezuela, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH “BASTARDO VENEZUELA” FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH “WIDER IMAGE” FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Eight months pregnant, Bastardo faced forbidding choices in a nation whose economy has collapsed. Give birth in Venezuela, where newborns are dying at alarming rates in shortage-plagued maternity wards. Or board a crowded smuggler’s boat bound for Trinidad, the largest of two islands that make up the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her husband, Kennier Berra, had landed there in February, found work and beckoned her to join him.

Bastardo’s mother, Carolina, begged her to stay.

Neither Bastardo or her children could swim. Barely three weeks earlier, 27 people had gone missing after a migrant boat went down in the narrow stretch of water separating Venezuela from Trinidad. The 20-kilometer strait, known for its treacherous currents, is nicknamed the Dragon’s Mouths.

But the 19-year old hairdresser was determined. On May 16, she and the kids packed into an aging fishing vessel along with 31 other people, including three relatives of her husband. They snapped cellphone photos from the shore near the port town of Guiria, where thousands of Venezuelans have departed in recent years and messaged loved ones goodbye.

The craft, the Ana Maria, never arrived. No migrants or wreckage have been found.

A man believed to be the boat’s pilot, a 25-year-old Venezuelan named Alberto Abreu, was plucked from the sea on May 17 by a fisherman and taken to nearby Grenada. Abreu told his rescuer the Ana Maria had sunk the night before. He fled before police could complete their investigation, Grenadian authorities said, and hasn’t been spotted since.

Bastardo’s anguished mother, Carolina, clings to hope that perhaps a lesser tragedy has befallen her daughter and grandchildren. She prays smugglers are holding them hostage to extract more money, and that any day now she will get the ransom call.

A local resident points on a map at an area nicknamed the Dragon's Mouths, where Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman, along with her children, her husband's sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler's boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, in Guiria, Venezuela, May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH "BASTARDO VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

A local resident points on a map at an area nicknamed the Dragon’s Mouths, where Maroly Bastardo, an eight months pregnant woman, along with her children, her husband’s sister, uncle and father, disappeared in the Caribbean Sea after boarding a smuggler’s boat during an attempt to cross from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, in Guiria, Venezuela, May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado SEARCH “BASTARDO VENEZUELA” FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH “WIDER IMAGE” FOR ALL STORIES.

“My heart tells me they are alive,” Carolina said. “But it’s a torture.”

The disappearance of Bastardo, five relatives and her unborn child underscores the ever-more perilous lengths Venezuelans are taking to escape a nation in freefall.

Years of economic mismanagement by the socialist government have crippled the oil-rich nation with hyperinflation, shortages and misery. An estimated 4 million people – about 12% of the populace – have fled the South American country in just the last five years.

The vast majority have traveled overland to neighboring Colombia and Brazil. But in images reminiscent of desperate Cubans fleeing their homeland in decades past, Venezuelans increasingly are taking to the sea in rickety boats.

Prime destinations are the nearby islands of Aruba, Curacao, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. Formerly welcoming of Venezuelans, who once brought tourist dollars, all have clamped down hard on these mostly impoverished migrants. Their governments have tightened visa requirements, increased deportations and beefed up coast-guard patrols to intercept smugglers’ vessels.

Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of more than 1.3 million people and among the highest incomes in the region, has been a particular magnet.

Since 2016, almost 25,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Trinidad, according to government figures, many without documentation. The United Nations last year estimated 40,000 Venezuelans were living in Trinidad, straining the government’s ability to assist them.

Traffickers have been known to abandon their human cargo in rough waters and force female and child passengers into prostitution. A shortage of spare parts in Venezuela means boats often take to sea in disrepair. Most migrants leave Guiria in open, low-slung wooden vessels with patched hulls and jury-rigged outboard motors. Smugglers often stuff these boats well beyond their 10-person capacity, locals familiar with the trade told Reuters.

But for Maroly Bastardo, the grinding hardships of life in Venezuela loomed as the greater danger. She was feeling exhausted and increasingly anxious about her health and that of the baby in the event of a difficult labor.

“Things are too rough here girl,” Bastardo texted an aunt in the days leading up to her departure from Venezuela. “I can’t give myself the luxury of staying here all beat down.”

Reuters reconstructed Bastardo’s ill-fated journey in interviews with her family members, friends and the relatives of others missing from the Ana Maria, along with authorities and people involved in the human smuggling trade.

(For a related photo essay, see: https://reut.rs/31w6P17)

A FAMILY’S DESCENT

Bastardo grew up in El Tigre, an interior boomtown in Venezuela’s famed Orinoco Oil Belt, the source of much of the nation’s oil wealth.

Carolina, Bastardo’s mother, worked in the kitchen of a fancy hotel that catered to visiting oil executives. Bastardo attended private school and talked of becoming a doctor. She and her little sister, Aranza, sang songs in the bedroom they shared.

The good times faded with mismanagement of state-run oil company PDVSA by late President Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro. With government loyalists at the helm of the company, oil revenue-funded social programs while basic maintenance and investment tumbled. Skilled petroleum professionals fled for opportunities abroad. Despite possessing some of the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has seen oil production slump by about 75% since the turn of the century, when it was producing 3 million barrels a day.

The fallout hit El Tigre hard. The swanky hotel closed its doors and Carolina lost her job. Bastardo quit school at age 16 to earn a few dollars a week cutting hair. She and Berra, a construction worker, had two children, Dylan and Victoria.

With another baby on the way – a little boy they planned to name Isaac Jesus – Berra left in February for Trinidad. He found a job frying chicken and laid plans for his family to follow. Bastardo would require a Cesarean section, her third. The prospect of giving birth in the local hospital terrified her, her mother said.

Venezuela’s national healthcare system, once considered a model for Latin America, is now plagued by shortages of imported drugs, equipment and even basics like rubber gloves. Thousands of doctors and nurses, their salaries ravaged by inflation, no longer show up for work.

At the Luis Felipe Guevara Rojas Hospital in El Tigre, signs at the maternity ward inform women in need of Cesareans to bring their own antibiotics, needles, surgical sutures and IV drip. Even electricity isn’t a given. Doctors there said the power fails almost daily, forcing them to rely on backup generators.

Infant mortality rose sharply, to 21.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2016 from 15 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008, reversing nearly two decades of progress, according to a study published in January in The Lancet medical journal. Mothers, too, are dying at higher rates during childbirth, the study said. Some 11,466 babies died before their first birthday in 2016, up 30% from the year before, according to the most recent figures from Venezuela’s Health Ministry.

“Any woman who gives birth in a Venezuelan hospital is running a risk,” said Yindri Marcano, director of the El Tigre hospital.

Trinidad would almost certainly have better medical care, Bastardo and Berra reckoned. An extra incentive: a child born there would be a citizen and could make it easier for them to obtain legal residency someday. Family members would accompany Bastardo to watch out for her and the little ones, 3-year-old Dylan and Victoria, 2.

On April 2, Bastardo, the children, and her sister-in-law Katerin traveled 500 kilometers by taxi to the port of Guiria. Located on Venezuela’s remote and lawless Paria Peninsula, the city is known as a hub of migrant tracking and drug running.

There they joined Berra’s father, Luis, and his Uncle Antonio, who would also make the trip. The six settled into a rundown hotel above a Chinese restaurant to make final preparations. They hung out with a friend of Luis’s, Raymond Acosta, a 37-year-old local mechanic.

Luis took charge of securing their places in a smuggler’s boat. A construction worker, he and his wife had already emigrated to Trinidad and had helped other relatives make the journey in recent years.

Acosta said Luis had negotiated a price of $1,000 for all six members of the party: $400 payable up front, with the balance due in Trinidad, U.S. dollars only.

But as the departure approached, the smuggler jacked up the price. They would need an extra $500 cash up front. Rather than back out, Luis had his wife in Trinidad drain their savings, and he arranged for a contact there to transport the cash to Guiria.

Another setback followed on April 23: A migrant boat heading for Trinidad with 37 passengers overturned in the Dragon’s Mouths. Rescuers found nine survivors and a corpse; the rest remain missing, according to Venezuela’s Civil Protection and Disaster Management Authority.

Smugglers hunkered down for a few weeks, according to people involved in the boat trade in Guiria. The family’s crossing was delayed.

News of the accident unnerved Bastardo’s mother in El Tigre. The night before the scheduled departure, Carolina begged her daughter to reconsider.

Bastardo replied via text: “Mothers have to do what they can to help their children….Don’t worry. Better times are coming.”

PHOTOS, TEXTS, THEN SILENCE

On Thursday, May 16, Acosta took the six voyagers to a taxi stand, where they said their goodbyes around 3 p.m. They were headed to the small fishing village of La Salina, 4 kilometers from Guiria, to meet their boat, and were relieved to be finally getting underway, Acosta said.

He said he felt uneasy that none of the family took a life jacket in case the smugglers didn’t have enough to go around. He also fretted about the possibility of an overloaded boat.

“People are now more desperate,” Acosta said. “I always told Luis that they shouldn’t go if there were too many passengers on board.”

Before they boarded, Bastardo snapped a cellphone photo of Katerin, Dylan and Victoria with their backs to the camera, staring out to sea. She sent it to her family.

The plan was to arrive at the Trinidadian port of Chaguaramas under cover of darkness. The 70-kilometer journey from Guiria typically takes about four hours, putting them in port around 8:30 p.m. at the latest. Luis wanted his son there early.

“At 6.30 in Chaguaramas, be waiting,” he texted Berra at 4:37 p.m. as their voyage got underway.

Those who know the route say pilots headed for Chaguaramas carrying migrants typically navigate along the coastline until reaching the eastern tip of the Paria Peninsula around nightfall. At that point, the lights of Trinidad’s towns are visible as they prepare to enter the final 20-kilometer stretch, the Dragon’s Mouths.

(For a graphic on the sea route, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2X9VqVn)

Evening turned to night. The Ana Maria didn’t show. Berra said he paced anxiously until police arrived at midnight on the Chaguaramas dock and told him to leave. He said he returned early Friday morning and waited all day and deep into the second night. Still nothing. He repeated the vigil on Saturday.

“After the first sinking, Maroly was afraid, but she still wanted to be here with us,” Berra said in a phone interview from Trinidad.

Back in El Tigre, Bastardo’s family was growing uneasy. She and the others were not returning text messages.

On Friday, they heard instead from someone identifying himself only as Ramon. Locals in Guiria said Ramon had helped arrange for their relatives to cross by boat to Trinidad without documents, including on the Ana Maria. The vessel had engine trouble, Ramon wrote, but would soon be on its way.

“We are going to change the motors and continue,” Ramon said in text messages viewed by Reuters.

In a telephone interview, Ramon said he works for an operation that takes people to Trinidad legally, with a limit of 10 passengers per vessel. He said he was simply passing along information given to him by an unidentified smuggler to ease the family’s fears. He declined to give his surname and denied he was involved in any illicit activity.

By Saturday, May 18, reports of the Ana Maria’s disappearance had surfaced in the news and social media.

In an early morning Facebook post, Robert Richards, an American fisherman, said he had found a “young man” on Friday afternoon, floating 50 kilometers offshore of Trinidad, “fighting for his life.” Photos accompanying the post showed a figure in a life jacket bobbing near a piece of floating debris. Richards said the man had “been in the water for 19 hours…on a boat that sunk the night before with 20 other people on board, so far no other survivors.”

Richards, whose Facebook page says he resides in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has not responded to calls and text messages seeking comment.

Abreu was identified as the man in the photos by relatives of people on the Ana Maria who saw the Facebook post. Venezuela’s Civil Protection agency confirmed he had been rescued.

In a May 24 statement, police in Grenada said a man “in need of urgent medical attention” was rescued May 17 by a vessel in waters between Trinidad and Grenada and brought to Grenada for treatment. They said the man, a Venezuelan national, left the hospital without “authorization.” His whereabouts remain unknown.

Venezuelan authorities barely searched for the Ana Maria. The Civil Protection authority, in charge of maritime rescue, had no boats to send. Its half-dozen-or-so vessels are all in disrepair or missing parts, said Luisa Marin, an agency official in Guiria. The Venezuelan military sent out a boat from Guiria on Saturday, May 18, two days after the Ana Maria vanished, but the craft malfunctioned after 20 minutes and had to return to harbor, Marin and other locals said.

Trinidad’s coast guard conducted its own search in Trinidadian waters, but spotted no signs of the Ana Maria or its passengers, National Security Minister Stuart Young said publicly on May 21.

HOPING AGAINST HOPE

With no wreckage or bodies found, some relatives of the missing say they believe the migrants were kidnapped by criminal gangs. But Trinidadian authorities have not presented any evidence that this happened. The National Security Ministry declined to comment.

Bastardo’s mother, Carolina, 38, says she no longer sleeps. She scours the news and social media for any shred of information. Every time she reads that Trinidadian authorities have apprehended yet another group of undocumented Venezuelan migrants, she wonders if her Maroly might be among them.

“It just causes me more agony: Is it her? Is it not her?” Carolina said from her porch in El Tigre, staring into the distance.

Bastardo’s nine-year-old sibling, Aranza, says she believes her big sister is still alive. The child’s birthday is coming up June 30. She tells her mom the only present she wants is to have Bastardo and the others back.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick in Venezuela; Additional reporting by Linda Hutchinson-Jafar in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Mexico freezes bank accounts in widening migration clampdown

Border patrol agents apprehend people who illegally crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. in the Rio Grande Valley sector, near Falfurrias, Texas, U.S., April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Mexican Finance Ministry said on Thursday it blocked the bank accounts of 26 people for their alleged involvement in human trafficking, as Mexico broadens its migration clampdown amid growing pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump.

The ministry’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) said in a statement it froze the accounts due to “probable links with human trafficking and illegal aid to migrant caravans.”

The FIU added that it would present the cases to the Attorney General’s office.

Last week, Trump said the Mexican government must take a harder line on migrants or face 5% tariffs on all its exports to the United States from June 10, rising to as much as 25% later this year.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by David Alire Garcia)

Traffickers used Russia’s World Cup to enslave us, say Nigerian women

Blessing Obuson from Nigeria, 19, rescued from human traffickers, speaks to a lawyer in the office of Civic Assistance Committee as she seeks help with applying for asylum in Moscow, Russia February 15, 2019. Picture taken February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Maria Vasilyeva

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Blessing Obuson thought Russia’s soccer World Cup would be an opportunity to find a job and flew into Moscow from Nigeria last June on a fan ID. Instead, she found herself forced to work as a prostitute.

Fan IDs allowed visa-free entry to World Cup supporters with match tickets, but did not confer the right to work. Despite that, Obuson, 19, said she had hoped to work as a shop assistant to provide for her 2-year-old daughter and younger siblings back in Nigeria’s Edo state.

Instead, she said she was locked in a flat on the outskirts of Moscow and forced into sex work along with 11 other Nigerian women who were supervised by a madam, also from Nigeria.

“I cried really hard. But what choice did I have?” Obuson told Reuters after being freed by anti-slavery activists.

She said her madam had confiscated her passport and told her she’d only get it back once she’d worked off a fictional debt of $50,000.

Obuson told her story to a rare English-speaking client who got anti-slavery activists involved.

Two Nigerians were later arrested and charged with human trafficking after striking a deal to sell Obuson for 2 million rubles (around $30,000) to a police officer posing as a client, according to her lawyer, statements from prosecutors, and evidence presented at court hearings in the case attended by Reuters journalists. The case is still under investigation.

VIOLENCE

Obuson’s case is not isolated. Reuters met eight Nigerian women aged between 16 and 22 brought into Russia on fan IDs and forced into sex work. All said they had endured violence.

“They don’t give you food for days, they slap you, they beat you, they spit in your face… It’s like a cage,” said one 21-year old woman, who declined to be named.

In September, a Nigerian woman was killed by a man who refused to pay for sex, police said. The Nigerian embassy later identified her as 22-year old Alifat Momoh who had come to Russia from Nigeria with a fan ID.

Russian police say 1,863 Nigerians who entered the country with fan IDs had not left by Jan. 1, the date when the IDs expired.

Kenny Kehindo, who works with several Moscow NGOs to help sex trafficking victims, estimates that more than 2,000 Nigerian women were brought in on fan IDs.

Neither Russian police nor the Nigerian embassy in Moscow replied to requests for a comment. A Nigerian foreign ministry spokesman also did not respond to text messages and phone calls requesting comment.

“Many are still in slavery,” said Kehindo, who said he had helped around 40 women return to Nigeria.

“Fan ID is a very good thing, but in the hands of the human traffickers it’s just an instrument,” he said, calling for more cooperation between the authorities and anti-trafficking NGOs during major sporting events, including the 2022 Qatar World Cup where a fan ID system is also being considered.

Anti-slavery group Alternativa said its helpline had fielded calls from Nigerian women held in St Petersburg and other World Cup host cities.

While a prosecution has been launched in Obuson’s case, police have been unable to act against suspected traffickers in other cases due to a lack of evidence.

“A lot of girls are still out there,” said Obuson.

 

(Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Gareth Jones)

In Oval Office speech, Trump demands a wall but does not declare emergency

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a televised address to the nation from his desk in the Oval Office, about immigration and the southern U.S. border on the 18th day of a partial government shutdown, at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump urged Congress in a televised speech on Tuesday to give him $5.7 billion this year to help build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico but stopped short of declaring a national emergency to pay for the barrier with military funds.

Facing Democratic opposition in Congress to a wall that he promised to build as a presidential candidate, Trump said in his first prime-time address from the Oval Office that there was a growing security and humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Using blunt language in an attempt to win public support, the Republican president said illegal immigrants and drugs flowing across the southern border posed a serious threat to American safety.

“How much more American blood must be shed before Congress does its job?” he said, recounting gruesome details of murders he said were committed by illegal immigrants.

But after days of hinting he might use presidential powers to declare an emergency as a first step toward directing money for the wall without congressional approval, Trump said he would continue seeking a solution to the impasse with Congress.

Trump’s speech came 18 days into a partial government shutdown precipitated by his demand for the wall. Public opposition to the shutdown is growing and that could hurt Trump, as he said last month he would be proud to close the government to fight for the wall.

Democratic leaders, in a rebuttal also carried live on national television, accused the president on Tuesday night of using fear tactics and spreading misinformation about the situation along the border.

“The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts,” said Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives.

“The fact is, President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety and well-being of the American people and withhold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent workers across the nation, many of them veterans,” she said.

BLAME GAME

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found that 51 percent of adults mainly blamed Trump for the shutdown, up 4 percentage points from late December, while 32 percent blamed congressional Democrats and 7 percent faulted Republicans in Congress.

Republican lawmakers have increasingly expressed concerns about Trump’s handling of the long-running dispute.

But he has shown no signs of giving up. He is scheduled to visit the southwest border on Thursday and may still choose to make the national emergency declaration.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Monday the president was considering the possibility and the White House counsel’s office was studying its legality.

Democrats and other opponents of a wall have threatened to take legal action if Trump issues an emergency order.

They say he is manufacturing a crisis in a bid to meet his 2016 presidential campaign promise for a wall that he said at the time would be paid for by Mexico. The Mexican government has refused to provide such funds.

Trump was to meet at the White House on Wednesday with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders.

Politics colored the remarks from both sides on Tuesday.

Trump said African-Americans and Hispanics were especially hard hit by the border crisis; both groups are key Democratic constituencies. Pelosi pointedly mentioned that veterans were hurt by the shutdown; Trump has courted veterans as a candidate and as president.

Trump at times tried to adopt a softer tone. “This is a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” he said, suggesting that women and children were among the migrants often victimized by trafficking across the border.

Hoping to demonstrate flexibility during his nearly 10-minute speech, Trump said of the border barrier he wants to be built: “At the request of the Democrats it will be a steel barrier and not a concrete wall.”

But Democrats have opposed not just the construction materials to be used, but the extent of a project that could end up costing more than $24 billion over the long run.

Democrats also argue that a mix of fencing, which already has been constructed in many parts of the border, and higher-tech tools would be cheaper and more effective in securing the border.

Pelosi said Trump rejected bipartisan legislation to reopen the government agencies shuttered as a result of the fight over the wall, and that he was obsessed with “forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall.”

She has previously called the wall immoral. Trump took issue with that in his speech.

“The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized,” he said.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who delivered a rebuttal along with Pelosi, urged the president to reopen the government while the debate over immigration policies continued.

“The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall,” he said. “So our suggestion is a simple one. Mr. President: Reopen the government and we can work to resolve our differences over border security. But end this shutdown now.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Eric Beech and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)

More than 3,000 Vietnamese fell victim to human traffickers in 2012-2017

FILE PHOTO - A woman walks along a dirt road during a misty day in Sapa, northwest Vietnam, May 23, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Khanh Vu

HANOI (Reuters) – More than 3,000 people in Vietnam, most of them women and children, were trafficked between 2012 and 2017, many of them into China, the Ministry of Public Security said on Friday, as parliament sought to tighten laws to tackle the problem.

Human traffickers took people from markets and schools, and used Facebook and a Vietnamese messaging app to befriend victims before selling them to karaoke bars, restaurants or smuggling them abroad, the ministry said in a statement.

Seventy-five percent of cases involved people being smuggled across the border into China, the ministry said.

“Human trafficking has been taking place across the country, not just in remote and mountainous areas,” Le Thi Nga, head of the National Assembly’s justice department, told a hearing on the problem on Thursday.

The National Assembly is reviewing its anti-human trafficking law, introduced in 2012.

Nga said enforcement of the law had faced “difficulties and shortcomings” and urged legislators to introduce more comprehensive guidelines.

The Ministry of Public Security said police had launched investigations into 1,021 human trafficking cases and arrested 2,035 people in the 2012-2017 period.

A total of 3,090 people had been victims of human trafficking during that time, the ministry said, of whom 90 percent were women and children from ethnic minorities living in remote, mountainous areas.

Vietnam should “reduce poverty, eradicate illiteracy, provide vocational training and create jobs for people – especially for the ethnic minorities”, to help address the problem, the ministry said.

(Reporting by Khanh Vu; Editing by James Pearson)

Senate panel advances crackdown on online sex trafficking

Senate panel advances crackdown on online sex trafficking

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday advanced legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, the most concrete action from Congress this year to tighten regulation of internet companies.

The approval came after major U.S. internet firms dropped their opposition to the measure, which amends a decades-old law that is considered a bedrock legal shield for the companies.

In a unanimous voice vote, the Senate Commerce Committee passed a measure that gives states and sex-trafficking victims a means to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

The bill rewrites Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally protects companies from liability for the activities of their users. The changes, which have bipartisan support, will still need to pass the full Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives and be signed by President Donald Trump to become law.

“This is a momentous day in our fight to hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve,” Republican Senator Rob Portman, who co-authored the bill, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, said in a statement.

After decades of little oversight from Washington, the internet industry is facing increased scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties over concerns about their size and how their platforms were used by Russia during the 2016 election.

More than 40 senators have co-sponsored the bill, and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, has endorsed it.

“Great to see the public & private sector come together in support of this bipartisan legislation to stop sex trafficking online,” she tweeted on Wednesday.

Internet firms had long objected to proposals in Congress to rewrite Section 230, arguing the measure had allowed innovation in Silicon Valley to thrive.

But the Internet Association, a major industry group whose members include Facebook <FB.O>, Amazon <AMZN.O> and Alphabet’s Google <GOOGL.O>, announced support for the Senate bill last week after a series of changes.

Those edits clarified that criminal charges are based on violations of federal human trafficking law and that a standard for liability requires a website to “knowingly” assist in facilitating trafficking.

Some opposition remains. In a letter on Tuesday, a dozen civil liberties organizations, including the Center for Democracy & Technology and Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the bill would threaten free speech online and unevenly harm smaller companies with fewer resources to police their platforms.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins)

Driver due in court in Texas for deaths of nine smuggled in truck

Police officers work on a crime scene after eight people believed to be illegal immigrants being smuggled into the United States were found dead inside a sweltering 18-wheeler trailer parked behind a Walmart store in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. July 23, 2017.

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) – The driver of a truck in which at least eight men were found dead alongside dozens suffering in sweltering conditions in San Antonio, Texas was expected to appear in court on Monday, over what authorities called a case of ruthless human trafficking.

Thirty people, many in critical condition and suffering from heat stoke and exhaustion, were taken out of the vehicle parked outside a Walmart store that lacked air-conditioning or water supply, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said. A ninth man died later at a hospital.

Outside temperatures topped 100 degrees F (37.8 C).

Another person found in a wooded area nearby was being treated, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said. All the dead were adult males.

“All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo,” said San Antonio-based U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin Jr.

“These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters. Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer.”

The truck’s driver, named by the U.S. Attorney’s Office as James Mathew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clearwater, Florida, was arrested, with a criminal complaint set to be filed in federal court in San Antonio on Monday.

Bradley is expected to have an initial court appearance soon after, the U.S. attorney said.

Several agencies have launched investigations into the case.

The dead men, who have not yet been identified, were discovered after officials were led to the trailer by a man who asked a Walmart employee for water.

San Antonio is about 150 miles (240 km) north of the Mexico border.

Mexico’s government said it deplored the deaths and that it had asked the authorities for an exhaustive investigation.

In a statement, it said its consul general in San Antonio was working to identify the victims’ nationalities and, if necessary, repatriate their remains to Mexico.

 

U.S. STEPS UP RAIDS

Raids on suspected illegal immigrants have increased across the United States in recent months, after President Donald Trump vowed to crack down on entrants without authorization or overstaying their visas.

In Texas alone, federal immigration agents arrested 123 illegal immigrants with criminal records in an eight-day operation ending last week.

The San Antonio deaths come more than a decade after what is considered the worst immigrant smuggling case in U.S. history, when 70 people were found stuffed into an 18-wheeler. Nineteen died in the incident in Victoria, Texas, about 100 miles (160 km) southeast of San Antonio, in May 2003.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said other suspects fled the scene as police arrived. Video showed “there were a number of vehicles that came and picked up other people who were in that trailer,” he said.

Twenty people were airlifted to hospitals in conditions ranging from critical to very critical, Hood said. Eight more are listed in less serious condition.

McManus said those in the truck, whose origins were unclear, ranged from school-age juveniles to adults in their 30s. He said the Department of Homeland Security had joined the investigation.

Experts have been warning that tougher immigration policies could make it harder to stop human trafficking. Measures tightening international borders encourage would-be migrants to turn to smugglers, while fear of deportation deters whistle-blowing, they said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials defended the use of tough methods to fight human smuggling.

“So long as I lead ICE, there will be an unwavering commitment to use law enforcement assets to put an end to these practices,” the agency’s acting director, Thomas Homan, said in a statement.

The Border Patrol has regularly reported finding suspected immigrants in trucks along the U.S. border with Mexico.

This month, 72 Latin Americans were found in a trailer in Laredo. In June, 44 people were found in the back of a vehicle in the same Texas city, which lies directly across the Rio Grande from Mexico.

San Antonio has a policy of not inquiring about the immigration status of people who come into contact with city officials or police.

It was among several cities in Texas that filed a federal lawsuit last month to block a state law set to take effect in September that would force them to cooperate closely with immigration agents.

“San Antonio will not turn its back on any man, woman, or child in need,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a statement responding to the truck deaths.

(Corrects headline, paras 1 and 2 to show that eight bodies were found in truck, not nine; a ninth man died later at a hospital.)

 

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York); Editing by Chris Michaud and Clarence Fernandez)

 

U.S. to list China among worst human trafficking offenders: sources

FILE PHOTO: A Chinese national flag flutters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing October 20, 2014. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States plans to place China on its global list of worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labor, said a congressional source and a person familiar with the matter, a step that could aggravate tension with Beijing that has eased under President Donald Trump.

The reprimand of China, Washington’s main rival in the Asia-Pacific region, would come despite Trump’s budding relationship with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and the U.S. president’s efforts to coax Beijing into helping to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decided to drop China to “Tier 3,” the lowest grade, putting it alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria among others, said the sources, who have knowledge of the internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The rating is expected to be announced on Tuesday in an annual report published by the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. A State Department official declined to comment on the report’s contents and said the department “does not discuss details of internal deliberations.”

Tier 3 rating can trigger sanctions limiting access to U.S. and international aid, but U.S. presidents frequently waive such action.

While it was unclear what led Tillerson to downgrade China, last year’s report criticized the communist government for not doing enough to curb “state-sponsored forced labor” and concluded it did not meet “minimum standards” for fighting trafficking – though it still said Beijing was making significant efforts.

The Trump administration has also grown concerned about conditions in China for North Korean labor crews that are contracted through Pyongyang and provide hard currency for the North Korean leadership, which is squeezed for cash by international sanctions, said the congressional source.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the government was resolute in its resolve to fight human trafficking and the results were plain to see.

“China resolutely opposes the U.S. side making thoughtless remarks in accordance with its own domestic law about other countries’ work in fighting human trafficking,” he told a daily news briefing.

Since taking office, Trump has praised Xi for agreeing to work on the North Korea issue during a Florida summit in April and has held back on attacking Chinese trade practices he railed against during the presidential campaign.

But Trump has recently suggested he was running out of patience with China’s modest steps to pressure North Korea, which is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.

The annual report, covering more than 180 countries and territories, calls itself the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.

It organizes countries into tiers based on trafficking and forced labor records: Tier 1 for nations that meet minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 for those making significant efforts to meet those standards; Tier 2 “Watch List” for those that deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 for countries that fail to comply with the minimum U.S. standards and are not making significant efforts.

For the past three years, China has been ranked “Tier 2 Watch List”.

In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2015, Reuters reported that experts in the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons had sought to downgrade China that year to Tier 3 but were overruled by senior diplomats.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Jason Szep and Tom Brown)