This module is a resource for lecturers


This section contains material that is meant to support lecturers and provide ideas for interactive discussions and case-based analysis of the topic under consideration.

Exercise 1: Nigerian network in Brussels

In the period between 2007 and 2011, young Nigerian girls, including several minors, were fraudulently brought to Belgium and sexually exploited by a Nigerian prostitution network in the country, Spain and Norway.

The young girls were brought to Belgium to work in prostitution. They had to pay EUR 55,000 for the journey and reimburse this debt by prostituting themselves. Sometimes, the young girls could be 'ordered' in Nigeria and Turkey.

The network modus operandi was based on 'madams', who put the victims to work, supervised them, collected their money and managed their debts. Madams took advantage of voodoo rituals to keep the girls under their yoke. At the same time, they acted as psychological support for the Nigerian girls who considered them as a mother or sister. They had legal residence permits, which they sometimes obtained through a sham marriage, and often knew the prostitution system from the inside with the hope of being free of it themselves one day. During a phone conversation with the main defendant, she said: "The white man who arranged my residence permit through a sham marriage called me". During another phone conversation, it was question of looking for a solution to legalize the stay of another madam: "X will try to give Y a Belgian residence permit. She will try to do it by pretending she is ill. We know a Belgian doctor who has already provided the necessary documents in return for a substantial sum of money. The doctor has to clearly state in writing what illness Y is suffering from, such as psychiatric problems. It is one way of speeding up the procedure for Y's residence permit".

The main defendant was in contact with various people to organize the criminal plan, with each person having their own speciality. He would make use of their criminal services to obtain forged identity papers. He was in contact with a corrupted member of staff at the embassy to obtain a Schengen visa or sort out other business. The main defendant was therefore able to obtain the necessary visa, for instance, at the Italian embassy in Nigeria thanks to a contact person. Furthermore, the sister of an accomplice worked in the Nigerian embassy in Abuja and he was easily able to obtain a visa this way. And an employee at the Nigerian embassy in Greece ensured that Nigerians who were about to be deported were released, in exchange for a bribe. The main defendant could also count on accomplices within airline companies and among immigration staff at the airport, thus allowing him to organize a guaranteed safe passage for people to cross the border illegally. He also corrupted members of parliament who offered him political protection.

In general, several victims travelled together and regularly changed guide across Africa and Europe, before arriving in Belgium. The trip sometimes lasted months through the desert or on small dangerous boats at sea with the intention of reaching one of the most well-known transit points, the Italian island of Lampedusa. Sometimes, the young girls already had to prostitute themselves on their way to Italy. Other guaranteed transportations were also organized, bringing Nigerian victims of prostitution by plane from Lagos (Nigeria) to Italy. Their contact person at the embassy had arranged a group trip under the pretence of a training course in Italy. This allowed 19 Nigerian girls to legally leave Nigeria with a visa.

The main defendant also had accomplices in Spain, Turkey, Italy, Morocco and Denmark, and his sister even served as a madam in Canada. These contacts all entered perfectly into the context of international exchange programs in the Nigerian networks. For instance, a Nigerian madam in Belgium had victims in Norway, Sweden and Spain under her authority. There was also an exchange program where, for instance, a Nigerian madam in Spain sent a young girl to go and work for her in Belgium, owing to a lack of work in Spain, but under the supervision of a Nigerian madam living in Belgium.

At the beginning of 2010, the investigating judge ordered several investigative procedures, including a phone tap. This revealed the network's international contacts, its smuggling methods and how the international exchange program worked. Girls who didn't perform well enough were moved to another region. The phone taps also played an important role in the detection of victims: "It would appear that X is currently busy with the final preparations for the transport of a girl from Nigeria to Belgium. The girl in question seems to have travelled to Abuja in the meantime, while waiting for her transfer to Belgium. The payment for the transport seems to have been made and the girl will travel alone with full knowledge of the facts, with identity papers belonging to someone staying in Europe. (...) We can deduce from the phone taps that it is possible that the girl in question will arrive at Schiphol in Belgium during or after the weekend of 4 and 5 June 2011, and X will go and fetch her personally from Schiphol". In the tapped phone conversations, there was also mention of the so-called Black Western Union and the four apartment blocks that the main defendant had had built in Benin City (Nigeria) thanks to the income from prostitution. Black Western Union is a financing system known by this nickname in Nigerian circles, which has absolutely nothing to do with the famous Western Union. It is the African version of the Pakistani hawala system, where the profits end up in phone shops and grocery shops in Nigeria through alternative remittance systems. A hawala type system can be considered as an alternative banking system to transfer money from one country to another without leaving any trace of the transaction. The system works in perfect anonymity.

The investigation ascertained that the majority of victims were offered a job as a prostitute in Nigeria, with the promise of a good income. The main defendant organized a selection procedure, during which he interviewed and selected the victims by phone in Nigeria. The phone taps also revealed that some girls could be ordered in advance. When they arrived in Belgium, the young girls' identity papers were taken from them and given to the madam, who placed the girls in prostitution or sold them for EUR 5,000. The victims were told the same story every time: in order to be set free, they had to pay back their journey. In general, they accepted without any form of resistance. The Nigerian networks don't hesitate to use any form of violence against the victims or their families. For instance, the parents of one of the madams threatened the parents of two minors because they didn't want to reimburse their supposed debts. A young girl, who first worked as a prostitute in Spain before coming to Belgium, was forced to abandon her 10- month-old baby in Spain. The phone taps clearly revealed why: "If the mother does anything stupid, her baby will be killed".

In Nigeria, someone had to act as guarantor for a young girl. This guarantee was put into practice by one or more voodoo priests. Abuse of the voodoo ritual is a typically Nigerian means of pressure. Many young Nigerians swear an oath before leaving for the West, during which they state that they or their family will pay their madam for the travel costs and debts. This oath goes hand in hand with several rituals. The fingernails, blood and hair of the young woman are carefully preserved in a packet. This packet is kept by the criminal network. If the woman doesn't satisfy one or more of her obligations, juju or voodoo is used against her. According to popular belief, someone whose fingernails, blood and hair are preserved in a packet can be made ill or mad, and even die. This way, the madams raise the girls' fears and create a link that can't be broken without consequences. In order to save themselves and their family, many of the victims remain in prostitution to reimburse their debts. The statements of one Nigerian victim in this case revealed the significant impact of the voodoo ritual and how it can be easily abused to exert pressure: "After two days, X took me to this place too and told me to work for her as a prostitute. I refused, but after a week I had to do it because X had stuffed my food with voodoo, cut a strand of my hair and taken a bit of menstrual blood from my pants... she subjected me to a voodoo ritual".

MYRIA, Trafficking and Smuggling of Human Beings - Tightening the Links, 2015 Annual Report

Note : This was deemed both a smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons case. It was tried by the Brussels Criminal Court on 24 February 2012 and then by the Court of Appeal on 31 October 2012. Several victims instituted civil proceedings.

It is suggested that the class be divided into small groups, with each being given 5-10 minutes to analyse the case and identify potential issues and challenges that make distinguishing between smuggling and trafficking difficult. Students should also consider whether, in their country, this case would amount to trafficking or smuggling.

Proposed questions for discussion/activities:

  • Is this a case of trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants or both? Please justify your answer.
  • In your opinion, does the criminal network qualify as an organized criminal group in terms of article 3 of UNTOC? What about under your country's legal framework? Please explain.
  • What factors show the vulnerability of the young Nigerian girls?

Exercise 2: Smuggling or trafficking? Politicians don't seem to know

Migrant crisis: smuggling or trafficking? Politicians don't seem to know

It is a basic idea: if you want to solve a problem, it is best if you understand what the problem is in the first place. This principle seems to be evading many of Europe's leaders in the face of the appalling carnage that is ongoing off our southern shores. Over the course of the past week, politicians - Theresa May, Ed Miliband, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Yvette Cooper and William Hague among them - have been using the terms "people trafficker" and "smuggler" interchangeably in relation to those transporting refugees across the Mediterranean. Indeed, the Guardian reported on Tuesday that the captain of the boat that sank with the loss of more than 800 lives was being charged with trafficking. It is not mere pedantry to take issue with this. Trafficking and smuggling have particular meanings in law and often require very different approaches. Those who are throwing around the terms with such abandon should know this. (…)

While smuggled migrants sometimes become victims of trafficking, there simply is not the evidence to conclude that what is happening in the Mediterranean is human trafficking. Rather, we are seeing people smuggling on a massive scale. Why the confusion among politicians over the terms? (…)

I suspect there is something else at play. In the past year, those in power here and across Europe have done nothing in preparation for the spring migration of vulnerable people from north Africa apart from reducing naval resources. Now, as we all reel in horror over the many lives lost at sea in under a week, politicians are having to cast around for excuses. The conflation of smuggling and trafficking conveniently obfuscates the issue and buys political breathing space. It is a classic public relations move by those faced with evidence of their complicity in human rights abuses - or in this case, arguably, a preventable atrocity. When faced with such horror, it is easier to make grand statements blaming migrant deaths on evil traffickers than to seek the causes and identify proper responses.

Europe's piecemeal approach to this catastrophe has been pathetic, creating the market for people smugglers to thrive.

What we are seeing across north Africa and the Middle East is not the machinations of organized trafficking rings, though doubtless some will take advantage of the chaos to enslave people. We are seeing a refugee convulsion, similar, but smaller in scale, to that which affected central and eastern Europe at the end of the second world war.

Back then, the crisis was dealt with in some measure by a concerted international response to provide relief and safe migration. Seventy years on, Europe's piecemeal approach to this catastrophe has to date been pathetic, creating the market for people smugglers to thrive.

The events of this week make it plain that a greatly enlarged maritime search and rescue operation is urgently needed. But like any humanitarian response this is not a solution to the crisis. It is a means to reduce the numbers who are dying until a solution can be found. This must include a rethinking of the idea of "fortress Europe" and the establishment, perhaps through the deployment of UN peacekeepers, of safe migration routes for the refugees who have ended up on the coast of north Africa.

Until Europe's leaders show an audacity of ambition sufficient in scale to meet the problem, their efforts will be forlorn. To begin with, they must ensure they are dealing with the problem that is actually facing them, which is not that of trafficking, an issue which they appear only to half understand.

The Guardian, 22 April 2015

Based on this article from the Guardian, students should discuss whether the situation reported is better classified as smuggling of migrants, trafficking in persons or both. Furthermore, the debate should invite students to reflect on the following:

  • Is it important for both the media and politicians to be precise and use the correct terminology when referring to trafficking and smuggling? Why?
  • Students might also be asked to collect national or international news stories and analyse whether cases described therein are correctly identified as trafficking or smuggling.
  • What do you think about the first proposal?

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