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Migrant crisis fuels sex trafficking of Nigerian girls to Europe

A promising student who dreamed of going to university, Mary was 16 when a woman approached her mother at their home and offered to take the Nigerian teenager to Italy to find work.

Pushed to go by her family who hoped she would lift them out of poverty, Mary ended up being trafficked into prostitution.

After being arrested by Italian police, Mary was repatriated to Nigeria in 2001, but she was rejected by her family and left feeling like a failure.

While Mary’s ordeal ended 15 years ago, a soaring number of Nigerian girls like her are being trafficked to Europe - mainly Italy - and forced to sell sex by gangs taking advantage of the chaos caused by the migrant crisis, anti-slavery activists say.

Thousands of women and girls are lured to Europe each year with the promise of work, then trapped by huge debts and bound to their traffickers by a religious ritual - the curse of juju.

Bound by Juju

More than nine in 10 of the Nigerian women trafficked to Europe come from Edo, a predominantly Christian state with a population of about 3m, according to the United Nations.

While Edo is not among the country’s poorest states, its history of migration to Italy has fuelled locals’ hopes of easy money in Europe - leaving people vulnerable to traffickers, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says.

Before going to Europe, women and girls must sign a contract with traffickers to finance their move, racking up debts of up to $100,000. They then must seal the pact with a juju ritual.

This belief in black magic means victims fear they or their family may fall ill or die if they do not pay off their debts.

Most of the women and girls know they will have to sell sex but are pressured by their families and deceived by traffickers, said Nigeria’s anti-human trafficking agency (NAPTIP).

Many have no idea they will live under the control of older “madams” and be forced to work for several years to clear their debts, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Madams, who make up almost half of traffickers in Nigeria, are mostly former victims who target others in order to escape prostitution - perpetuating a cycle of exploitation, the UNODC said in its latest global report on human trafficking.

Migrant crisis

Traffickers and gangs in Nigeria are now exploiting Europe’s migration crisis - moving girls to lawless Libya, before crossing the Mediterranean to Italy on flimsy, overloaded boats, said Bryant from the Walk Free Foundation.

More than 5,600 Nigerian women and girls arrived in Italy by sea last year, up from 1,200 in 2014, and at least four in five were trafficked into sex work, the IOM said.

At least 1,250 Nigerian women have landed in Italy this year, up from 373 for the same period in 2015, IOM data shows. Traffickers also take victims to Europe by plane, using forged documents and flying via other West African countries to avoid suspicion, said Mikael Jensen of the UNODC.


Human trafficking by Nigerian organised crime gangs is one of the greatest challenges facing police forces across Europe, according to the EU’s law enforcement agency Europol.

A lack of co-ordination between European states and Nigeria is allowing traffickers to act with impunity, said Kevin Hyland, who was appointed Britain’s first anti-slavery chief in 2014.

Nigerian anti-trafficking official Arinze Orakwe said more European nations should criminalise the purchase of sex to curb the number of Nigerians trafficked into prostitution in Europe.

The Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF) clothes and feeds victims, provides counselling and attempts to reunite them with their families.


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Syrians flee to Lebanon for safe haven but find exploitation and sex slavery

BEIRUT - Over the past five years, more than one million Syrians have fled to Lebanon hoping to find the safety, stability and future that civil war has stripped from their homeland. Instead, many found exploitation and in some cases slavery.

Last month, Lebanese police raided a sex-trafficking ring in Maameltein, a seaside town about 20 kilometres north of Beirut, and found dozens of women locked up in prison-like brothels.

The 75 women, most of them Syrian, were lured with the promise of jobs at hotels and restaurants in Lebanon’s most well-known red light district.

When they arrived, they were beaten and filmed while being raped. Phones and identification papers were seized. If they ran, they were told, compromising photos of them would be sent to their families and posted on the internet.

Their captors said there was no use in going to the police since many officials in the security services were customers.

Dissent was met with beatings with wooden clubs and crude whips made of cables wrapped in electrical tape. Cigarettes were extinguished on flesh. Food was withheld.

The women lived in rooms that resembled cells, with metal bars over the windows and heavy, locked doors. Guards kept careful watch on them. Barred from using condoms and without access to other contraceptives, they were forced to get abortions from a doctor who performed 200 such procedures for the ring in recent years.

The money they generated went to the gang. They were slaves.

“We were not treated as human beings," said one of the 75 women, a Syrian from Aleppo, who was released at the end of March. “We were nothing but commodities for sale," she said, according to testimony given to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

She was just 17 years old.

The young woman was violently forced into prostitution by her husband last year not long after they were married. When she discovered she was pregnant later in the year, she was forced to undergo an abortion and made to receive customers again just three days later.

Vicious cycle

Lebanon’s controversial regulations on refugees are making them increasingly vulnerable according to aid workers, creating an environment ripe for abuse.

To register with the Lebanese government, refugees must sign a pledge not to work. Many work anyway.

Forced to pay their own way in Lebanon with insufficient aid, it is the only way to survive. But working illegally puts them at increased risk of exploitation and forced labour.

“It’s a vicious cycle," said Lisa Abou Khaled, a public information officer with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. “The reality is that the increasing vulnerabilities of refugees, their increasing needs, their insufficient resources, their increasing debt and poverty is unfortunately pushing more children into the worst kinds of child labour – and is exposing women to forms of exploitation."

In addition to not being allowed to work, refugees have found it more and more difficult to maintain legal status in Lebanon. Many cannot afford the US$200 (Dh735) annual fee for residency papers or lack the necessary documents to register with the government.

To have legal standing, refugees also require a copy of a lease with a landlord and an attestation from a local official called a mukhtar – both requirements that create relationships that can be exploited.

The lack of legal standing in Lebanon puts refugees in a situation where they are afraid to report abuse and have little chance of recourse even if they go to the authorities.

“The structures and regulations in place in Lebanon to deal with refugees mean that it’s very likely that their vulnerability will translate into exploitation," said Audrey Guichon, a senior programme officer with the Freedom Fund, a private donor initiative dedicated to fighting slavery. “It is an issue that is unlikely to disappear unless some critical and assertive action is taken by the Lebanese government and also by the international donor community and international organisations."

In a report released earlier this month, the Freedom Fund said it was increasingly concerned about slavery and exploitation of refugees manifesting itself in the forms of child labour, child brides, women forced into prostitution and forced labour.

The report said forced labour – often as a condition of rent for cash-strapped refugees – was so prevalent it was considered “the norm" by some interviewees. The report cited an unnamed “leading" non-governmental organisation as estimating that between 60 and 70 per cent of Syrian children in Lebanon work.

Tip of the iceberg

While the case of the enslaved Syrian women in Maameltein is the most extreme case of the exploitation of Syrians in Lebanon, it may not be an isolated incident.

“I think the 75 women being rescued is just the tip of the iceberg," said Ms Guichon. “Unfortunately, it’s likely there is a lot more going on."

Ms Abou Khaled, the UNHCR officer, said documenting cases of sexual violence and exploitation among refugees is a difficult task.

“We have to remember that in Lebanon and in the culture of Syrian refugees there is a strong social stigma and it is very difficult for women to approach us and admit they were victims of sexual or gender-based violence or that they were working in prostitution," she said. “It’s always, unfortunately, a very underreported problem."

Just as the dire economic situation and legal restrictions force families into sending children to work and forced labour agreements with landlords, women are also more pressured to turn to prostitution.

“The vulnerability is increasing on the side of the refugees because of the war, because of also the policies of the state in Lebanon regarding refugees, it leaves them no real options for living or working," said Maya Ammar, communications coordinator at Kafa, a Lebanese organisation that works against gender violence and the exploitation of women.

Ms Ammar said the way the government treats sex workers now – often by arresting and prosecuting them – creates an obstacle for women trying to escape prostitution.

“They are not really encouraged to speak up or escape – even if they were able to – because there are no clear protection mechanisms and no [government] shelters and no funds to support them," she said. “If women in prostitution are being penalised according to the penal code, then how will they speak up if they are afraid of being arrested?"

Until reforms are made, campaigners worry that refugees like RS, a 24-year-old from Homs, will continue to face the risks of exploitation.

After fleeing Syria at the end of 2014 with her husband and newborn baby, she decided to take a job offer at a restaurant earlier this year to help her family make ends meet. Instead she was enslaved by the Maameltein sex-trafficking ring for three months until the Lebanese police freed her last month.

“My life is totally destroyed," she told the Syrian Network for Human Rights. “My husband won’t accept me back. No one will understand that this is not my fault. I was kidnapped and forced to do all this."


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A Malaysian traditional "tonic"

Tongkat ali is the common name for Eurycoma longifolia, a Malaysian traditional "tonic" that is often used to restore strength, energy, mood, and libido. Because of it's energetic benefits, it is often called "Malaysian ginseng."

How can it help people looking to gain muscle mass?

One of the ways that tongkat ali works is by restoring free testosterone levels (from "low" back "up" to normal), so anyone who is under stress—an athlete who is training hard or someone who may have stress-induced suppression of testosterone levels—can benefit from tongkat ali helping them come back up to normal levels.

What are the potential side effects?

The only real "side effect' we tend to see is that people are surprised when their sex drive goes up. They might try tongkat ali for its testosterone-restoring benefits (muscle mass, fat loss, mood enhancement, energy boost), and then start feeling friskier than they have in awhile. This is normal because they are being restored back to their normal level of sex drive—a level that has become reduced by stress-induced testosterone suppression.

What's the best way to choose the right tongkat ali supplement?

There is a lot of "garbage" tongkat ali on the market. The root and the proper extraction are very expensive (to get an effective level of bioactives in the finished extract), so lots of supplements are diluted so much as to be useless. The clearest way to ensure that consumers are getting a "true and effective" tongkat ali is to buy the one that has been used in all the positive research—called "Physta" from Biotropics. It's certified tongkat ali processed under the patented process from the Malaysian government and MIT).

We've seen some information about mercury content in some supplements. How do you avoid this? Heavy metals can be a problem in a lot of herbal products, but only if they are not properly grown/harvested/extracted, which is another reason (in addition to efficacy) to choose a reliable brand for efficacy and purity.


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Sex workers in Kiambu and Murang'a urged to quit trade

Commercial sex workers operating in Kiambu and Murang'a counties have been urged to quit the trade and start alternative income-generating projects.

A group of peer educators, female sex workers men having sex with men and reformed sex workers are urging commercial sex workers to register for a reforms programme that will help them quit their trade.

The programme dubbed 'Wapate Initiative Rudisha Mama Nyumbani' seeks to reform willing commercial sex workers living in Murang'a and Kiambu.

In an interview with the Nation in Thika, the Wapate director, who is also a former sex worker, said the initiative offers sex workers health education and advocacy and goes an extra mile in enabling those willing to quit the trade venture into income generating activities.

"Our third batch of beneficiaries is about to benefit from Sh4.1 million grant from a church in Thika which will mark a turning point in their lives," said the director.

The money will be released on a needs-assessment basis to individual bank accounts, a pastor at the church confirmed.

"We will provide the initial capital needed to establish the enterprises and pay their house rent and food for two months before releasing the rest of the money on need-assessment basis," said Pastor Peter Ndung'u.

According to Pastor Ndung'u, that is the only way the beneficiaries can channel released funds into their intended use.

The fund will benefit about 45 former sex workers from the two target counties.

"I will use the funds to start up a small hotel for construction workers in Kiandutu slums. This is a major boost that will help me get my mind off prostitution," said reformed sex worker, who is a beneficiary of the programme.


Another one, who is yet to quit prostitution due to what she terms as financial frustrations in providing for her five children, promises to leave the streets once she finds an alternative source of livelihood.

"Prostitution does not guarantee me constant income, it has its high and low seasons.

“Living in Kiandutu slums where there are no farms to work on demands that I search for a constant source of income. I am hopeful that my days of shame are coming to an end," she said.

According to Wapate programmes officer Evans Onyango, Thika Sub-County alone is estimated to have 1,028 male and female commercial sex workers, the highest number among Kiambu county's 11,000 sex workers' population.

Murang'a Town has an estimated 4,000 sex workers.

The sex workers are urging more organisations to help the initiative enable more men and women to leave the streets.

"Since the programme was started in 2011, about 70 sex workers have reformed and are running small but successful businesses both in Thika and Murang'a counties," said Mr Onyango.


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Man travels the world with his six sex dolls

A man has spent more than $26,000 to travel across England and America with his six sex dolls.

Dave Hockey, 57, has traveled with his girlfriends to Stonehenge, the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.

Hockey, who is married and from Nova Scotia, Canada, flew “Realdoll” Bianca and “Teddy Babe Deluxe” Carey to Britain for trips to Oxford, Wiltshire and Abergavenny, Wales.

Hockey, who also has a 2-year-old son, told the British tabloid The Sun, “My wife understands it is a hobby.”

“She isn’t threatened by the dolls she knows I’m not going to run off with an 80-pound piece of silicone shaped like a woman,” said Hockey.

During the Holiday, Hockey took his silicon girlfriend Bianca worth $3,239 sky diving, horseback riding and for a spin on the back of a Harley Davidson.

Hockey told the Sun, “I purchased my first dolls in November 2006. They looked cute.”

“I think the dolls are pretty -- any man is lying if he says they aren’t,” said Hockey.

He has also bought $2,026 worth of glamorous outfits for the dolls -- from lingerie to pairs of stilettos.

Dave also filmed a seven-week road trip across America, meeting other doll owners for his own documentary,

Dave is in the final stage of editing his documentary but hopes to have completed it in the next six weeks.


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