BROWNSVILLE — Two scholars from Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, Spain, were in Brownsville this summer to talk about their groundbreaking and sometimes dangerous research into a brutal human trafficking network that smuggles Nigerian women and girls through North Africa into Spain, where they’re often forced into prostitution.
During their trip to North America, Esperanza Jorge Barbuzano and Inmaculada Antolinez Dominguez also spent time in northern Mexico to find out what they could about human trafficking on the U.S.-Mexico border and plan to return to Mexico for further study if funding becomes available.
In late 2013, the pair began a three-year study into the Nigerian trafficking network. The work involved talking to young women in unsanitary, makeshift camps in the Nigerian forest who were awaiting the “guide men” who would smuggle them to Europe; women in similar camps on the Moroccan border where they can languish for months or years before crossing; and women trafficking victims in Spanish shelters.
“Sometimes we had to work with them in the place where they are exploited, or we had to work with them on the borders while they are waiting to cross,” Dominguez said.
To avoid danger in the field, including a trip to a Nigerian brothel, the pair never mentioned human trafficking, instead discussing with the women subjects like sexual health and how to care for themselves.
“It’s because of that that we can move with some freedom,” Dominguez said.
Still, the borderlands and forest were not safe for the team after dark, she said.
“When evening was arriving, even (the women) asked us to leave the place,” Dominguez said. “They used to say, ’Maybe it’s time to go, OK?’”
The researchers focused on the Nigerian trafficking network because it involves so many women and also because it differs from every other European trafficking network. For instance, the price women have to pay traffickers in the Nigerian network — about 60,000 euros, or more than $72,000 — is much higher than in other networks, Dominguez said.
What also sets the Nigerian network apart is the high incidence of sexual exploitation of the women and girls involved, and the high number of minors, who are much in demand in illicit European markets, Dominguez said. There is also a great deal of violence against the women in the Nigerian network, she said.
The “guide man,” who escort the women from Nigeria to Morocco or Libya via truck or van, train or on foot, generally pay a bribe at border crossings, Dominguez said.
“He can pay with money or he can pay with women,” she said.
Barbuzano said one of the goals of the project was to understand the physical, spiritual and emotional scars borne by the women who made the journey. None of the women, whether hiding out in the forest or inside a shelter awaiting possible deportation in Spain, would answer direct questions about their trafficking experience.
One reason is that traffickers routinely threatened to kill their family members if they talked (and made good on those threats), though the experience was also too difficult to talk about even with the absence of threats. The women would tell their stories, however, through art — drawing a picture, for instance, or making up a song or a story, Barbuzano said.
The team knew from psychology in other disciplines that indirect expression provides a healthy distance for describing traumatic experiences, Dominguez said.
“It’s not, ’I was raped,’” she said. “It’s, ’Here in Algeria, there was a rape. It was my rape but also the rape of many, many other women that I know.’”
The researchers posed their questions not in terms of “Who did this to you?” but rather in terms of “How did you care for your self?” or “Who took care of you?” during the journey. The women were also asked to describe — in drawings — the state of their bodies before, during and after the event.
The reality of the network is that it’s not composed only of traffickers who are bad people, Dominguez said. Family members or someone close to the family are often involved, she said. Young Nigerian women are often encouraged to make the trip to establish a toehold in Europe for their families and community members to escape dangerous, poverty-stricken conditions at home, Dominquez said.
Over time and repeated interviews, the methodology produced drawings so detailed that Spain’s asylum office began using them to determine whether, according to official protocol, a women is a victim of trafficking, in danger if deported to her home country, and thus a candidate for asylum and social services assistance.
“It’s something we have in Spain, these kinds of resources,” Dominguez said. “It’s not perfect but it’s something.”
Another key goal of the project was to create a means for trafficking victims to get that kind of help, as opposed to just studying them. The research has spawned a video documentary and a book, “Irioweniasi: El Hilo de la Luna,” which went to print a few weeks ago.
Irioweniasi is the name of one of the women the team worked with, in whose native tongue it translates as, “No one is strong enough to pull down the moon,” Dominguez said. Barbuzano and Dominguez took the documentary, featuring Nigerian women sharing their stories of the trafficking experience, to Nigeria to show young women in high schools and elsewhere in order to spread awareness.
They plan to use the documentary and book, which includes artistically rendered drawings of the women’s’ life stories, to shine a light on Nigerian trafficking while also providing police, social workers and others with the information they need to help victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, Dominguez said.
“We are not going to stop human trafficking in the world, but we can give information,” she said.
In mid-July the pair screened a clip from the documentary at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Brownsville during a presentation on their work. The Brownsville Herald interviewed Barbuzano and Dominguez in late August, following their stint in Mexico and before their return to Spain.
They said they hope to return to Mexico for further study of trafficking networks, though next time going to the source: the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz. It all hinges on funding. The Nigeria project was launched with a one-year grant, though for the last two years the pair paid their own way, with help from a number of supporters, Dominguez said.
“In Spain the situation is like this: If you want to do research you have to pay for it yourself,” she said.
The team’s brief time in northern Mexico did reveal a surprise, however. Barbuzano said they found evidence of similarities between the Nigerian and Mexican networks, including aggression against women. Men they interviewed said many women being smuggled across the U.S. border were being raped and/or kidnapped, though the team had no luck finding women to talk to.
“We couldn’t talk with women in the north of Mexico because we couldn’t find them,” Dominguez said. “We couldn’t find them in the migrant shelter. We couldn’t find them in the streets. That’s a very interesting thing for us, that we are in the middle of (a transit zone) and women are not there, so the women are hidden.”