Ten suspected human traffickers went on trial today in Zwolle, near where I live, as a result of an African pastor friend of mine breaking voodoo curses over young Nigerian girls forced into prostitution.
The ten men were part of a larger international trafficking gang rolled up at the end of 2007: 18 people in seven countries. The remaining eight members are standing trial in Italy and Nigeria.
Picking up Saturday’s copy of NRC Handelsblad, I read to my surprise the front page headline: Pastor ‘frees’ sex-slaves. Then the opening sentence: ‘God had to be brought in.’
To my further surprise, I read my friend’s name in the second sentence of the story, explaining how the police and the justice department had asked him to help. They had found themselves powerless to deal with the fear holding the girls back from testifying against their traffickers.
After the police had arrested the gang members in the international operation, they were dismayed when none of the victims were prepared to lay charges or testify.
Again and again the police visited the girls in their rehabilitation centre, returning with father-figures and other young women. But the girls remained tight-lipped and even hostile towards the police.
The authorities realised they were up against a double fear. The girls’ handlers had told them the police would throw them out of the country. And, more terrifyingly, they would reap the consequences of voodoo curses spoken out over the girls during rituals in Nigeria if they broke their contracts.
So, the police engaged the help of a former victim now working as a translator for the justice department to help the girls overcome their fear of the authorities.
But breaking voodoo curses is not dealt with in police training manuals. Someone then suggested the name of my Nigerian pastor friend leading a bible academy in Amsterdam.
He agreed to talk and pray with the girls, explaining that the God of the Bible was more powerful than the curses. One by one he earned their confidence, and eventually ten of them agreed to bring charges and to testify.
For the justice department, this trial is historic. It is the first time they have picked up a whole chain, from the start to the finish. Many European countries, including France, Belgium, Great Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy, worked together to achieve this end. One official said that while the EU was a TGV economically, at the justice level it was still a plodding horse and cart.
The process has taken nearly 17 months to prepare, and many witnesses have been heard in several lands. The prosecution has collated 65 files, each with 500 pages. This operation has brought the fight against human trafficking to a new level of cooperation and execution.
The defense lawyers, however, argue that the girls are being manipulated to bring false accusations in exchange for residence visas.
For the girls themselves, cross-examination by hostile lawyers working for their bosses is a heavy ordeal, leading to nightmares and revived fears. On top of that, they have still received no guarantee of residence permits.
Although figures are difficult to confirm, authorities estimate that some 500,000 women are trafficked into the EU every year. To bring prosecution has been particularly difficult. Last year in Holland, the justice department opened 524 investigations, of which only around 200 ended in convictions.
Human Trafficking used to be third on the list of profitable organised crime, next to arms trafficking and drugs, but now it is at least equal to these options in terms of earnings.
Many young girls have been arriving at Schiphol airport from Nigeria, escorted to the immigration control, at which point the escorts disappeared ‘for something to eat’. The girls were taken into houses for single, minor asylum-seekers, where they were easy prey for traffickers to pick them up on their way to school or church. Within the EU’s borderless nations, the girls were easily transported to Italy and other southern European nations and forced into prostitution.
Hopefully the new level of cooperation achieved through this operation will be maintained to erode the well-oiled machinery of this 21st century slavery.
But it will still probably require divine intervention literally to ‘deliver’ the witnesses.
Till next week,
Till next week,