Thousands of Nigerian girls are being invited by unscrupulous people to take advantage of Russia’s student visa system but instead, sex trafficking is forcing the girls into prostitution.
Emma Burrows from the German news service Deutsche Welle has been investigating how Nigerian girls are being lured to Russia under promises of a university education, along with a job to pay back travel and tuition fees. In many cases, it turns out some of these girls are being taken advantage of and instead of an getting an education, they disappear into the sex trade.
In the case in question, Blessing Osakwe told Burrows how a woman came to her hometown in southern Nigeria and told her there was work available for her in Russia. According to the woman, Osakwe would have a job working in a supermarket and that it would take only five or six months to earn enough money to reimburse the costs of the visa and the journey to Russia. The woman told her that after paying back the $40,000, Osakwe could keep any further money she made.
Mixedcreate_ENT How I was forced into prostitution – Nigerian girl: Blessing Osakwe. Photo: Deutsche Welle – B… https://t.co/w6Mq6hVxnW
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The temptation was great as Osakwe said her parents were very poor. Traveling to Russia would not only help her parents financially but would also save money for her education, so she agreed.
The problem was, when she arrived in Moscow, there was no job in a supermarket. Instead, the young Nigerian girl was forced to work as a prostitute.
Osakwe explained that she was driven around Moscow in order to have sex with men. In one case, she was taken to an apartment building where there was allegedly one man waiting for her. However, on entering the apartment, she found there were eight men, and she was to be forced to have sex with all of them.
Osakwe reportedly refused to have sex without a condom, causing the men to take back the money they had paid. They then beat and molested her, culminating in them throwing her from the fourth floor of the building.
In the fall from the building, Osakwe broke her hip and had to spend two days on life support in a local hospital until the treatment was stopped, due to the fact she could not afford to pay the medical bills. Since then, she is unable to walk properly and is confined to a wheelchair.
According to Usman Gafai, head of mission at the Nigerian Embassy in Moscow, he is aware of Nigerian girls being trafficked to Russia for sex.
“Ten years ago, it was not such a huge problem as this,” he told DW. “Those involved are an international cartel. On a daily basis they are growing and making money out of it.”
According to Gafai, the Russian government needs to “carry out proper scrutiny of visa applicants back in Nigeria.”
“The majority come to Russia on a student visa, and I want to see more scrutiny of that.”
Kenny Kehinde works with several Moscow NGOs that are focused on preventing human trafficking in Russia, and he says Osakwe’s story is nothing new. According to Kehinde, thousands of girls – mainly from poor, remote villages in Nigeria – are brought into the country each year for sex work.
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“This is international modern-day slavery, where the girls are brought here with the help of some Russian government officials, some Nigerian authorities and so-called ‘madams’ [pimps] who exploit these girls for sex in Russia,” he said.
Kehinde said most of the girls he had met had traveled to Russia on student visas, adding that these visas are not easy to obtain, as universities must provide supporting material for the applications.
He went on to explain that illiterate teenagers are also being trafficked, asking, “How can you bring a girl of 14- or 15-year-old to study in a university, when she cannot even read and write?”
As reported by Peace FM Online, Deutsche Welle was able to examine the passports and migration documents of six Nigerian girls, including those of Osakwe. In each case, the girls had arrived in Russia on student visas.
Some of the universities involved in the visa applications have said they had approved the applications, but that the girls never showed up.
In the case of Osakwe, the Smolny Institute of the Russian Academy of Education in Saint Petersburg had reportedly issued visa support documents in 2014 to allow her to study a Russian-language course in preparation for entering university. However, the university’s rector, Gaidar Imanov, told Deutsche Welle in an email that Osakwe never arrived at the university, and they didn’t even know if she had entered the country.
In another case, the Baltic Humanitarian Institute in St. Petersburg confirmed via email they had issued documents to a potential student from Nigeria, but that she never made contact with them to begin her course.
In both cases, the universities denied the possibility that their staff may have been paid to provide the documents for the students in order for them to be trafficked into the sex trade in Russia, saying the allegations were “fiction” and “absolutely baseless.”
According to the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, all students from Nigeria must undergo an interview, and border officials would not allow them entry into the country without confirmation from the university where they were supposed to study.
Reportedly, the Federal Migration Service in Russia told Deutsche Welle that they regularly check for migration violations and that immigration laws had been broken in over 325,000 cases in just the first two months of 2016.
However, despite several requests, the agency gave no explanation as to how Blessing Osakwe and other girls like her could enter the country on student visas and then simply disappear from sight for years into the sex trade.
According to Andrew Bogrand of the NGO Democracy International, despite legislation in place to prevent human trafficking, Russia has not shown a full commitment in tackling the problem.
“Prosecution, although existent, is very limited,” he said, adding that it is even more alarming that according to the few women’s rights NGOs in Russia, there is virtually no shelter space for women who are victims of sex trafficking or domestic violence.
He went on to say that corruption and sex trafficking are “inextricably linked” and that reportedly Russia “fares poorly in most corruption indexes.”
“As long as the state continues to turn a blind eye to the problem of corruption, trafficking will flourish.”
Osakwe has recently returned home to Nigeria where she hopes to resume her studies but says her experience has changed her life forever, and it is unclear whether she will ever be able to walk properly again.
She sent a heartfelt message to other Nigerian girls who might be tempted by job offers overseas, saying, “Stay back home, learn to work.”
“Even though the pay is small, it is much better than coming here to suffer or lose your life.”
An interview with Blessing Osakwe is included below.