Access to victim rights for trafficked Nigerian women in Austria – challenges and possible solutions

Caroline Sander

According to the Data Collection on trafficking in human beings in the EU, around three-quarters (74%) of the registered victims of Nigerian citizenship were trafficked for sexual exploitation and most of them were female. Nearly half of the total number of Nigerian victims were registered in Italy. 1 According to the Austrian police crime statistics, there have been only 10 registered Nigerian victims of human trafficking between 2012 and 2016. This could lead to the assumption that there are hardly any Nigerian victims of human trafficking in Austria.

In the framework of the EU-funded project “Best practices in tacking trafficking NIgerian Route” (BINIs), we were able to shed some light on Nigerian trafficking in Austria and on where its victims appear in the Austrian system of asylum and support. In fact, as suspected when starting the research 2 , many victims of trafficking from Nigeria are never officially identified as victims of human trafficking. The main victim protection center, who also counts victims who do not testify and therefore do not appear in the police crime statistics, reported to having received 90 Nigerian women only in 2017. Other NGOs, who directly work with Nigerian women in prostitution, also report to having taken note of strong indications for a trafficking background in many of the women in their care. So why are these women not being properly identified and what can be done about this?
A great challenge that both NGOs and the police encounter is that most Nigerian women do not want to speak about what happened to them, let alone testify against their traffickers. Their fear is rooted mostly in their belief in the power of the juju ritual they had to go through before their journey to Europe binding them to pay back their debt and never talk to any white person about their story, but also in the real threat of violence against them and against their family back in Nigeria. Even though their fear is very much justified, in consequence, Nigerian women are not able to access their rights as a victim and continue to be exploited in prostitution. Prostitution itself is legal in Austria and since there are not many other opportunities to legally work as an asylum seeker in Austria, many Nigerian
women do not see an alternative and remain in prostitution for many years until they have finally payed off their debts or are forced to leave the country. Some are able to leave prostitution when they become pregnant and decide to keep the baby, but most of them are still struggling with fear of being deported, either to Italy based on the Dublin Convention, or even back to Nigeria where chances of being re-trafficked are high. According to the Austrian asylum report 2016, 89% of Nigerian asylum requests were denied.

Although the national legal framework on human trafficking complies with international standards, experts in the non-governmental fields of sociology, law, and psychology/trauma in Austria see a need for change: NGOs know from experience that Nigerian victims as third-country nationals often first need to have the security of a residence title before they are willing to speak out. Therefore, all victims who are either identified by the police or by specialized NGOs should be granted access to all victim rights and should be issued a permanent residence title with access to important social benefits and access to the labor market – regardless of their willingness to make a statement with the police. Meanwhile, the reflection period should be prolonged to at least six months. Trust needs to be build up first, and this usually takes more than what a reflection period of 30 days allows for. Many Nigerian women are in Austria for three to four years before they actually speak out. But when
they do, their shared story probably turns out to be a lot more useful for police investigations.

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