In some ways Becky’s life became a little blueprint of the situation in the world. She is not the first of the migrants I have worked with who have died and will most likely not be the last. Becky was 28 years old.
Rest in Peace, Becky. You will always be in my heart.« it said on a Facebook page a couple of weeks ago.
I often receive Facebook messages and posts, text messages and calls from the female migrants I have interviewed during my research on migration and trafficking from Nigeria and Thailand to Europe.
Everything from travel plans, questions about the best routes to Europe, selfies with kissy faces and sunglasses, photos of new-born babies, food pictures to quick messages on whether they can borrow money from me.
Death notices come up from time to time. A brother is dead in the Sahara desert on the way to Europe, a Thai woman was stabbed by a client in a brothel in Denmark, another one killed in a traffic accident in Thailand. A friend of Becky wrote the notice about Becky’s death.
I hadn’t heard from Becky in a few months. It wasn’t unusual. She had earlier lost her telephone to armed robbers, had countless new numbers, no money for Internet or been in her village or in Sahara without Internet coverage.
Last time we spoke Becky was about to cross the border from Nigeria to Niger. This was Becky’s third attempt to reach Italy through Niger and Libya. I had been waiting to hear from her. Then came this sad R.I.P.
I asked her Facebook friend what had happened. I thought she might have died on the way to Europe – in the desert or the sea. But that’s not how Becky died.
Europe is real
I knew Becky for five years. She died at 28. The first time I met her, she was laughing when she entered a small hot living room with red painted walls in a house on the outskirts of Benin City in the Southern Nigeria. A city from where most Nigerian women, who sell sex on the streets of Europe, begin their journey.
In the living room I was interviewing Faith and her mother. Faith had just been deported from Italy after selling sex on the street for six years. Faith knew more women who had been deported from Europe and women who, like Becky, dreamed of going to Europe.
After the first meeting with Becky, she and I spent a lot of time together. Becky was a driven zipped lip girl – a woman who, as Becky explained it, doesn’t say anything about anything to anyone, because that is the best way to protect yourself in Nigeria. But she did want to tell, vividly and with rich detail, about her life and her travels towards Europe to a harmless anthropologist.
We ended up making the documentary film Becky’s Journey with a small Nigerian film crew. Because Becky had a dream of becoming someone – to be famous – a dream of being seen and heard. She was fearless and sensitive. She had many and conflicting reasons for dreaming of Europe. Poverty was just one of them. One day Becky emptied the fridge for the chocolate I brought from Denmark for late field note writings. »Yes – I ate it all,« she admitted bluntly. »I love your chocolate. It’s real. Everything in Nigeria is fake. I love the shoes my (Nigerian, ed.) aunt in Italy sent me too. They are real. That’s why I love Europe. Europe is real.«
Becky travelled from the inland state Edo in the Southern Nigeria. The number of asylum seeking Nigerians, who arrive in Europe, has tripled in the last eight years, and even though the chances of being granted asylum are minimal for Nigerians, the numbers continue to rise – many travel via Benin City.
What is unusual compared to other groups of migrants and refugees is that much more than 50 percent of the Nigerian migrants are women. The inland state Edo is thus one of the seven places – ’hot spots’ – primarily in the Global South, from where women in particular travel to the Global North for marriage, the sex industry or become involved in trafficking.
The other areas are North-eastern Thailand, Eastern Rumania (not the Global South), North-eastern China, North-eastern Brazil, The Dominican Republic and the Philippines. From here women most often travel through so called ’intimate migrations’ – that is, the migration is linked to contact with a man or men – sex clients or husbands.
The flows of intimate migrations are growing rapidly on a global scale. In Denmark Thai women are now the nationality Danish men most often marry besides ethnic Danish women.
The research project I am responsible for, Women, Sex and Borders – Seeing Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking from the Global South, looks at this phenomenon through fieldwork in two sites – Edo state in Nigeria and Isaan in the North-eastern Thailand.
I have been working as an anthropologist on migration and in particular women’s migration for 13 years. Becky is not the first migrant I have worked with, who has died as a result – direct or indirect – from migration.
Our perspective on migration often takes it point of departure in the Global North. But how does it look in the other end, where the migration begins? Why do some places become ’migration hot spots’? Why do some places become particular ’hot spots for female migration’?
In these areas migration is an everyday condition, a strategy and an emotional state. Children miss their mothers abroad, old parents are dependent on the money being sent home, and everyone knows someone with a daughter in Europe. What does EU’s migration control mean in these areas?
Where information on new migration laws are received over the phone from the people who already left, read on Facebook or are heard through village gossip. In these areas the families and the development depends on the money of the migrants, but simultaneously migration control is blocking the usual routes to Europe.
In what way do border control render the routes more dangerous? What do migrant societies do then? Pick new routes? Which livelihood strategies do they choose then?
As long as the man pays
Becky didn’t just want to go to Europe because she was poor or wanted ‘real’ goods. She also wanted to be free. She wanted to free herself from her family’s and Nigeria’s shackles. Before she attempted to get to Europe the first time she converted from Islam to Christianity.
Becky was raised in a Muslim family in the inland state Adamawa, where Boko Haram are now raging. But »Muslim women don’t travel to Europe and do what I want to do,« Becky explained. So she travelled to the Southern Nigeria and became a Christian. She wanted to decide for herself whom to date; her family didn’t want to meet her non-Muslim boyfriends. But as she explained:
»I want to live like a white woman – I want to decide myself«.
The first time she tried to reach Europe she used the money for school, her father had given her, to pay for counterfeit travel documents. But she was stopped already in the airport in Nigeria. Nigerian border control officers are trained by European police officers to detect counterfeit documents and particular to prevent women who are under suspicion of travelling via a trafficking network.
The women are stopped already before they get on the plane causing the women frustration when they loose both their ticket and the opportunity to reach Europe. They are often placed in a crisis centre in Nigeria, paid for by donations from European countries, in an attempt to make them give up their dream of Europe.
This didn’t stop Becky – for her it meant that she couldn’t get on a plane, but had to choose a longer and even more dangerous and expensive journey through the Sahara desert. Becky knew that she was going to sell sex to make money, if she came to Europe. »If you don’t want to sell sex, then stay away from Europe.«
She knew someone who sold sex in Italy, who told her: »We give love anywhere – as long as there is a man who will pay for it.«
Becky believed, that migration and selling sex was the option she had to improve her life.
»The people I have met, who have sold sex, have looked beautiful, when they came back to Nigeria,« she said.
Thus, in 2011 she began her second attempt at migration. A female ‘madam’, who was already in Italy, now paid for the travel costs.
With 36 other migrants she travelled through the Sahara desert to Libya. From Libya they would cross the Mediterranean sea to Italy. After 10 days in the desert there was no more food and water. A young man, sitting right next to Becky on the back of the truck, died.
When they finally arrived in Libya, the civil war broke loose, and it was no longer possible to cross the sea. After hiding in Libya for two months she had to go back to Nigeria. On the way back her friend died.
The friend was nine months pregnant with a Libyan man, a sex client she had met while they were waiting to cross the ocean. She went in the labour in the desert, but the placenta was stuck. A fellow travelling woman told them, that the placenta could be pushed out, if the woman giving birth bit hard in a spoon. The little group of women and men stood by helplessly and watched the woman die.
Now Becky had a dead friend and a new-born baby in her arms. She delivered the baby to its grandmother in Benin City with a message that her daughter would call soon. Since then the film about Becky did well and sometimes it was possible to get money from screenings around the world. We sent the money to Becky. But the small amount of money and two failed attempts did not make Becky give up her dream of Europe, and towards the ending of 2015 she tried again.
Women who traffic
Becky’s third attempt was also through the desert. Before that she asked me if I knew if boats were still arriving in Italy from Libya.
»Yes, they do,« I said. »But Becky, it’s very dangerous. Don’t travel that way. Have you heard about all the boats that sink in the Mediterranean?«
»Yes, of course I know,« Becky replied, »I watch everyday on CNN. But I’m not afraid. If I die, I don’t care. If I get the opportunity to cross the sea, I will do it. I won’t stop before I reach Italy. I’ll do it for me and my family. But I hope that my madam can take me on a plane to Italy.«
Becky’s madam wanted 60.000 Euros to get Becky to Italy by sea. But then something happened. Becky negotiated the amount to 30.000 Euros. In return Becky would travel around Edo state and find five other women to bring along. Becky became an agent and trafficker herself.
Typically, the images we see of trafficking dominated by tragedy, exploitation and death are done by men. We see images of the trafficker – a man in handcuffs – and perceptions of the criminal, deviant man from the Global South enhances.
The women, on the other hand, are portrayed as the victims who are transported passively, and as I have earlier written, more often drown. But women are not just passive in trafficking. They may not be captains of the ships. But research shows, that women also take part in trafficking and the migration industry.
Women recruit, negotiate prices, instalment plans, collect wire transfers, clean the temporary housing where migrants sleep before they can be smuggled, cook the food and some are drivers.
Research on human trafficking and smuggling shows that there are three typical ways into the world of trafficking; via social networks or »the entrepreneurship of coincidence«; the person seeks out or is at the place where the demand for trafficking exist. The third way – which is typical for women – is, when the trafficking is part of the woman’s own migration. Becky got a cheaper ticket to Europe, if she took part herself.
One of the last photos she sent me was a selfie of her with four other woman – all of them with make up. These were women who were going with her to Europe, and they were drinking beer at a bar on plastic chairs in Benin City to celebrate that they would begin the travel to Europe the next day. A farewell party.
Becky against the world
Becky’s life is a portrait of the political and economic reality. A kind of blueprint of the situation in the world. Her life provides important knowledge of the many conditions that determine the routes of migrants – that doesn’t have anything to do with welfare models in Northern Europe. The small, lived and dreaming human life complicated and made impossible by conditions that were out of her control.
Becky’s trajectories were entangled with everything from Islam (which she converted from); Boko Haram (who up until now have killed six of her family members); the fall of Gaddafi in Libya (which thwarted her second attempt to reach Europe); EU’s migration control (who forced her to indebt herself to get to Italy) and corruption in Nigeria (a rich country in which the wealth is not distributed particularly).
Becky asked me:
»What do I say Sine when I get to Italy, if police takes me – do I say that I’m a victim of trafficking or escaped Boko Haram?«
The line between migrant and refugee is not always clear. Many are both at the same time.
Third attempt at Europe did not succeed – she had to turn around – was stopped in Niger. On the way back she got pregnant. The baby died in her stomach, and Becky died, because the doctor’s attempts at getting the baby out in the worn down clinic failed. Becky died of something as common as a pregnancy. As her friend in the desert.
Every year around 40.000 pregnant women die in Nigeria. With around 180.000 dead women a year Sub-Sahara Africa is the most dangerous place in the world for women to be pregnant. Of all things that could have killed Becky – from Boko Haram to the Mediterranean Sea – it was maternal mortality that killed her in the end.