Twenty-four suspected members of a sex trafficking ring accused of forcing Nigerian women into prostitution in France go on trial Wednesday (Nov 6), the latest case to highlight the growing use of Nigerian migrants as sex slaves in Europe.
Nigeria was the main country of origin of the migrants arriving across the Mediterranean to Italy in 2016 and 2017, though their numbers have since dropped.
Many of the arrivals were women and girls lured to Europe with false promises of jobs as hairdressers or seamstresses, only to find themselves selling sex on arrival to repay their debts.
Nigerians now outnumber Chinese or Eastern European sex workers on the streets of France and some other European countries.
Last year, 15 members of a Paris-based female-led pimping ring known as the "Authentic Sisters" were sentenced to up to 11 years in prison for forcing girls into sex slavery in France.
Many were themselves former trafficking victims-turned-perpetrators.
Similar gangs have also been dismantled in Italy and Britain.
The investigation in Lyon, where police estimate half the city's sex workers are Nigerian, began after authorities received a tip about a Nigerian pastor accused of exploiting several sex workers who lived in apartments he owned.
The pastor, Stanley Omoregie, has denied the charges, which include aggravated pimping and slavery.
But in the transcript of a conversation submitted to the court, he is heard saying he wanted "those with beautiful bodies, who can be controlled, not those that cause problems".
The prosecution has presented him as the kingpin of a family-based syndicate made up of 10 women and 14 men, including one of Europe's most wanted women, Jessica Edosomwan, accused of recruiting destitute women in Nigeria for the sex trade in Lyon, Nimes and Montpellier.
Edosomwan, who is believed to be on the run in the Benelux countries, Italy or Germany, will be tried in absentia.
FROM PROSTITUTION TO PIMPING
The UN has estimated that 80 percent of young Nigerian women arriving in Italy - their first port of call in Europe - are already in the clutches of prostitution networks, or quickly fall under their control.
The accused in Lyon cover the entire gamut of sex trafficking activities, from iron-fisted "madams" and violent pimps as well as drivers of the vans in which the women perform sexual acts, and those tasked with laundering the proceeds of the trafficking.
Prosecutors estimate that 17 alleged victims, aged 17 to 38, made up to 150,000 euros (US$166,000) a month for the syndicate, selling sex for as little as 10 euros.
Most of the women come from Benin City, capital of Nigeria's southern Edo State, a human trafficking hotbed with a long history of dispatching women and men to Europe to earn money to send back home.
Many told investigators they had taken part in "juju" or black magic rituals before leaving Nigeria, during which they promised to repay the money they owed for their passage to Europe.
Many of the woman took the perilous migrant trail across the Sahara Desert to Libya and then across the Mediterranean to Italy before winding up in Lyon.
Among the accused is a 28-year-old former prostitute who was herself released from sex slavery after paying off her debts and who in turn brought over another young woman from Nigeria.
Months of police wiretaps and surveillance led to the arrest of the suspects between September 2017 and January 2018.
They risk 10 years in jail if convicted.
Related stories: Gang charged with sex trafficking girls from Nigeria arrested in Italy
Video - Nigerian women trafficked to Europe for prostitution at 'crisis level'