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Human trafficking for sexual exploitation from Nigeria into Western Europe: The role of voodoo rituals in the functioning of a criminal network



This study is a content analysis of wiretapped conversations and police interviews concerning the criminal case of ‘Operation Koolvis’: an investigation into a Nigerian human trafficking ring for sexual exploitation in Western Europe. The criminal network traffics women from Nigeria, via the Netherlands as a transit country, to become street prostitutes in Italy. The aim is to explore the role of ‘voodoo’ in the functioning of the organization, applying transaction cost economics and rational choice theory. Four main categories of voodoo use were found. Firstly, voodoo is a coercive mechanism. Secondly, it is used cynically in cooperation between traffickers. Thirdly, there is non-cynical mention of voodoo as a belief system. A fourth category concerns voodoo priests as independent enforcers of contracts.
Human trafficking for sexual exploitation from Nigeria into
Western Europe: The role of voodoo rituals in the functioning of a
criminal network.
C.S. Baarda
Department of Sociology
University of Oxford
Accepted manuscript for publication in the European Journal of Criminology.
Cite as: Baarda, CS (2016). Human trafficking for sexual exploitation from Nigeria
into Western Europe: The role of voodoo rituals in the functioning of a criminal
network. European Journal of Criminology, 13(2): 257-273.
No one had ever beheld the Oracle Agbala, except his priestess. But no one
who had ever crawled into his awful shrine had come out without the fear of his
~ Chinua Achebe
The trafficking of human beings has proven to be a crime that is hard to
eradicate, despite the best efforts of law enforcing agencies (Aronowitz et al.,
2010). Since the 1990s, the severity and magnitude of this modern form of
slavery have increasingly been brought to the public attention (UNODC, 2006;
BNRM, 2007). The International Labour Organization has estimated that 2.4
million people throughout the world were lured into forced labour in 2004
(Andees, 2008). In industrialized economies, 55% of those in forced labour are
victims of sexual exploitation (Andees, 2008). Human trafficking is an urgent
social problem that deserves careful scrutiny of the empirical evidence.
The number of Nigerian victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation is
among the highest of any ethnicity in Western Europe, next to victims from
Eastern Europe. Each year, hundreds of Nigerian women are being trafficked to
Europe (Kamerman & Wittenberg, 2009). Dire economic circumstances and
images of a romanticized future in Europe play Nigerian women into the hands
of human traffickers. When Nigerian women are intercepted in European asylum
centres, questioning by the police is often complicated by a fear of occult
voodoo contracts that prevents the women from talking (Kamerman and
Wittenberg, 2009). This paper aims to contribute to the criminological literature
on human trafficking by exploring the role of voodoo as part of the functioning
of Nigerian human trafficking rings.
Voodoo in the context of the organisational features of trafficking
Prior to the empirical part of the paper, this section will provide a general
discussion regarding the organisational features of human trafficking networks
and Nigerian trafficking for sexual exploitation in particular. Voodoo will be
defined in the context of Nigerian cultural tradition as well as in terms of its
place in the modus operandi of human trafficking networks. This is followed by
a discussion of ideological barriers obstructing the expansion of knowledge on
trafficking. This paper answers to the literature calling for systematic empirical
studies to overcome these barriers.
Human trafficking networks are comparable to drug trafficking rings in terms of
their flexibility. When parts of trafficking rings are successfully removed
through police intervention, the remaining network can often be adjusted in
order to continue business. The remaining actors are able to find new business
opportunities through weak points in immigration procedures in other countries,
or by exploiting other criminal connections (Kleemans and Van de Bunt, 2003).
Human trafficking for sexual exploitation can be analysed as a process divided
over three stages. In a chronological order, the journey of a trafficked girl would
comprise a recruitment, a trafficking, and an exploitation stage. (Kleemans and
Smit, 2014). However, if the goal is to describe a full life cycle, a stage that can
be added to this analysis is the post-exploitation stage. In Nigerian networks,
women control women (Siegel and de Blank, 2010). The demand for new
victims ultimately comes from the ‘madams’, female pimps, who are former
prostitutes. The ‘madam’ owns a girl until she has repaid her debt. She pays for
the recruitment and transportation of the girl. The possibility of earning a good
income as a ‘madam’ in the future may be one of the incentives for victims to
comply in an exploitative situation. This results in a circle of victims turning into
Voodoo or juju is a form of witchcraft in Nigeria existing alongside Christian or
Islamic belief. Voodoo in the context of Nigerian human trafficking will refer to
a variation on ancient West-African religious traditions, in which a priest
connected to a voodoo shrine has the power to manipulate outcomes in people’s
lives (Van Dijk et al., 2006: 61). A journalistic account states: “In West Africa,
voodoo priests are still frequently used to seal financial transactions or root out
suspected thieves—often with a threat of a deadly curse for the wrongdoer.”
(Murphy, 2006). These priests may either have a public community role or serve
as private providers of religious services. Since the 1980s, there has been a
resurgence of voodoo priests who seem to cater specifically to the needs of
human traffickers (Van Dijk, 2001). Before leaving Nigeria, traffickers lead
recruited women to ancient shrines where voodoo priests perform rituals, which
can include the eating of chicken hearts, superficial cutting of the body with
razors, and the beheading of goats (Van Dijk, 2001; Van Dijk et al., 2006).
Voodoo plays into fears and beliefs that are latently present in Nigerian culture,
which are then abused and adjusted into rituals specifically for the advantage of
human traffickers (Van Dijk et al., 2006). This does not mean that trafficked
women have no agency at all; they may define and manipulate voodoo in their
own way, but from a vulnerable position in an increasingly unequal power
relation with their traffickers (Van Dijk et al., 2006).
Voodoo distinguishes the Nigerian modus operandi from other human trafficking
streams. For example, in Eastern European rings, direct monitoring is often
necessary: ‘loverboys’ bring women to Western Europe and exploit them under
the threat of violence in case of defiance (Kleemans and Smit, 2014: 6). In
contrast, Nigerian networks can exercise remote control. Recruited women are
made to go through elaborate voodoo rituals in Nigeria to enforce a contract,
which dictates that they will repay their enormous debt. The terror-inducing
rituals lead to a situation where the women will not run away when travelling on
their own, out of fear for themselves or their family being hurt by voodoo. Often,
the women cooperate in the rituals voluntarily, albeit under deceptive promises:
they may not be aware of the height of the debt and the exploitative
circumstances in which they will have to work in Europe (Kleemans, 2011).
More detailed empirical knowledge on voodoo is required to understand its role
in the modus operandi of Nigerian human traffickers, which is what this paper
will explore.
Even though there is impressive analytical work to build on, criminologists have
noted ideological barriers to progress in the field of human trafficking.
Kleemans and Smit (2014: 14) state that: “Discussion about smuggling and
trafficking are often clouded by generalizations, such as the cruel smuggler, and
the innocent, uninformed trafficking victim, lured into prostitution”. They add:
“The contested nature of both illegal immigration and prostitution, and widely
opposing views on these matters seem to block sound empirical research on
human smuggling and human trafficking” (Kleemans and Smit, 2014: 14). Many
statistical estimates are based on unrepresentative reports issued by governments
or NGOs (Zhang, 2009). Conclusions are based on superficial observations,
from unrepresentative data; researchers are trying to observe the unobserved
(Tyldum and Brunovskis, 2005). Currently, the majority of studies draws
inferences on the nature of human trafficking that lack systematic analysis
(Zhang, 2009). Only a limited number of contributions to the debate investigate
the organisational features of human trafficking. The debate so far has mostly
been ideologically rather than empirically informed (Zhang, 2009). It is not
enough to discuss sex trafficking as one of the most alarming transnational
criminal activities facing the world today; instead of passing moral judgements,
the phenomenon requires thorough, empirically informed understanding (Zhang,
2009). The following section introduces the research aims of this paper
answering to a call for empirical studies on human trafficking that avoid
ideologically informed bias.
Research aims and theoretical framework
There is a lack of systematic analysis of empirical evidence on the organisational
features of human trafficking (Zhang, 2009). This paper makes a contribution by
exploring new empirical evidence comprising wiretaps and police interviews on
a particular Nigerian human trafficking ring. The aim is to explore in what ways
voodoo is a part of the modus operandi. The phenomenon of voodoo in human
trafficking has long been disregarded as an occult myth that cannot play a real
role in crime (Van Dijk, 2001). For police forces dealing with human trafficking,
it was enough to explain voodoo as a coercive mechanism adding to the evidence
required to prosecute traffickers (Van Dijk, 2001: 572). This paper argues that
rational choice theory and transaction cost economics can help us trace the
choices that offenders and victims face. Through this method, it may be possible
to grasp why the use of voodoo may be a rational option to increase capacity and
therefore profit of the network. The perspective allows for an analysis of the role
that voodoo rituals play in the functioning of Nigerian trafficking rings.
One of the most important building blocks of society is the need to trade (Weber,
1922). Many modern institutions, such as the state and judicial courts, can be
traced back to the necessity to trade beyond a circle of personally trusted
contacts (Nozick, 1974). State governance is the standard mechanism to solve
issues in transacting, however, in several situations private ordering may be
more efficient (see Varese, 2010). The central question that arises when looking
at criminal organisations is how offenders are able to cooperate without legal
institutions to appeal to in case of disputes (Varese, 2010). The replacement of a
third-party enforcer with personal trust is not generally feasible: many criminal
organisations are made up of people who are used to cheating on agreements,
and require resources from people beyond their direct family or trustworthy
friends to operate (Campana and Varese, 2013). A credible commitment
between parties increases the costs of cheating or removes the possibility
altogether (Campana and Varese, 2013: 7; Dugatkin et al., 2007). Williamson
(1983: 519) contributes to an existing literature on credible threats, which are
unilateral efforts to gain an advantage; whereas credible commitments are
bilateral reciprocal acts of engagement to maintain a relationship with a long-
term goal in mind (Schelling, 2006). An example that is discussed extensively is
that of taking a hostage from the contract partner in order to make the cost of
cheating higher than the cost of cooperating (Alan, 2006). These insights will be
applied to the use of voodoo in human trafficking transactions.
Furthermore, this paper will make the case that the people dealing with voodoo
should be considered rational actors. It is a misconception that rational choice is
guided by objective facts. “Rational choice is subjective through and through.”
(Elster, 2009: 191). In this case, the agent may not be able to specify the
mechanism by which magical practices work, but the costs to gather more
information may be too high (Elster, 2009: 202). A person acting rationally can
find themselves in a “belief trap” that leaves them with a false belief, because
the assumed costs for belief-testing are too high (Mackie, 1996: 1009; see De
Graaf, 2013). An important theoretical finding in the case of monitoring human
trafficking victims is that “we easily believe what we fear” (Elster, 2009: 155). It
induces bias in the rational actor and leads to a less than optimal amount of
information. Fear tends to make an actor calculate the probability of an event
occurring again as much higher than the actual probability (Tversky and
Kahneman, 1986). Alongside individual fears, collective belief formation adds
an extra barrier to correcting the bias in one’s beliefs: “If we consider episodes
of rumour formation, it appears to be that only fear-based rumours cause people
to modify their behaviour.” (Elster, 2009: 384). Collective beliefs appear to be
more stable over time and often limit the individual to only making inferences
on the basis of indirect evidence.
The aim of this paper is to go beyond the dismissal of belief in voodoo as
irrational, but to consider it as part of the reality of rational actors we try to
understand. Applying this lens, we can analyse the role of voodoo in criminal
transactions. The following research questions are asked to explore the
dimensions of voodoo use in the data:
What is the role of voodoo rituals as part of the functioning of a Nigerian
human trafficking organisation?
o How are victims of the organisation bound to a voodoo contract?
o While we know that voodoo functions as a coercive mechanism, does it
play a role in cooperation between offenders as well?
o What service does a voodoo priest provide for the human trafficking
organisation and is this service internalized in the network or are priests
found on the external market?
‘Operation Koolvis’
‘Operation Koolvis’ was initiated after hundreds of Nigerian women arrived and
disappeared from asylum centres in the Netherlands since the 1990s (Kamerman
& Wittenberg, 2009). The investigation took place between 2006 and 2009. The
strategy behind this operation was to seize the criminal chain throughout the
recruitment activities in Nigeria, the trafficking to Europe via the Netherlands,
and its termination point in an exploitative stage where the women work in street
prostitution in Italy or Spain. This is a case study of the criminal network that
was under investigation in ‘Koolvis’. Instead of looking at individual cases of
victims arriving in the Netherlands, this investigation focused on mapping the
entire organisation. The human trafficking ring operated in the following
countries: Nigeria, the Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany,
France, and Italy. To give an indication of the volume of the data, the hardcopy
version comprises 65 files of 16,200 pages in total. The files include indictments
revealing who co-offended with whom, wiretapped phone conversations, lists of
money transfers and phone calls, and intercepted text messages and mail.
Voodoo Indictment
A part of the investigation is devoted to the use of voodoo. An indictment on the
mention of voodoo in the organisation encompasses a hundred pages out of the
total of file. This part forms an independent indictment showing evidence to the
court that voodoo is used for the means of coercion in this case. Under
circumstances, threatening with voodoo can constitute coercion under the Dutch
criminal code on human trafficking. 1
The voodoo indictment will from hereon be referred to as ‘the data’. The full
prosecutor’s files were checked for references to voodoo, including indirect
mentioning in the broadest sense, because some references might have been left
out of this particular indictment. Law enforcement officials who worked on the
case were consulted to place the material on voodoo in the context of the entire
investigation and to take the strategy behind the investigation into account. The
finding was that every reference to voodoo has been registered in the voodoo
indictment. It includes attributes of the actors, intercepted phone conversations,
and police interviews with victims and one key suspect. Table 1 shows an
overview of the data used to answer the research questions at hand.
Table 1 - Overview of the content of the 'Voodoo Indictment'
Study Design
The data are subjected to a qualitative content analysis. From the complete files,
only the voodoo indictment has been analysed after purposive sampling
(Krippendorff, 2004: 98; 118). The challenge in content analysis is the use of
data not intended for academic research. Content analysis allows for a coding of
the data as an ethnographic investigation of wiretapped conversations.
Ethnographic content analysis does not necessarily avoid quantification, but
encourages categories to emerge from the text. Krippendorff (2004: 74) states
that content analyses tend to be more successful when they focus on how
statements are made. Contractual agreements and inequality are constructed in
how language is used and in what is said. Valuable inferences can be made from
conversations in which actors were not (fully) aware of an audience listening in.
Krippendorff recommends capturing those statements that are their most
unpolished and raw. The police translator has frequently noted the tone of voice
and show of emotions in the intercepted phone conversations. A reading of the
full case validates the authenticity of the conversations; actors were not aware of
the interception of their conversations until the last phase of the investigation. A
thick description and ordering of the data will lead to results that are of a
hypothesis generating nature (King et al., 1994). The inferences made from the
raw data should do justice to the complex narrative the data hold.
After in-depth reading, the relevant sections of text were separated into units
with meaningful starts and ends. These units were collated in a table, together
with the relevant characteristics of the context: the overall theme of the
conversations, the interlocutors and their demographics, and the stage of
trafficking during which the conversation took place.
The coding was an iterative process. When assigning codes to units in
wiretapped conversations, the following proved relevant (Krippendorff, 2004):
who was speaking in what capacity, who was talking to whom, tone of voice,
and the context of the conversation.
When all units were coded, they were assigned to overall categories structuring
the results. Where the data was at its most raw - when deep faith or hope or
incriminating information was shared - anecdotal citations were included or
described in the results section (Morse et al., 2002). This contributes to the
validity of the results by illustrating how the data was processed from its purest
form to an analytical concept.
The coding of the data has resulted in twenty different codes that could be sorted
into four main categories relating to the research question. Direct quotations
from the wiretapped conversations and interviews will be included to increase
the transparency of the inferred conceptualization. The following table describes
the demographics of the actors involved in voodoo themed conversations. All
actors are of Nigerian nationality, which is why this demographic is omitted
from the table. Out of eleven key suspects followed throughout the entire
‘Koolvis’ investigation, eight appear in voodoo related conversations. Another
two ‘madams’ speak about voodoo, but they were not key suspects and their
conversations were not intercepted throughout the entire investigation.
... Personal items, such as hair, nails, underwear, and even blood, are then taken from them to hold them to their vows, and they are told that if they break their vows, evil will befall them and their loved ones [25,41,42]. While the participants described the rituals with disgust, solemnity, and even sadness, none referred to them as violent or brutal. ...
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Nigerian girls and women constitute a large percentage of African victims of human trafficking in Italy. Extensive research has been conducted on the causes, push-and-pull factors, and the perpetrators in the phenomenon of trafficking Nigerian women and girls into Italy. However, limited data exist on the women and girls’ narratives of their experiences during their migratory journey from Nigeria to Europe. Using data collected through a mixed method, longitudinal design, 31 female Nigerian victims of trafficking in Italy were interviewed for this study. This study gives voice to the experiences of sexual violence that these women and girls encounter during transit, leading to many of them arriving in Italy severely traumatized. It also discusses the health impact of these experiences and the different survival strategies that they are forced to employ. The study shows how sexual and physical violence is employed by smugglers, traffickers, and people in authority alike. It shows that the violence experienced along the way does not end after arrival in the destination country (in this case, Italy), but is, in some cases, exacerbated and similar to previous experiences of violence.
... Most notably, the 1949 German Constitution (i.e., the Basic Law) declares in its very first sentence in Article 1 that: "the dignity of man is inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority" (Baarda, 2016). Likewise, the South African Constitution has referred to human dignity as one of the founding principles of the Republic (Gozdziak, 2015). ...
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... Most notably, the 1949 German Constitution (i.e., the Basic Law) declares in its very first sentence in Article 1 that: "the dignity of man is inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority" (Baarda, 2016). Likewise, the South African Constitution has referred to human dignity as one of the founding principles of the Republic (Gozdziak, 2015). ...
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... Alongside the factors outlined above, voodoo practice, material culture, ignorance, weak value system, and lack of social protection are are further notable elements that influence the desire to migrate internationally (Okoye, 2013). Human trafficking and illegal migration for sexual exploitation, for example, are reinforced by voodoo practices, as girls are terrified of being murdered if they reveal their traffickersʹ names (Baarda, 2016). The World Health Organisation has also observed that disorganized child-fostering techniques, particularly of girls, can lead to lack of quality education and increased vulnerability to human trafficking and irregular migration (WHO, 2011). ...
... Alongside the factors outlined above, voodoo practice, material culture, ignorance, weak value system, and lack of social protection are are further notable elements that influence the desire to migrate internationally (Okoye, 2013). Human trafficking and illegal migration for sexual exploitation, for example, are reinforced by voodoo practices, as girls are terrified of being murdered if they reveal their traffickersʹ names (Baarda, 2016). The World Health Organisation has also observed that disorganized child-fostering techniques, particularly of girls, can lead to lack of quality education and increased vulnerability to human trafficking and irregular migration (WHO, 2011). ...
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... This fear would be evident, especially as traffickers often use physical, sexual and verbal violence (e.g. threats of violence, threats of denunciation in the case of irregular immigrants, threats of eviction from accommodation, bullying and intimidation, and using cultural and spiritual threats such as placing the victim under a Voodoo curse) to control and maltreat victims (Andrevski and Lyneham, 2014;Anti-Slavery International, 2006;Aronowitz et al., 2010;Baarda, 2015;Helfferrich, et al., 2011). Some victims may even fear returning to the circumstances from which they came (Farrell and Pfeffer, 2014). ...
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The relation between emotion and reason has been a major topic in Western philosophy since its inception. The topic of this article, the relation between emotion and rationality, is a more recent concern, reflecting the fact that the idea of rationality is itself a fairly new one. The article does not explore the distinction between reason and rationality, except to note that while the idea of reason has a normative purpose, that of rationality serves to explain behavior. Strictly speaking, the idea of rationality, too, is primarily normative. It tells an agent what he or she should do to realize his or her aims as well as possible.
Human smuggling and human trafficking are phenomena that require different policy responses. This article summarizes data, figures, and patterns concerning human smuggling and human trafficking. In practice, the two different phenomena may be intertwined. Human smuggling basically involves mutual consent between illegal immigrants, their families, and smugglers. In combating human trafficking, involuntary prostitution, helping victims, and prosecuting offenders are key issues. A much discussed element in forced prostitution is the involvement of criminal groups and organized crime. This article is devoted to policy measures and interventions and highlights research priorities for the coming decade. An important area for research is the method by which different prostitution and enforcement policies affect the opportunities and restrictions of various parties: clients, owners, pimps, and prostitutes.
In the context of human trafficking, women are frequently portrayed as victims, whereas men are usually seen as offenders. In this article, we will demonstrate that women can also fulfil active, even leading, roles in human trafficking networks. Based on data collected from 89 court files in various Dutch courts in 2006–2007, we have analysed the role, tasks, and activities of these women. Assessing their independence, their tasks, and the extent of their equality in relationships with male traffickers, we have divided them into three categories: supporters, partners-in-crime, and madams. We have found that there is a wide variety of possible roles within the framework of human trafficking activities, and that African madams hold key positions in international human trafficking networks.
A review of literature on sex trafficking since 2000 reveals that numerous articles have been published in scholarly journals but few are based on systematic primary data collection. Much of our current knowledge, including statistical estimates and characteristics of the trafficking business, derives from a handful reports issued by government and non-government agencies. With few empirical studies available, imagination seems to have filled the gaps of our knowledge. The problem was further complicated by a manifest (sometimes subtle) moral crusading agenda aimed at a deep-rooted and hotly debated social practice.Also noticeable in the literature is an increasing number of authors who have begun to challenge the empirical premises claimed by these published reports. These sceptical authors find that many articles of questionable quality have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and claim that the current discourse on human trafficking is driven by mythology rather than empirical research.Rather than dwelling on gaps in our knowledge or concerns over the moral overtone in academic research, this paper seeks to raise specific research questions and explore possible field strategies that can advance our knowledge on this topic. Regardless of one's moral compass, the future of research on sex trafficking cannot become credible without a solid empirical foundation.
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In this paper we will discuss the production of various types of data on human trafficking analyse existing data and research and suggest methods for improving enhanced data collection techniques and developing new methodologies. We will focus both on the development of estimates of victims of trafficking as well as the production of data that describes the characteristics of this group. The discussion will be based on a review of publications on trafficking for sexual exploitation in Europe (Tyldum et al. forthcoming) as well as our own experiences from the study .Crossing Borders. on transnational prostitution and trafficking in Oslo. During our research we found some answers but also met with several questions and challenges relating to obtaining the best possible quality of data. We hope that our experience in this field may be of use to others working on the same topic a research field that indeed holds great challenges but through its urgency and importance also great rewards. (excerpt)