In recent years, tens of millions of Africans have fled areas afflicted with famine, drought, persecution, and violence. Ninety-four per cent of them remain on the continent, but each year hundreds of thousands try to make it to Europe. As they head toward the Mediterranean, most Africans unwittingly travel the ancient caravan routes of the trans-Saharan slave trade.
With Libya in chaos, the old slave routes are ungovernable and awash in weapons, and tens of thousands of people are finding themselves trafficked in debt bondage, traded between owners, and forced to work as laborers or prostitutes. The overwhelming majority of female victims come from around Benin City, in southern Nigeria, where, for thirty years, family members have often been complicit in the trafficking of teen-age girls.
In this project for The New Yorker, Ben Taub traces the journey of a trafficked Nigerian girl named Blessing, whom he met in the middle of the sea. Reported from Nigeria, the Sahara desert, a rescue boat in the Mediterranean, and Italy, the story explores uncomfortable questions about migration, population growth, corruption, and human trafficking.
Will a crackdown on smuggling in the Sahel lead to a rise in terrorism? Have sea-rescues been coopted by criminal networks as a way to deliver underage girls to Europe’s prostitution market? How can Italian authorities police trans-continental Nigerian gangs when they can’t infiltrate the groups, and the phone calls they wiretap are in languages that they can’t understand?