For months, human traffickers beat and drugged Blessing, hauling the 27-year-old from one gold mine encampment to the next, where each night she was forced to sleep with dozens of men for less than $2 a person.
The madam who lured Blessing to the landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso with promises of a hair salon job, threatened to kill her if she tried to run away.
“Nobody comes to your rescue,” said Blessing, wiping tears from her cheeks during a recent interview.
In December 2019, while the madam was away, Blessing finally got the courage to escape. With the help of local residents, she and six other women left the encampment and walked to safety, ultimately ending up in a United Nations transit center for migrants in the capital city of Ouagadougou.
Blessing’s experience in the gold mining encampments is not unique.
As part of a months-long investigation into sex trafficking and the gold mining industry, The Associated Press met with nearly 20 Nigerian women who said they had been brought to Burkina Faso under false pretenses, then forced into prostitution. Some of the women, who like Blessing spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety, said they knew hundreds of others with similar stories. To protect their safety, AP is identifying the women by the names they used for sex work.
The AP verified the women’s stories through interviews with aid workers, lawyers, police, local anti-trafficking activists, health workers, a trafficker, and members of the Nigerian community in several towns throughout Burkina Faso.
People with knowledge of the trafficking say most of the women come from Nigeria’s Edo state, where promises of jobs in shops or salons in Burkina Faso sounded like a good way to support their families. Once here, they were sent to work off debts in squalid conditions at or near small-scale gold mines.
While both Burkina Faso and Nigeria have signed the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, neither has finalized a joint plan on how to combat trafficking.
Burkina Faso’s security sector, already struggling to stem a violent jihadist insurgency, is undertrained and ill-equipped to disrupt the expansive network of recruiters, traffickers, and pimps.
As a result, the country not only struggles with trafficking within its borders but has also been identified as a transfer point for trafficking women into other countries, according to reports from the US State Department.
One man arrested and detained by local authorities for trying to traffic three women across the Burkina Faso border into neighboring Mali told the AP he didn’t consider it human trafficking because he said the women knew they’d be working as prostitutes.
“I feel somehow bad because it’s not a good job for them to do. They say it’s just a voluntary decision,” said the 48-year-old car parts salesman from Nigeria, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation.
He told the AP that he had bought the women for $270 each in Benin and was planning to sell them for more than twice that to a Nigerian madam in Mali. He’d done the same with two other women back in 2019.
Burkina Faso is likely to be downgraded in this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report, an annual report issued by the U.S. State Department, according to two people familiar with the discussions who were not authorized to speak on the record. Generally, countries are downgraded if they haven’t made significant steps to curb trafficking. Downgraded countries could also risk US economic and diplomatic penalties.
Burkina Faso’s gold mining industry is relatively new. The first of its 15 industrial mines, all but one of which is for gold, started production in 2007, a few years after the government changed the mining law to attract commercial investors.
Today, Burkina Faso is the fastest-growing gold producer in Africa, and currently the fifth largest on the continent after South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, and Mali. Gold is the nation’s most important export, according to a February report by the German-based research group GLOCON. The industry employs about 1.5 million people and was worth about $2 billion in 2019.
More than 70% of the industrial gold mined is sent to Switzerland, according to 2019 data from the United Nations Comtrade Database, and the vast majority of it is processed by Metalor Technologies, a Swiss-based refinery of precious metal and one of the largest in the world.
Metalor Technologies said its suppliers are owned and managed by listed companies with a high sense and respect of corporate social responsibility standards.
“In Burkina, as in all other countries we do work with, our suppliers have followed a thorough due diligence and compliance process to make sure that the way they operate do respect human rights and environmental standards,” the company said in a statement, adding that it follows guidelines set by groups such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organization composed of 37 member countries established to stimulate economic progress and world trade.
Gold from Burkina Faso is also likely used to make products sold by companies in a number of industries, including the technology sector, according to conflict mineral reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
In the filings, companies say they perform due diligence to make sure that the gold used in their products is not being mined or processed by forced labor or exploited workers. But many companies admit that they are unable to verify with absolute certainty the source and chain of custody of gold used in their products.
The SEC reports are designed to cover human rights abuses and trafficking that are directly tied to the supply chains, not the trafficking of women for sex work that occurs near operations that mine the gold.
“These kinds of exploitation (can) take place outside of the mining areas, so stakeholders don’t see it as their responsibility. However, the product is being produced in an ecosystem of human rights violations/sex trafficking,” said Livia Wagner, senior expert at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, in a message via WhatsApp.
Experts and local officials say most documented human trafficking cases of women appear at small-scale gold mines, not the larger industrial mines.
The gold from the country’s approximately 800 small-scale mines is hard to track. Much of it, particularly from the east, is smuggled across Burkina Faso’s borders with Togo, Benin, Niger, and Ghana, according to the Institute for Security Studies, based in South Africa. Industry experts said this gold likely ends up in Dubai. The government of Burkina Faso estimates the illicit market produces more than $400 million worth of gold a year.
Salofou Trahore, general director for Burkina Faso’s regulatory body for small-scale mines, said he was unaware that women were being exploited at the sites. The government is in the process of regulating small-scale mines more strictly, he said. Trahore added that this would provide better oversight of the mines, as well as tracking environmental and human rights abuses.
In one now-vibrant mining community, the southwestern town of Hounde, the opening of an industrial gold mine four years ago led to an increase in brothels from one to six, according to Jean-Paul Ramde, whose organization, Responsibility Hope Life Solidarity Plus, gives women HIV/AIDS tests and condoms.
“Where there are gold mines, there are many evils that develop around it, including prostitution,” said Oumarou Dicko, the head of the government’s Department for Family and Children in the region that serves Hounde.
Prostitution exists in a legal gray area in Burkina Faso — it’s not illegal, but soliciting it is. Police say it’s hard to prove if someone has been trafficked into sex work because women fear retaliation from criminal networks.
The limited available figures show an increase in reported trafficking cases in recent years. The UN International Organization for Migration helped over 35 people trafficked last year in Burkina Faso, compared with 12 for all of 2018, said Claire Laroche, the organization’s protection officer.
In Secaco, a makeshift mining town tucked behind uneven dirt roads deep in the brush, trafficked women live and work in tiny, ragged tents with plastic sheeting. Here they have sex on thin mattresses on the dirt floor with 30 men a night, trying to earn their freedom.
A 27-year-old called Mimi said recruiters told her she’d have a job to support her three children when she arrived in Burkina Faso. Two months later, she still owed her madam $1,200.
“It’s a jungle and I want to survive,” she said.
Like many others, Love thought a steady income awaited her in Burkina — in the 35-year-old’s case, to support her 13-year-old daughter.
“In Nigeria, there are a lot of graduates but no jobs,” Love said. She was told she’d be working in a boutique but was instead forced into sex work with miners.
Joy, a divorced mother of four, said she arrived early in 2020 because she couldn’t make enough money in Nigeria to support her children. The 31-year-old was told she’d work in a shop. Upon arrival, she was given a condom and taken to a mining site for prostitution, she said.
The clients, mostly local miners or men from neighboring Mali or Ivory Coast, often refuse to pay and become physically abusive, the women said.
Nigerian women are usually taken to the western city of Bobo-Dioulasso and sold for upward of $700 to different Nigerian madams, according to interviews with several women, a trafficker, and local authorities.
The madams confiscate the women’s passports, phones, and money, then force them into sex work in brothels in makeshift mining towns adjacent to the small-scale mines or in larger towns near the mines. Few of the women speak the local language or know the area.
Boukary Ouedraogo, the police commissioner in Bobo-Dioulasso, said that on many occasions when a trafficker or madam was arrested, community leaders have tried to negotiate for their release, which points to complicity within the Nigerian community, he said.
“When the (Nigerian) representatives in Bobo-Dioulasso come, what they want is that we release the person,” he said. “If someone’s in breach of the law and you ask us to release him, it means that you defend him,” he said.
Women are bound to the madams until they pay off their debts — which often approach $2,700. Madams often threaten to kill them with juju, a form of witchcraft, if they try to escape.
Some of the women were recruited by the madams themselves, approached randomly on a bus or in the market in Nigeria, and asked if they wanted to earn a better living. Others were referred by friends or acquaintances, usually young boys paid to recruit women.
Once recruited, the women travel for approximately three days with the traffickers. The typical route is through Cotonou, a large port city in Benin, and then north, sometimes passing through Togo, into Burkina Faso.
They travel on public buses with the traffickers or in private cars. They may tell border police they are the traffickers’ wives. Underage girls are given fake identification cards made in Benin, according to the women, one who showed an AP reporter the forgery.
In some cases, a family sells a girl. Natasha, 17, said she was told nearly two years ago she’d be going to school but was sold to traffickers by her aunt for approximately $700.
“I was like. ‘Oh God, is this how my life’s going to be?’ This isn’t my dream. I didn’t dream of coming to this place for prostitution. I was thinking of better things, like school,” she said.
The traumas these women have suffered are clear, according to local activists who help them.
“When you try to dig deeper, they change the subject and don’t want to talk about it,” said Stephanie Benao-Ouedraogo, a social worker for Association Tie, a local organization focused on child protection.
Human trafficking experts said abuses will continue until the mining industry — including buyers atop the supply chain, such as jewelers and electronics makers — take responsibility for where the gold originates.
“There’s a lot of focus on conflict minerals, but people have to be aware that gold is also being produced in a context of exploitation,” said Wagner. “People are being bought and sold, that’s basically putting a price tag on a person.”
In January, a new European Union law came into effect aimed at stemming the import of conflict minerals and metals. The law, the Union’s first, requires that gold imports be sourced responsibly, including due diligence on human rights abuses and forced labor.
Burkina Faso is one of several countries mentioned in the legislation as being high-risk, and therefore requiring extra oversight. The new law says gold mining has been a source of conflict in the region since the late 2000s, usually between local communities, artisanal miners, the state and private security forces.
Meanwhile, the women whose lives have been upended are pleading with the traffickers to stop.
Blessing wants to start a business selling sugar and flour with her mother in Nigeria, where she has returned. She knows others have lost hope.
“Many girls that had good dreams of becoming something meaningful in life. (The traffickers) use this stuff to damage their thinking, to damage their hopes,” she said.