A Nigerian pastor is facing trial in France for allegedly running a sex slavery ring. He is charged with aggravated pimping and slavery, which he has denied.

35-year-old pastor, Stanley Omoregie claimed in court last week that he rented out apartments to young women without knowing that they were prostitutes.

“What do you think these women were doing to pay you rents of several hundred euros a month, without working, since they had no residence permit?”, the court president asked.

Omoregie claimed that he only wanted to help people in his community without finding out where his alleged tenants were getting their money from. In a text sent to an unknown number, he asks for “those with beautiful bodies, who can be controlled, not those that cause problems.”

The French-speaking Nigerian is part of an accused twenty-four member family-based syndicate of sex traffickers, including 10 men and 14 women.

One of Europe’s most wanted women, Jessica Edosowman is also part of the accused. She is thought to be on the run in Europe, and will be tried in absentia. Edosowman has been accused of recruiting women in Nigeria and trafficking them to France: in Lyon, Montpellier and Nimes.

French prosecutors estimate that, by selling sex for less than €10, Omoregie’s 7 alleged victims – aged between 17 and 38 – made up to €150,000 a month for the syndicate.

In 2016, illegal migrants from Nigeria made up 21% of more than 171, 000 migrants that attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Italy, according to figures from the Italian Interior Ministry. The United Nations Migration Agency said in 2017 that perhaps 80 per cent of Nigerian migrant women and girls arriving on Europe’s shores in Italy could potentially be sex trafficking victims.

By 2017, the UN Migration Agency in Italy had seen an “almost 600 per cent increase in the number of potential sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy by sea”. Most of these victims, the UN claims, arrived from Nigeria.

In France and other European countries, Nigerian sex workers now outnumber sex workers from other nations, including China and Eastern European nations. Before reaching the Mediterranean Sea, many trafficked victims travel across the Sahara Desert to reach Libya and, ultimately, Europe. According to UNODC figures, 94 per cent of Nigerian women and girls trafficked into Europe come from Edo State, a major trafficking hub in Nigeria.

Many sex workers trafficked from Edo State partake in black magic rituals in Nigeria before their journey begins. During these rituals, they make “spiritual” promises to repay the money incurred towards their passage into Europe. These “voodoo rites” forbid these women and girls from breaking their spiritual ‘contract’ with their traffickers. The fear of the spiritual ramifications of breaking a voodoo contract is used as a “tool of subordination” against trafficked sex workers and “impacts their will to return home without having fully paid their debt”.

”May God kill me now if a girl has worked for me,” Omoregie said in court. The accused sex slavery syndicate covers the entire cycle of sex trafficking activities, from former prostitutes who have paid of their debts and now smuggle in their own sex workers, to violent pimps, drivers of vans in which women performed sex acts for money, and money launderers who handled the money raked in by the sex workers.

Lyon police spent months of wiretaps and surveillance between September 2017 and January 2018, leading to the arrest of the suspects.

The accused face 10 years in jail each, if convicted. It is unclear what would happen to the trafficked women and girls, and whether Lyon authorities would give them full rights as both sex workers and illegal immigrants.

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