TARIFA, Spain — Mercy lay motionless on the bed, afraid to move as the stranger pulled up his trousers and refastened his belt. Even after he left, she remained frozen. An hour passed. Then another. When the other girls in the brothel grew concerned and tried to coax her out of the room, Mercy screamed at them through her tears.
“No! That man is still out there!”
Mercy was 23-years-old and had been in Spain less than a month before financial need drove her to begin renting out her body. That was over 10 years ago, but she still remembers her first client with perfect clarity.
Mercy fled her hometown of Benin City, Nigeria after escalating political violence threatened her safety. It took her over a year to reach Spain, propelled by the hope that Europe would provide a chance at a new beginning. She hadn’t pictured a scene like the one she now describes — shackled by fear inside a dimly lit bedroom.
Rates of sub-Saharan migration to Spain are increasing as border crackdowns in Italy and Greece force migrants to seek alternative routes to Europe. Over 28,000 irregular migrants — migrants who cross borders outside the European Union’s legal framework— were detected arriving in Spain throughout 2017, according to United Nations Refugee Agency, more than double the previous year.
Since early 2015, when migration rates to Europe began to surge, the most popular migration routes have been across central and eastern regions of the Mediterranean. But Italian-led training of the Libyan coastguard, and the reintroduction of an forced return policy, has resulted in fewer boats disembarking from the Libyan coast. Between January and mid July of 2017, Italy received over 93,000 migrants by sea. During the same timeframe this year, they’ve received less than 18,000.
Forced to look elsewhere, more migrants are choosing the western Mediterranean route— entering Spain via Morocco or Algeria. This is the first year Spain could potentially surpass Italy in the number of migrant arrivals. As of Aug. 13, Spain had received over 30,000 migrants to its mainland shores and enclaves.
Most of these arrivals originate from West African countries, namely Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Gambia, although a significant number also come from Morocco and Syria. African migrants and asylum seekers are overwhelmingly male, due to persisting gender disparities that give men more financial independence and social mobility. But hidden in the rising rates of migration is the increasing number of women who are choosing to risk the journey.
The path connecting Africa to Europe is particularly dangerous for women. Traveling alone leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse. Human rights activists think Spain isn’t doing enough to identify and protect sub-Saharan women who have been victims of gender-based violence.
“Women are not visible,” says Teresa Fernández, an attorney with Women’s Link Worldwide, a Madrid-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of migrant women and girls. “A gender perspective is completely lacking in the asylum office.”
Spain granted its first case of asylum from gender-based persecution less than five years ago to a Nigerian woman and her child who were victims of human trafficking. The woman’s story is not so different from Mercy’s — charged thousands of dollars by smugglers and forced to prostitute herself in Spain to pay off her debt. But Mercy didn’t receive the same protection. According to Fernández, few women do.
Part of the problem is a lack of information on female migrants. The Missing Migrants Project, an initiative of the United Nations Migration Agency, collects data on migrants who are missing and presumed dead all over the world. Since 2014, the project recorded the deaths of 1,234 women, more than half of whom died while crossing the Mediterranean. The actual number of women who have died on this route is likely much higher — only 31 percent of recorded incidents include information on the gender of the deceased.
Last year the Missing Migrants Project recorded the deaths of 525 migrant women, mostly from drowning. While the nationality of many of these women could not be determined, the largest identified demographic was sub-Saharan African women.
“The situation in Nigeria is not easy to survive,” says Mercy, tucking a thick curl behind her ear. She was just 20-years-old when she and her younger sister left home and headed for Ivory Coast to stay with a friend while they saved money to travel to Europe. “If your husband beats you, or your boyfriend beats you, you can’t say anything. It’s normal.”
“It’s not safe,” chimes in Ana, a 39-year-old woman from the Anambra state in southeastern Nigeria. She wears a crisp linen shirt and her hair tied back in a low bun. A gap in her front teeth reveals itself when she smiles. Ana fled her hometown 20 years ago after she was raped by a stranger in the street while walking to school.
“He was big. What could I do?” asks Ana. “As a young single girl, [men] look at you and they catch you and rape you. ... Even if you’re shouting, they’ll just take you.”
After her assault, a local priest helped Ana secure passage on a ship from Nigeria to Morocco, then to Spain. But Mercy didn’t have a helping hand. She and her sister spent over a year in Ivory Coast selling produce and braiding hair to save money to continue their journey to Europe, but in the end it wasn’t enough. The cost for them both to travel to Europe was astronomical, and they couldn’t afford to finance two dreams. Because she was the youngest, Mercy’s sister returned to her family in Benin City.
Mercy continued on alone.
The most common road connecting West Africa to Spain stretches through either Mali or Niger to the southern border of Algeria. From there, migrants must cross the unforgiving Sahara desert, usually by a combination of walking and hitchhiking. By the time they reach the Algeria-Morocco border, weeks or months may have passed.
The cost of the journey is staggering. The price of smugglers, guides and falsified documents can reach tens of thousands of euros. Mercy says the smugglers who carried her across the desert originally quoted her 35,000 euros, but sometimes refused to acknowledge when they received her payments and would demand more money. By the time she reached Spain, she owed over 48,000 euros.
Mercy planned on getting a job as soon as she arrived in Spain to start paying down her debt, but didn’t account for the time it would take to secure a work permit. Both asylum protection and a smaller subsidiary protection contain work permits, but Spain’s asylum office is overwhelmed with applications.
When migrants apply for asylum in Spain, they are supposed to be granted an interview to discuss their status within a week. According to Women’s Link Worldwide, wait times are currently closer to six months. As of March, over 43,000 asylum seekers were waiting for word on the status of their application, according to a spokesperson at the United Nations Refugee Agency office in Madrid.
During those six months, migrants are undocumented in Spain with no guarantees. Many women feel unsafe reporting crimes such as abuse or sexual assault for fear of being deported back to their countries of origin. It also forces women to seek employment outside the formal workforce.
With a substantial debt on her shoulders and without a work visa, Mercy found a job in one of the only industries available to her: prostitution. She worked at a nightclub in Ibiza for several months taking on five or six clients a day.
“My goal was just to pay my visa, to pay my rent,” says Mercy. She was eventually granted subsidiary protection and completed a vocational education course that certified her to work as a caregiver for the elderly. During the course, she met Ana.
Even with a work permit, Mercy and Ana say life in Spain is a far cry from what they imagined. Work permits need to be renewed twice a year, so Spanish employers are reluctant to hire employees that may not be legally able to work in six months time. This makes it more difficult for migrants to enter the workforce.
“[People in Spain] can’t imagine what happened to you. They don’t feel what you feel. Nobody can understand,” says Ana.
Mercy and Ana may have found the promise of Europe to be hollow, but thousands of sub-Saharan women are still called by that dream.
One of those women is Alima, a 45-year-old woman from the Central African Republic who lives on the outskirts of Tangier, Morocco. Her parents turned her out of the house when she was just a teenager after she became pregnant with her first child. She’s been trying to reach Europe ever since.
“I gave myself the courage to leave,” says Alima, sitting cross legged atop a large mattress on the floor of her bedroom in a dilapidated one-story brick building. “I left because I continue to search for happiness.”
Alima believes that happiness waits in Europe. Standing on the beach in Tangier, one can see the clear mountains of Andalusia rising out of the water, just 14 kilometers away. It’s so close it almost looks swimmable. But to migrants who traverse thousands of kilometers to be trapped on the wrong side of the Strait of Gibraltar, it feels like a cruel joke.
For Alima, the road has been more challenging than most. She says she was sexually assaulted multiple times on the road from Central African Republic, including a brutal gang rape by 16 men after they found her sleeping in a bus station in Algeria.
Earlier this year, she says she was assaulted by a taxi driver outside of Tangier. Unable to find work and low on money, she accepted the man’s offer of cash in exchange for sex. He drove them both to the forests outside of town, handed Alima a 50DH note (about $5) and unbuttoned his pants. When he finished, he pulled a knife and stole back the money, leaving Alima on the side of the road.
Despite the grave subject matter, Alima wears a warm smile. Her eyes become animated when talks about her daughters, who are now grown and live together in Cameroon. She calls them via FaceTime everyday to tell them how much she misses them, but to join them in Cameroon would be to go backwards. To her, all she’s suffered has been in pursuit of Europe. That goal still pulls her forward.
“I will go to Europe even if I die on the route,” says Alima with a chuckle, but she knows it’s no joke. “I will face Europe and see for myself.”
Ana remembers a time when she felt the same way.
“Even if you’re going to die, you don’t care,” Ana recalls. “But as you grow, you see the reality of life. You see the other side. Then you begin to think, ‘If I had known, I wouldn’t have left.’”
Mercy agrees. “No, no, no,” she replies with haste when asked if she would risk the journey again, having now experienced life in Europe. “I wouldn’t do it.”
Alima doesn’t want to believe that. She’s heard people say that life in Europe isn’t easy, but she still believes it will be better than where she comes from.
“Day by day, I can speak more openly about what happened,” says Alima. Her face glows as she scrolls through photographs of her daughters. “I really love talking about my life, because my life is a story.”
She looks up from her phone with a smile.
“I have many more stories.”