Modern slavery of African migrants: Fleeing from hardship, trapped in servitude

Olusegun Akinfenwa: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 9 May 2021:

Due to poverty, wars, famine, and poor living standards, Africans migrate in droves to Europe, America, and Asia and other countries within the continent. Not all who wish to move have the wherewithal to obtain visas and other required immigration procedures. Hence many of them travel via illegal routes by land and sea. They pay smugglers to help them cross into Europe from the North or into America or Asia from the South.

Many of the African immigrants who travel via illegal routes end up as modern slavery victims. They become victims of human traffickers and are subjected to inhumane treatments in foreign countries. Some also travel via legal routes and with the right documents but still ended up in modern slavery abroad. In some cases, this is due to unrealistic expectation and lack of marketable skills and academic qualifications. All these desperations result from rising humanitarian issues, which have created a huge refugee crisis in Africa.

Horrific Road and Sea Travel Experiences

Travelling from Africa to Europe, America, or Asia via illegal routes has led many immigrants to their death. The majority travel to Europe and pass through the very hot Sahara Desert and the freezing waters of the Mediterranean Sea. From 2014 to 2019, reports show that more than 19,000 people died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

The report also shows that more people died while crossing the Sahara Desert. In 2017, travellers who survived crossing the Sahara Desert confirmed that many people die of thirst.

Earlier this year, about 130 migrants died after their boat capsized while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Many die from hypothermia, especially during the winter, and there are also reports of death from suffocation and fuel inhalation. Such reports are constant every year. Only the lucky ones survive and reach their destinations. Even then, many become slaves following false job promises.

Forced Prostitution

Thousands of African female migrants become prostitutes in foreign countries against their will. As reported by Los Angeles Times, 80% of about 10,000 female Nigerian immigrants who sail to Italy from Libya become sex workers. The situation is relatively worse in Germany, where organized prostitution is legal.

Gangs like the Black Axe Mafia manage the prostitution ring. Raids by the Italian police in early 2021 saw the arrest of thirty suspected Black Axe members on counts of many charges, including prostitution. Similar gangs operate prostitution rings in other foreign countries, including Dubai and countries in Central Asia.

According to the forced prostitution victims, these gang members promise them normal jobs upon arrival. These perpetrators transport them for free to pay back the cost when they arrive and start working. Most of them undergo voodoo rites to swear oaths. Upon arrival, they inherit debts that could be as high as $30,000 and must work as prostitutes to pay back.

Photo: Migrant domestic workers, hold banners demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers, during a march at Beirut’s seaside, Lebanon, Sunday, April 28, 2013.  (AP Photo/Hussein Malla).

Forced Labour 

Both male and female African immigrants turned slaves are victims of forced labour. They work for extended hours without being well paid, and they often work in unfriendly situations. Minors are also victims of forced labour. The Guardian reports of more than 3,000 child migrants being victims of forced labour.

The story of these forced labour victims isn’t different from other cases of modern enslavement of African migrants.

Traffickers come to them with promises of better shelter and employment. Instead, they end up working in poor conditions for long hours against their will. Sometimes, receive no payment.

Forced labour is also prevalent in Persian Gulf countries. Some female migrants lured with promises of good jobs are sold as maids to buyers in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, amongst other countries. Unlicensed agents who go as far as drafting false contracts for them exploit these victims. They also inherit debts as they reside in places provided by their exploiters.

Drug Trafficking 

Many African immigrants seeking to move to the Americas and southeastern Asia were deceivingly introduced to drug trafficking. These regions are operational bases for many drug cartels, and many West African drug cartels work together with them. They recruit unsuspecting African immigrants into peddling drugs. The cartel owners cover up their illicit activities with legal businesses, so it’s easy to lure victims.

The majority of African immigrants who are victims of this modern slavery are Nigerians. When arrested, these victims get long jail sentences. In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, the penalty is execution.

According to Amnesty International, in 2019, out of 1,281 inmates on death row for drug offences in Malaysia, 199 were Nigerians. Similarly, three Nigerians along with a foreign associate were executed for drug crimes in Indonesia. Some victims of this modern slavery are also caught in between drug cartel wars in which they are killed to settle scores.

Poor Working and Living Conditions

Many modern slavery victims of forced labour and prostitution live at the mercy of their owners. This is because the cartel leaders provide their shelter, food, and even clothing. As earlier stated, these aren’t for free as the slaves inherit them as debts.

With the huge debts imposed on these trafficking cum slavery victims, they have no option but to work and raise money no matter the working condition. According to one victim of sex trafficking, Blessing Ighodaro, she accepted her fate because she had nowhere else to go and nothing to live on in Europe.

In the case of these sex slaves, they have to answer to “Madams” (the ringleaders), who often are fellow Africans and former forced prostitution victims. In 2020, the Venice Flying Squad arrested two of these so-called Madams in Italy.

In Qatar, African migrants employed to work in preparations for the 2022 World Cup are also victims. As narrated by a Kenyan migrant, he put in extra work hours daily but received no extra payment. In addition, he worked all week without any day off and is sometimes unpaid for 3 months. Without any alternative, he borrowed money and incurred debts for himself.

Frustrations and Suicide 

As of result of these harsh and inhumane experiences, several African migrant slaves develop mental health issues that lead to frustrations and sometimes suicide. According to a study published on Science Direct, sub-Saharan African immigrants in Europe are at higher risk of common mental disorders or psychological distress than natives. However, this is more common among African immigrants in Persian Gulf countries.

About 35 Ugandans committed suicide in 2017 due to unfriendly working conditions in the United Arab Emirates. In another instance, a 36-year-old Ugandan jumped in front of a moving train in Dubai. Reports later showed that “frustration” from poor working and living condition was most likely the cause of the suicide.


Africa is too endowed naturally to be experiencing the current humanitarian crises that make its youths embark on desperate journeys in search of greener pasture. It is high time African leaders rose to their responsibilities and created an enabling environment that allows young people to thrive and realize their aspirations without undergoing servitude in a foreign land.

The widening inequality gap between the ruling class and the masses in most African countries must be closed. Similarly, the high unemployment rate resulting in hopelessness and frustration must be critically addressed.

About the author

Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration News, a news organization affiliated with Immigration Advice Service London. IAS is a leading UK immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the UK.


  1. A very good and realistic report. One thing I like to add is the unrealistic presentation of living in the USA and Europe in the mainstream media and television. Very often it pretends a wonderful easy living like in paradise. All nonsense. I like to repeat again, also there the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.

  2. Why, oh why risk your lives, brothers and sisters, in search of pastures new and greener; pastures which are not so new and green after all, in contrast to what they might seem when imagined from afar? How tragic for you to risk everything for the unknown out of desperation to run away from problems at home! Of course, when one considers the disasters both natural and man-made that have unfolded and continue to unfold in our continent, one can understand why you would want to risk everything to follow your dreams of self-realisation across such formidable natural barriers as the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, not to speak of the man-made, xenophobia-inspired obstacles of stringent immigration controls. However, to run away from it all in Africa only to suffer or even die anyway in foreign lands is to be caught between a rock and a hard place: a dead end that prolongs the agony and distress of running around in an inalterable circle of suffering. Let me tell you if you do not know that poor Uganda for all its problems alone shouldered in one year the burden of taking in more refugees than two of Europe’s richest nations – the erstwhile colonial powers of France and Britain – combined; powers which have conveniently forgotten that they had seized and plundered at will the resources of most of the continent for many a decade.

    This means that the notions of a common and shared humanity and of international solidarity remain notions only, lacking in substance and in concrete applicability. Perhaps Africans caught up in disasters had better forget Europe and North America and look up instead to more peaceful corners within their own continent for solace. This solution may be far from ideal but at least it will curb the flow of migrants across seas and deserts and the dangers to human life inherent in such a flow. That said, why are Western nations so unwelcoming? We have here human beings seeking refuge for the most part, and this, in of some of the most materially affluent countries on earth. What would it really cost these nations were they to give a helping hand to harmless souls wishing to improve their lot? What has become of Christian Europe and America? Have Christ’s teachings lost the battle of hearts and minds in the face of inflexible immigration laws and regulations? These countries need to examine their conscience to reignite any residual Christian-heartedness they might still have. It could be argued of course that migration including seeking refuge from disasters is a breathtakingly complex issue and that there are no quick fixes as a result. The states granting refuge must weigh their decisions in the light of competing priorities and interests, these being political, social, cultural and religious, having to do with the internal cohesion, harmony, security and stability of their own societies. But if truth be told, disasters and conflicts are a permanent feature of the human condition.

    These disasters and conflicts do not wait for those countries receiving the refugees to get their political, legal and bureaucratic acts together. What is lacking, to my mind, is a sense of urgency on the part of those nations which have the wherewithal to offer real and immediate help, to act accordingly. Didn’t Angela Merkel carry Germany along with her when she decided to accept over a million Syrian refugees at one ago? Were other rich nations to follow her example, would we not be in a better place? If the lethargy or lack of urgency has to do with say the outbreak of the Covid-19 disease, why was there the rush to bring home European and American expatriates from other corners of the world, where the incidence of the pandemic was, initially at least, ironically less pronounced? One should remember that the so-called developed nations today themselves witnessed in the past far bloodier and more destructive tragedies, on a scale both unprecedented and unequalled ever since: The First and Second World Wars. At the end of the latter, didn’t America mobilise its enormous resources to set up the Marshall Plan that saw the speedy rebuilding of Europe including Germany, which had caused that war and has now become the Europe’s economic powerhouse? Is the lethargy, or rather, unwillingness to address with the rapidity they deserve migrant flows from non-Western regions basically a consequence of racial, cultural and religious differences? And yet in Britain, France and America, the cry to value and celebrate difference, diversity, multiculturalism is fast reaching the point of hysteria. A hollow one, though, smacking of hypocrisy.

    • Please – may I remind forumites of the importance of keeping to the brevity / maximum words policy of no more than three paragraphs – each consisting of no more than 6 to 8 lines. Thank you.

  3. No doubt African leaders have failed us. As an African, it makes your blood boil, when you see Television pictures, of your fellow Africans being maltreated in the most despicable ways by peoples smugglers. Sometimes this would be migrants, are locked in empty containers ships, ware houses in the hottest countries of the continent, with little or no ventilation. They are abused and stripped of their humanity by their fellow African men, working in conjunction with sadistic Arab men. Will Arab men ever do that to their fellow Arabs. Only in black Africa. Some of our African brothers and sisters are sold in slave markets like cattle. In some cases, others are killed and their body organs harvested, and sold to middle eastern men. A report by a reputable news organisation, discovered in certain social media in the middle east, advertising African women fore sale, like products you pick up on line shopping.Today, there is a, resurgence of African conflict or senseless wars, from Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia, Darfur, the Sahel region in West Africa right through to the Congo and central Africa.

    And these wars are all fuelled by greed and corrupt politicians, that wants to use the God given natural resources of the continent, for themselves and their families and friends. That is why, when you look at our immediate neighbours, majority of which are ECOWAS member states, there has never been a moment to take stock by Bio and his government, to steer clear our country from such wars and destruction. You might think our country is peaceful. But that was the same mantra that was expressed in some parts of the North, when Charles Taylor lunched his war in Liberia. And subsequently, a, year later followed by Foday Sankoh and his RUF wars. The world is a village never mind your region. COVID19 started in central China, today the whole regions of the world is fighting it.

  4. First things first – Mr Olusegun Akinfenwa my sincerest thanks to you for sharing your ideas, thoughts and candid observations with us on such a matter of critical importance on this glorious forum. Indeed if wishes were horses beggars would ride and ramshackle bamboo huts would be transformed in the twinkle of an eye into the magnificent Palaces of Maharajas with glittering marble floors; Sir, if the affairs of our people were left in my hands to manage in the interest of stability and progress there would be no such thing as African migrants leaving their quiet, peaceful homes and loving families to risk their lives across scorching deserts and vast oceans. Our wicked leaders have failed Africa and generations yet to come woefully and are still continuing on a mission to nowhere that is an ever continuing failure.

    Mr Akinfenwa, an Eagle doesn’t build her nest on the peaks of mountains for amusement; it is because it is there that she feels her young ones will be safe from Predators. But African leaders are totally lacking in such admirable virtues that protect our young, that provide a safe and attractive environment for them so that they can start building their lives, thrive and succeed. This I know and I am sure of it in the depths of my soul. There is no man that will without carefully thinking things through just take life threatening risks if desperation doesn’t compel him to do so. It is suffocating hopelessness and the unbearable demands and frustrations of abject poverty that leaves them no other options but to seek solace and prosperity in places very far away from their beloved families.

    The Question of the moment now becomes – What must we do to reverse this disgraceful trend of African migrants spending incalculable amounts of money and taking life threatening risks that usually end as a humanitarian disaster? Why are African leaders silent on this issue that is tarnishing Africa’s image and extinguishing the lives of thousands of our people? If this is not a curse that can be removed only by Almighty God nothing else qualifies as such; We were taken as slaves in shackle and chains centuries ago and nothing’s change. Today we are selling ourselves to Europe, Asia, and America as slaves without a master looking for one to provide, protect and care for us. A truly sad story – the African story of survival.

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