Home » Research » Spellbound: witchcraft and human trafficking

Spellbound: witchcraft and human trafficking

At the end of October 2012, Osezua Osolase was found guilty of five counts of trafficking, one count of rape and one count of sexual activity with a child.  What made this case significant was the use of ‘juju’ rituals or witchcraft as a method of controlling his victims, one of whom was only 14 years old.  Though it received sizeable media attention, the Osolase case was not the first of its kind in the UK.  For example, in July 2011 another man, Anthony Harrison, was also found guilty of trafficking young Nigerian girls into the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation and similarly used witchcraft.

So what is ‘juju’? Why is it such an effective coercive tool in the facilitation of trafficking? Is the perverted use of this West African religious/cultural practice inherently any different from other methods of control used by traffickers? Is it Euro-centrically arrogant to focus on this method of coercion –reinforcing a salacious obsession with the ‘dark heart of Africa’?

The Collins Dictionary states that the word ‘juju’ probably originates from the Hausa word djudju – meaning evil spirit – and defines ‘juju’ as:

an object superstitiously revered by certain W African peoples and used as a charm or fetish; the power associated with a juju; a taboo effected by juju; any process in which a mystery is exploited to confuse people.

The use of ‘juju’ in trafficking takes a range of forms and is most common in the trafficking of victims from West Africa, particularly Nigeria, into Europe.  According to The Independent:

There are 100,000 trafficked Nigerians in Europe, and 80 per cent come from Edo – a southern state that is home to only three per cent of Nigeria’s population. It is the trafficking capital of Africa, and home of the traditional West African religion they call juju.

Generally, ‘juju’ is used by traffickers to reinforce contractual obligations by victims; for example, those recruited for work overseas undergo a ‘juju’ ritual, which binds them to their trafficker.  The trafficker has a hold over their victim via a verbal or written contract supported by spiritual control.  Academic Mwizenge Tembo, cites witchcraft as ‘one of the most abused, misused, and misconstrued concepts’ by Europeans but importantly notes that amongst its many uses is as a sanction for social behaviour.  In this respect, it makes sense that witchcraft is able to function within a trafficking situation as a method of enabling the coercion and on-going compliance of victims.

What form does witchcraft take? In the case of one of Osolase’s victims:

… she was taken to a house of witchcraft in Lagos before she was brought to Britain for a promised education that she never received. The teenager was handed a mixture consisting of what appeared to be blood and cloth and told to bathe in it and wrap the cloth around her. A priest cut hair from her armpits, some of her finger and toenails and extracted blood from her hand.  Removing body parts meant that they could be controlled from afar. Another teenager said the woman was told that the body parts taken in the ritual would be used to find and kill her if ever she tried to run away or spoke out against him.

Further, according to the Daily Mail, Osolase himself, as opposed to a ‘juju’ practitioner, also performed these juju rituals on one of the victims.  Siddarth Kara, who has undertaken research on this issue, claimed:

…I managed to meet a few juju priests. I also met the head priest of the entire Edo State. It was a deeply nerve-wracking experience. Outside of his shrine, the head priest displays dozens of framed pictures of disfigured followers who have broken their oaths, claiming the power of his curses caused their disfigurement.  The head priest’s followers were filled with absolute fear…

Certainly the pernicious use nature of witchcraft seems to be increasing and has particular resonance within children, as highlighted in a discussion paper by ECPAT UK, which states:

In Nigeria, traffickers frequently use ritual oaths to make children compliant…These ritual oaths are an essential part of African indigenous or traditional religions,  … [and] can have a significant influence over children, particularly since many of the children come from backgrounds where traditional religions and ritual oaths continue to be practiced.

In addition to the use of ‘juju’ rituals as tool of coercion in trafficking, the belief that children may be witches and wizards also impacts their vulnerability to situations of exploitation.  Research undertaken by Stepping Stones Nigeria and the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) published in 2007 focused on the “traditional harmful belief in child ‘witches’” in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria and found that a belief in child witches/wizards has substantially, negatively, impacted the rights of children; this in turn had increased their vulnerability to exploitation and trafficking within Nigeria and the region.  In these cases, children accused of being witches/wizards are abandoned by their families and forced onto the streets.  Stepping Stones recommend a greater exploration of the correlation between child abandonment, as the result of witchcraft accusations, and trafficking; further, while Stepping Stones were able to establish that children were being trafficked locally and regionally, there were unable to state with certainty how many of this children were trafficked to the UK.  This is an area in need of further examination, especially considering more recent figures from the UK Human Trafficking Centre:  202 victims of child trafficking were identified between 1 January to 15 September 2011; of these, 29 were from Nigeria with a further eight from Congo, two from Gambia, and six from both Ghana and Guinea.

The use of witchcraft as a method of control and coercion is so insidious that even once victims have been identified and removed from a trafficking situation by state authorities, there is no guarantee that this will provide sufficient protection for victims to co-operate.  In the Harrison case, it was noted that it took one victim over a year to fully state what happened to them.  EUROPOL, the EU agency which handles criminal intelligence in Europe, recognised the significance of witchcraft in its 2011 report on human trafficking in the EU, framing witchcraft as a method of strengthening ties between traffickers and their victims and recognising that the use of witchcraft also “acts as a significant obstacle in dealing with victims who have been subjected to this process.”  Further, the breadth of the presence of Nigerian trafficking gangs was also established and is shown by a recent raid in Spain in which 17 people were arrested on suspicion of smuggling Nigerian women into Spain for the purposes of sexual exploitation by using threats including “claims they would cast voodoo spells on them if they didn’t comply.”

However, within the context of the 45 day reflection period available to trafficking victims in the UK, it is unclear how this issue is effectively addressed. Certainly, there does seem to be a growing awareness of the issue – for example, ECPAT UK now offer a one-day training session on child exploitation and witchcraft.  But, as Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca) commented:

Many victims fearful of the repercussions of the oath taken are compelled to endure their suffering in silence without recourse to help or support. The fear of juju makes it extremely difficult for agencies to support victims and for the authorities to investigate, prosecute and bring suspected traffickers to justice.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) acknowledge the use of witchcraft in their Legal Guidance on Human Trafficking and Smuggling and they state that “some trafficked victim’s experiences are likely to be outside the knowledge and experience of prosecutors”.  Similarly, a detective from the Metropolitan Police’s Human Trafficking Team commented: “When I first explained the difficulties of getting victims to give evidence against their traffickers, because of their fears of being cursed and punished by the spirit world, my colleagues at Scotland Yard were pretty bemused”.  The reluctance of victims to engage with state authorities may be misunderstood, potentially undermining both the quality of services received by individuals and the ability of the criminal justice system to respond effectively to these cases.

Moreover, current CPS guidance may ignore the potential of witchcraft used in cases of domestic servitude.  While this may be the result of the need for brevity within the advice, this issue should not be ignored.  The UKHTC have noted that “over two-thirds of children trafficked into the UK for domestic servitude and just over half of all children trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation were from an African country.”  An Afruca report on this issue noted the vulnerability of African children to exploitation as the extended African family system sanctions sending a child to live with a relative or family friend to live and work, either in their home country or abroad.  The UKHTC found that of 39 potential victims of trafficking for domestic servitude in 2010-11, most were women and 30% were children.  It is not unreasonable to conclude that considering the existing relationship between sexual exploitation and witchcraft, a similar role is played by witchcraft in coercing victims into situations of domestic servitude.

As a recent case in Cornwall shows, witchcraft may be a specific feature of trafficking and exploitation in Africa, but geography is no barrier to its use.  In this case two members of a white witch coven were convicted on carrying out sexual offences against children.  The prosecutor said the two men had “used the cloak of paganism” to commit the offences against children, arguing they were not pagans but child abusers; removing the aura of mystery from this crime.  However, the use of witchcraft rituals contributed to a culture of fear which appeared to have inhibited victims from coming forward.

While there is clearly value in exploring further the extent of the use of witchcraft in trafficking, (for example, interrogating the UKHTC’s cases of trafficked West African children) to enlighten targeted interventions and improve the quality of services provided to victims, this focus should not eclipse other aspects of the trafficking process, which highlight the vulnerability of children in parts of Nigeria or the limited protection for children’s rights.  Similarly, the use of witchcraft as a tool of coercion needs to be considered as one way in which coercion manifests.  While ritualised juju bonds may potentially negatively impact the ability of victims to engage with the criminal justice system, other significant factors such as poverty, inequality and violence should also be considered.  State authorities need to engage with the use of witchcraft as a method of coercion and control within the broader framework of the vulnerability of victims before, during and after the trafficking process.

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2 Comments

  1. […] TTRP blog has covered a broad range of topics including the use of witchcraft in trafficking, adolescents in the sex industry, the role of recruitment agencies, changes to the UK Crown […]

  2. terry says:

    can you add me to your newsletter?

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