French sisters shelter women against human traffickers, prostitution

Editor's note: Feb. 8 is the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking and the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Canossian nun and former slave. The date was chosen at the request of women religious to highlight her life. In honor of the day and St. Josephine Bakhita, we are running several pieces about sisters' anti-trafficking work around the world. Find all of our coverage here.

It is a big house, like many others on this street of a lively Paris neighborhood. A dozen women live there, staying for a few weeks, a few months, sometimes as long as a year, depending on their situation. All of them were prostitutes, victims of trafficking. They are now beginning a new life.

Sr. Cristina Ramos manages this shelter, named Foyer AFJ. Her congregation, the Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity, popularly known as Sisters Adorers (Adoratrices), was founded in 1856 in Spain by St. María Micaela Desmaisières, who opened a shelter to help prostitutes learn skills like sewing to earn a living.

When a wave of immigration from Spain to France took place in the 1960s, a lot of single girls came over the Pyrenees looking to work as maids. As some of them were caught in prostitution networks, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity in Spain sent some of their members to start a community in France to assist these young women in getting different employment.

Foyer AFJ opened in 1967 in Paris. At first, it welcomed victims of domestic slavery, violence, and other abuse. Since 2000, it has specialized in helping former prostitutes start a new life. The sisters made contact with a small group called l'Amicale du Nid (Friends of the Nest) and set up to help women who wanted to leave prostitution.

Today, Ramos, who was born in France to Spanish parents, and her colleagues first meet each woman on neutral ground, in a private room made available for them by local authorities in a building nearby, to figure out if she can benefit from staying at the shelter. Only about 15 percent hold a passport or ID card; about 27 percent say they left at least one child back home; and 40 percent could not give a home address, according to figures given by Foyer AFJ in 2014. For their protection, women staying at Foyer AFJ are not allowed to talk to journalists.

Most of the women at Foyer AFJ come from Nigeria and a few from Eastern European countries.

"In Nigeria, the eldest of the family must ensure the well-being of her parents, brothers and sisters. She dreams of going to Europe to work to pay for the education of the youngest and build a house," said Sr. Begona Iñarra, a missionary from the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa (White Sisters), at a presentation she gave in 2017 of the link between migration and human trafficking. Families live in such poverty that they are ready to believe anything. The smugglers know it and demand tens of thousands of euros to help women make the trip. The women think it will be easy to get a job and that it will only take them a few months to pay back the loan.

"When a girl is ready to go abroad, a lady will offer to help. She finds someone to borrow money from for the trip," Iñarra said. "She organizes a voodoo ceremony, where the girl vows to repay the debt, never reveal the arrangement nor denounce the lady. A priest performs a juju, a magic ritual that has the power to hurt, kill or make crazy the girl or her family if the oath is broken."

Some of these young women act on their own or with a friend, Iñarra said in her presentation. They still depend on someone helping them finance the trip. None of them knows the journey will be so difficult or what it entails, and they are usually accompanied by a close or distant male relative, whom they don't know is a member of a prostitution network. Along with economic or war refugees, most of them go through Libya, where a real slave market has been set up by traffickers.

If they survive the boat ride to Italy or Sicily, they still have to make it to another country. Only 1 in 30 of these women comes by plane, Iñarra said in her presentation. The vast majority has to go through several African countries to reach the Mediterranean Sea and then cross over, with all the risks involved. When they reach Europe, they know what their actual job will be, in prostitution, but there is no way they can go back home, since the whole family raised the money for the trip and expect the woman to send money home as soon as she can. Some believe the woman will find a different job and be able to send money back to the family. Others prefer not to know.

Some of the women escape and get in touch with members of groups fighting human trafficking and may accept the idea of leaving their life in the street. Others are sent to Foyer AFJ by the police after being questioned or by doctors who have treated them at hospitals.

"We have about 100 requests every year," Ramos said.

Once a woman is accepted, the first thing she is asked to do is cut off ties with the network that pushed her into prostitution and get a new telephone number. This means cutting off all links with their past.

Some of the women make the mistake of posting selfies on social media, Ramos said. Their friends at the shelter can see them, and so can the networks. Their madam can get back in touch with them and pressure or threaten them if they refuse to go back to their former occupation.

It is not easy to resist, Ramos said, since the network exploits them, but it is also for some a kind of support, since members of the network know who they are and are a link with their past. The person who helped them get out of the country might be a family member they used to trust.

Once she feels stronger, the women are given the choice between filing a complaint against the network or asking for asylum. The asylum process takes months: the number of migrants and refugees seeking asylum in France has increased in recent years, overwhelming government officials.

A struggle to start anew

According to OECD figures, in 2016, France took in 256,000 migrants, 78,000 of whom were refugees seeking asylum. Others were joining family members living in France already. Since a lot of people come to Europe illegally and go from one country to another, numbers are not very accurate.

Refugees flee war-torn countries like Syria or Afghanistan and ask for asylum. Other people are economic migrants from other countries believing they will easily find a job in Europe and be able to send money home. Human traffickers know these vulnerabilities make people easy to exploit.

Ramos' team helps with the paperwork needed to get free medical care and the other benefits people are entitled to once they apply for asylum. A doctor comes regularly to the shelter to check on the health of the women, who take part in the running of the place and help with cleaning up and cooking.

"We have to respect their habits," Ramos said. "Most of them do not eat pork, even when they are not Muslim. They do not eat pasta, either, only rice. It is their freedom."

They also learn French with volunteers at the shelter.

Women who stay at the house enjoy some privacy, with two of them sharing a room to which they each hold a key. They do not get a key to the outside door; they have to ring the bell and must be back on time for dinner. Sometimes, a woman does not come back to the shelter and is never seen again. Recently, one of these called another to tell her she is now in the United States.

The women feel guilty about leaving sex work if they haven't paid off their debt to those who funded their trips to France, including sex traffickers. They have a hard time understanding that the amount of money they are asked to pay back by the network is much higher than the real cost of the journey. It is the way the networks keep them at their mercy, social workers say.

Ramos said most women have a hard time dealing with the amount of cash they get working as prostitutes, since most of them used to be poor then find themselves suddenly living in an expensive city like Paris.

"When they are paid, they want to spend this money immediately. It is like it burns their hands," Ramos said.

Cutting ties with the trafficking network also means that a woman can never return home and see her mother, especially if the smugglers are known to the family. To avoid reprisals from the network, the family would have to move somewhere else.

Ramos said the women struggle to leave behind their old lives. For example, on Sundays, a woman who wants to go to church will want to go to a community she knows and where she has been before.

"It is very easy then for the madams to find her again and put pressure on her to come back to the street," Ramos said. "We now encourage them to go to a different church, but it is always dangerous to let them go alone, and we do not have enough volunteers or staff members to go with them to church on Sunday."

Another difficulty is determining the women's real ages. If they are under 18, they are allowed special legal protection and the penalties for the networks that exploit them are higher. Women are told by their traffickers to say they are over 18, the age of adulthood under French law.

"It is very hard to know whether it is true. Some look younger," Ramos said. "Most women are not ready to give details of their background, including where they come from or names of their relatives, fearing reprisals against their family waiting for them to send money."

'This is a very serious threat'

Ramos and Iñarra are members of RENATE — Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation — a group set up in 2009 by religious to coordinate the fight against human trafficking in Europe.

"The French section of RENATE was set up nearly a year ago," said Sr. Marie Hélène Halligon, who heads the French section. Halligon is a sister from the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, founded by St. Mary Euphrasia in France in 1835 to promote the welfare of women and girls. The congregation has a representative at the United Nations, where it can speak up against human trafficking more publicly.

Halligon said there are two major duties RENATE undertakes.

"We help women through concrete actions, telling them about their rights, helping them find a home, managing small shelters," she said.

And since Halligon lives in Strasbourg, where the European Parliament is located, she and RENATE members from other countries "put pressure on lawmakers and local authorities to be more active against trafficking and slavery."

Three other sisters of her congregation live in Strasbourg: Sister Danielle helps refugees find a place in a shelter and puts them in touch with lawyers to ensure they get what they are entitled to. Sister Marie Bernadette is active with catechumen as well as families who come to Strasbourg to visit a relative in jail. Sister Hanan is a young Egyptian sister who is spending six months in Strasbourg to learn French.

"Another of our activities is to raise awareness. For example, I recently went to a high school to talk about prostitution. We have noticed with great concern that all over Europe, women who are occasional prostitutes are younger and younger," Halligon said. "It is important to tell politicians that this is a very serious threat for young women."

RENATE is a member of the French committee Collectif Ensemble Contre la Traite des Êtres Humains (Together Against Human Trafficking), coordinated by the Secours Catholique-Caritas France. The committee brings together 25 organizations fighting human trafficking, including prostitution, slavery, forced labor and arranged marriages.

Like Halligon and Ramos, Sister Magdalena Franciscus, former head of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd for France and Belgium, said she also believes former victims need first to find a place to live in a small shelter to turn the page.

"It is easier to accompany them this way," she said.

The committee recently showed a short movie called "Devenir" ("To become"), which describes the different ways to help victims of trafficking and how lawyers, judges, emergency services and social workers work together to give a second chance to victims of abuse.

This short film followed another one, called "Invisibles," made in 2016. It showed how teenage girls can be lured into prostitution by friends or how a 10-year-old girl brought to France by a relative ends up being treated as a slave in the home of this relative. When she tells her mother on the phone that she wants to go back home to Africa because the aunt beats her up, the mother replies: "You are in France and you complain?"

Members of Collectif Ensemble Contre la Traite des Êtres Humains use these movies to raise awareness and explain how some girls can end up in dangerous situations without anyone noticing around them. It often takes years before a former victim can earn a living, lead a normal life, marry, start a family. Some do, eventually.

In the meantime, "we have to do whatever we can to help them," Halligon said.

[Elisabeth Auvillain is a freelance journalist based in Paris.]