At the gates to Europe, trafficking victims are being separated from their children.
Ndidi couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
She stood frozen in place, the cellphone pressed against her ear. “What did you say?” she whispered into the receiver. “Your son has been adopted,” came a woman’s voice on the other end. “He’s been placed with a Spanish family.”
That wasn’t possible, thought Ndidi. She had not consented to this. She had never even been notified. Ndidi glanced over her shoulder. She couldn’t linger much longer; they were looking for her.
Ndidi had just broken away from the sexual trafficking network that enslaved her for the last five years. She rushed to the children’s home in Madrid where her son was living, but was told he wasn’t there. It took several panicked phone calls to different departments before someone told her the terrible truth.
That was over 12 years ago. Ndidi still is not reunited with her son.
Originally from Benin City, Nigeria, Ndidi says she was 15 years old when her mother met a woman who offered to employ Ndidi as an au pair in her home in Spain. Ndidi, who always dreamed of studying in Europe, begged her mother to let her go.
But the woman, who called herself Mother Joyce, had lied about her intentions. Mother Joyce was the head of a pyramidal structured trafficking network. She preyed on young girls from struggling families by offering them employment in Europe, only to exploit them as sex workers once they reached their destination.
When the traffickers arrived to pick up Ndidi the following week, she was excited to go.
“They bought us new clothes and said we were going to Europe … I was so naive,” says Ndidi. “I didn’t know that my life had just started with pain and sorrow.”
Mother Joyce arranged for Ndidi and other girls to be driven all the way to Morocco, where the trafficking network would smuggle them across the Strait of Gibraltar and into Spain. The journey north through the desert took several months, and the men charged with transporting the girls took advantage of their vulnerability.
One night, somewhere in Niger, Ndidi says three men pointed at her and another girl, then dragged them into the bush where they raped the girls “until dawn.” At 15-years-old, Ndidi says she didn’t understand what sex was or how it worked. It was several months before she knew she was pregnant.
Weeks later, she gave birth to her son in a hotel room in Morocco.
“I called on God several times to take my life,” says Ndidi. “I didn’t know how to take care of my baby. I was still a baby myself.”
But Ndidi didn’t have time to feel sorrow. The trafficking network told the girls they were ready to cross the Strait and enter Europe. The network secured a small boat, and Ndidi pressed her son tightly to her chest as she stepped on board. She prayed she was carrying her son to a new life.
Just as dawn broke over the water, their boat were intercepted by a Red Cross rescue ship. Workers at the Red Cross in Algeciras questioned Ndidi, but she was too scared to tell the truth. She says the trafficking network had coached her on what lies to tell. There was a rumor that the Spanish authorities were deporting Nigerians, so she told them she was from Sierra Leone. She also said she was over 18-years-old.
“I think [the Red Cross] was ready to help me, but Mother Joyce didn’t allow me to stay,” says Ndidi.
Mother Joyce was pernicious. She knew that if Ndidi told the Spanish aid workers that someone had helped her cross the Strait, they would flag her case as a potential trafficking victim. She instructed Ndidi to say that she’d traveled alone. She also told her to keep her desire to go to school a secret.
The Red Cross forwarded Ndidi’s case to the authorities, but there was a two week waiting period while they processed her case and Mother Joyce had no intention of letting the authorities question her newest employee. She sent a car to pick up Ndidi from the Red Cross.
The Red Cross in Algeciras is not a detention center; residents can come and go as they please. Still believing Mother Joyce was trying to help her, Ndidi exited the center and surrendered herself and her son into Mother Joyce’s clutches. There was no one to stop her.
The first week was normal, says Ndidi. The car carried Ndidi and her son to Madrid, where she met Mother Joyce in person for the first time since leaving Nigeria. During that first week in her home, Mother Joyce fed and clothed her.
But soon, Mother Joyce turned less kind. She began to strike Ndidi and the other girls, threatening them with violence or death if they didn’t obey her.
Ndidi remembers the exact moment the Mother Joyce revealed her true intentions. She screamed at Ndidi that she owed 80,000 euros to repay the expense of transporting her to Spain, and that the only way she could repay this debt was by selling her body.
Ndidi felt sick. The only time she’d been with a man was the rape in Niger that resulted in her son. Now, she could only think about his well-being.
“I didn’t even know the meaning of that money,” says Ndidi. “[Mother Joyce] did not smile for me anymore … She was the boss and I was a slave for her.”
Ndidi’s son soon became inconvenient to Mother Joyce’s business. Ndidi says Mother Joyce drove her to another Red Cross center and forced her to tell the aid workers she was unable to take care of her baby.
“I wish they’d looked at me closely. They would have known something was wrong,” says Ndidi. “There was no one to fight for me.”
Under Spanish law, the authorities can assume custody of migrant children who are perceived to be at-risk, such as showing signs of neglect or if their parents are suspected to partake in illegal activities.
Ndidi’s son was placed in a children’s home in Madrid where she was allowed to visit him once a week. His custody file states there were “signs the mother may be working in prostitution” and that he might be in danger. No one saw that Ndidi was in danger too.
Soon the trafficking network began shuttling Ndidi from city to city to evade law enforcement. She missed a few visitation sessions. Then a few more. In doing so, she unwittingly forfeited her parental rights.
It was a few years later when she broke away from the trafficking network and rushed to return to her son, only to be told he’d been adopted by a Spanish family. With no documents or visa, she had no way to appeal the decision to fight for custody of her son.
The practice of separating trafficking victims from their families is more pervasive than one might think, says Cristina Sánchez, Communications Director for Women’s Link Worldwide, a Madrid-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of migrant women and girls.
The organization recently identified and interviewed two dozen trafficking victims that had been separated from their children by European authorities. In their research, Women’s Link Worldwide discovered an unexpected commonality between these mothers.
"We have only seen this happen with sub-Saharan women,” says Sánchez. “Spanish authorities think that if a woman from any [sub-Saharan] country arrives in Spain with a child, they are unfit because they are black.”
According to a 2014 Spanish law, trafficking victims are only entitled to protection if they self-identify as trafficking victims. The “woman’s refusal to acknowledge her status as a victim and her rejection of the mechanisms of protection... prevent the application of any protective measures she may be entitled to.”
Except some of these women don’t know they’re victims. Ndidi thought she was coming to Spain to work as an au pair. When she was asked if anyone helped her cross the border, she lied. The smugglers told her the truth would get her deported
Shortly after learning her son had been adopted, the trafficking network found Ndidi. They forced her back into sex work, eventually moving her across national borders. They trafficked her all the way to Denmark, where they thought they could exploit her for the most money.
In Denmark, she broke away a second time and sought help from a local church. The church put her in contact with Danish Centre against Human Trafficking, which contacted Women’s Link Worldwide. When lawyers at Women’s Link began working on Ndidi’s case, she received word about her son for the first time since losing custody of him. He’s 17-years-old now.
“They told me he was a responsible boy, and that he really liked soccer,” Ndidi said in an interview with Women’s Link researchers.
This news was a small comfort, but what continues to pain Ndidi the most is that she still has not been allowed a current photograph of him. She lives in Copenhagen now, and often watches faces on the street for a young man who vaguely resembles her.
“He might be in Denmark on holiday,” says Ndidi. If she had a photograph, “he could pass me and I would know it was my son."
Ndidi has spent the last thirteen years counting the days until her son’s 18th birthday, the age at which he can legally make contact with her if he chooses.
With that day now less than a year away, she is anxious for her son to be hers again.
 Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals included in this article.
The research for this article made possible with the support of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, Washington, DC.