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How torture, deception and inaction underpin UAE’s thriving sex trafficking industry

African women trafficked into the UAE are forced into debt and subjected to threats and violence, as they are kept in sexual slavery. The case of Christy Gold, who has been charged with sex trafficking in Nigeria, highlights the torment endured by these women in the UAE.

(Reuters) In a pleasure boat cruising Gulf waters near Dubai’s glittering skyline, a Nigerian woman in a white dress and gold jewelry nodded and swayed as a gathering sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

Videos of Christy Gold’s 45th birthday party were posted in May last year on an Instagram account that showcases her glamorous lifestyle, months after Gold fled Nigeria, where she was facing sex trafficking charges.

Gold – whose name appears in court records as Christiana Jacob Uadiale – was a ringleader in a criminal network that lured African women to Dubai and forced them into prostitution in brothels, backstreets, bars, hotels and dance clubs, according to six Nigerian government anti-trafficking officials, a British human rights activist who has tracked her operation and five women who say they were trafficked and exploited by her.

Three of the women said in interviews that Gold told them that if they didn’t do as they were told, they’d be killed and dumped in the desert. Those who didn’t make enough money for her were taken to a room in an apartment in Dubai, where Gold’s brother starved them, flogged them and shoved hot chili paste into their vaginas, according to three anti-trafficking officials and five women who provided detailed accounts in interviews and court statements.

“They beat the hell out of me,” one of the women said. “The suffering was too much.”

In a statement to the court after she was charged, Gold denied that she and her brother were sex traffickers. “I am not involved in human trafficking and I do not have any girls in Dubai working for me as a prostitute,” she said.

Gold remains a fugitive from justice – part of what anti-trafficking activists and officials say is a thriving underground of suspected Nigerian sex traffickers who have taken refuge in the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf nation known for its wealth, futuristic skyscrapers and what rights groups say is a poor record on protecting foreign workers and basic freedoms.

The UAE is a major destination for sex trafficking, where African women are forced into prostitution by illicit networks operating within the country, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Reuters has found.

Emirati authorities do little to protect these women, according to anti-trafficking activists, Nigerian authorities and interviews with trafficked women.

This story is based on interviews with 25 African women, mostly from Nigeria, who described being lured to the UAE by Gold or other alleged traffickers, as well as dozens of interviews with humanitarian workers, investigators, Nigerian government officials and others with knowledge of sex trafficking in the Emirates. Their accounts are corroborated by court records and case files from Nigeria’s anti-human trafficking agency.

Human traffickers keep African women in sexual slavery by playing on their financial desperation and creating webs of manipulation and coercion, the reporting shows. They subject them to threats and violence. They ensnare them in crushing debts, often totaling $10,000 to $15,000 – huge sums for women from poor families. And, in many cases, they exploit traditional African spiritual beliefs to make victims believe that they have no choice but to do what the traffickers tell them.

This article is part of a reporting collaboration led by ICIJ, Trafficking Inc., which is examining sex trafficking and labor trafficking in many parts of the globe. ICIJ’s media partners on the project include Reuters, NBC News, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and other news outlets in multiple countries.

“Every time we don’t bring money, they would beat us, put pepper in our vagina, pepper in our eyes… Many of us had wounds, but we weren’t taken to hospitals because they don’t want people to know what they were doing to us.”

A Nigerian woman who said she was trafficked by Christy Gold.

Gold did not respond to questions for this story. In her statement to the court in Nigeria, Gold said she had helped Nigerian women and men move to the UAE by subletting space to them in an apartment she owned in Dubai.

“I even go as far as advising them like a mother so they too can make it in Dubai,” she said. But she told the court, “I cannot tell what these people did for a living in Dubai.”

In a written reply supplied by the Dubai government’s media affairs office, the emirate’s police agency said claims that Gold had engaged in the sex trafficking of African women in Dubai are “false and have absolutely no basis in fact.” The statement said Gold had “entered and exited Dubai legally and was not implicated in any illegal activities.”

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs said any suggestion the UAE “tolerates human trafficking or that it has little regard to the victims of this heinous crime is utterly false.” Such allegations, the ministry said in response to questions, were “baseless and without foundation.”

The ministry said the UAE’s laws on sex trafficking carry heavy fines and prison sentences. A report the ministry shared said the UAE had referred 20 “human trafficking cases” to the courts in 2021, most for “sexual exploitation.”

The UAE has been involved in international police operations against trafficking networks, the ministry said.

Human rights activists and Nigerian authorities say the UAE doesn’t live up to its anti-trafficking commitments.

Fatima Waziri-Azi, director general of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, said there has been “no cooperation” when NAPTIP has reached out to Emirati authorities for help hunting down traffickers working out of the UAE.

Angus Thomas, a British activist who founded an anti-trafficking education organization based in Ghana, said UAE authorities, including the police, were uncooperative when he urged them to help African women get away from Gold and her associates.

“I wrote, I phoned, I emailed, asking them to help me get the girls, sending addresses of apartments,” he said. “And I heard nothing.”

Angus Thomas, an anti-trafficking activist, began raising money to help sex trafficking victims escape from their traffickers in the UAE after being approached by a young Nigerian woman who offered him sex during a trip to Dubai.

In plain sight

Sex trafficking is one form of human trafficking, which is generally defined as using force, fraud or coercion to induce someone to provide a service.

Most of the 25 women interviewed for this story said they were promised other types of work but were driven into prostitution. Others said they chose to do sex work but were trapped in situations in which they were abused, their earnings were stolen and they were unable to get away.

The UAE made sex trafficking a crime in 2006 and has established an interagency anti-trafficking panel and opened shelters for survivors. The U.S. State Department said in 2022 that the UAE has made “significant efforts” to combat human trafficking but still falls short in key areas – including failing to “consistently screen vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators, which may have penalized some victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, such as immigration or ‘prostitution’ violations.”

The UAE follows Islamic law, yet prostitution and sex trafficking are open secrets. Business cards with photos and WhatsApp numbers for brothels disguised as massage parlors litter many areas of Dubai. Spas, dance clubs and bars are filled with sex workers.

“I have never at any time instructed him to beat any of the girls as I have never had cause to beat any of them.”

Christy Gold, in a statement to a Nigerian court about her brother Solomon.

A hierarchy based on skin tone plays an important role in the UAE’s sex industry, according to interviews with trafficked women and visits to spots where prostitutes congregate in the UAE. Lighter-skinned women from Europe are generally trafficked into higher-end venues serving wealthier customers. Darker-skinned women are often steered to alleys and street corners, providing sex to low-income migrant workers from South Asia and Africa.

One Nigerian woman described being taken by a trafficker to an open-air brothel in the desert between Dubai and another emirate, Abu Dhabi. She said she and other women would take off their clothes and spread them on the ground, and men would come to have sex with them from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

A Nigerian mother in her 20s said a trafficker led her and two other women to a parking lot in Ajman, one of the emirates that make up the UAE, and forced them to have sex with male clients amid vehicles that were being painted and repaired. At the end of the night, she said, the traffickers took all the money, leaving them with nothing to buy food.

After she broke free of the trafficker, the woman said, she slept in the streets and begged for food. She nearly lost her mind, she said, before a nurse from Nigeria rescued her and helped her get home.

A view of the Abu Dhabi skyline. Much of the construction in places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai has been done by foreign workers, who make up nearly 90% of the population in the UAE. REUTERS/File photo

The UAE’s sex industry is shaped by the country’s distinctive demography and economy.

Nearly 90% of its population comes from somewhere else – mostly foreign workers employed in construction, hospitality and other industries. Most of them are men and they arrive alone. As a result, 69% of the UAE’s population is male. The government deals with these demographic realities by deploying extensive surveillance in the UAE – and by allowing a bustling sex trade as a way of pacifying male workers, according to two former diplomats who were based in the UAE and monitored sex trafficking.

Gold and Mercy

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Thomas, a photographer and anti-trafficking activist, had a one-day layover in the UAE before heading home to London. He was going into a supermarket in Dubai when a 19-year-old Nigerian woman approached him and offered him sex.

He declined, but asked her if she wanted to return to her home country.

She told him, Thomas said, that she and 22 other women were under the control of a trafficker named Christy Gold. Back in London, he sent her money to rent a safe place to stay and then arranged a flight home to Nigeria.

Thomas said he began trying to rescue other women trapped in Dubai. He started a campaign called Send Them Home, raising money to cover victims’ escape and travel costs. Over several months, Thomas said, he helped rescue eight other women who said they’d been held against their will by Gold or other traffickers operating in the UAE. Thomas’ account was confirmed by Nigerian anti-trafficking officials and women who Thomas helped escape from traffickers.

He also shared information that he had gathered about Gold with Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP, which can arrest and prosecute alleged traffickers. His efforts included tracking Gold’s Instagram account, where she displays hundreds of online posts featuring lion-shaped gold pendants and other jewelry she sells through a gold trading business she runs from Dubai.

 

In a May 2022 email to Waziri-Azi, the Nigerian anti-trafficking agency’s director, Thomas wrote that Gold was “flaunting her wealth built on the backs” of young women “she trafficks to Dubai.”

Little is known about Gold’s background. In her written statement to the Nigerian court, Gold said that she traveled to Dubai in 2009 and after that began shuttling back and forth, buying gold, shoes and handbags in the UAE and selling them in Nigeria.

According to victim statements to the court and interviews, Gold and her associates targeted Nigerian women who were desperate for work and new lives, promising them jobs in hair salons, restaurants and other retail businesses in Dubai. Gold’s associates helped them obtain Nigerian passports and tourist visas to travel to the UAE.

Filed Reuters 

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