“The best prevention against human trafficking is to open the conversation and teach society about the issue. Then it is also important to support the immigrant community to make sure that individuals are not abused due to not properly knowing their rights. It is certainly a difficult task to prevent human trafficking, but there is much that can be done to work against human trafficking and other organized crime,” says Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, department head at the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration.
Þorsteinn has, along with colleagues within the Directorate, been researching human trafficking and neighboring countries’ experiences with it. Directorate staff undertook the project due to a growing need to do so, according to Vísir. Þorsteinn says he first encountered human trafficking in Iceland around the time of the millennium, but is sure it was a problem before then as well.
Iceland is currently experiencing an increase in the number of people trafficked across borders, similar to the one seen in Scandinavia in the 90s. Nigerian women are at particular risk—indeed a majority of female Nigerian asylum seekers in Iceland are likely to have been victims of traffickers. Icelandic authorities generally had difficulty getting the women to trust them and tell their stories, because of ‘juju’ rituals used against them to scare them before they left Nigeria.
Icelander Svala Heiðberg works for a refuge for foreign prostitutes in Copenhagen and says the vast majority of the women she works with are from Nigeria, and the vast majority of them were trafficked illegally into Denmark with the promise of good jobs, wages and better lives in Europe.
The women usually don’t know where in Europe they are headed, but they expect to go into jobs like hairdressing, au pair work, cleaning, or similar. Before they leave Nigeria they are made to make a juju oath in which they promise to keep up their end of the bargain (by paying back the often-EUR 50,000 fee to the criminals), lest harm come to a close member of their family. The women leave home in search of a better life, but most end up forced into prostitution.
Iceland does not yet have a dedicated asylum seekers’ reception center, which, Þorsteinn believes, would help against human trafficking. “Our reception system is built on free habitation, which can be unhelpful when people need protection.” The interior minister says the entire asylum system in Iceland is under review and being improved.