ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tens of thousands of African migrants have crossed the Mediterranean sea so far this year seeking refuge in Europe. Many made their way to the seashore from sub-Saharan Africa - thousands of miles. Both the route north and the maritime crossing are dangerous and can be especially so for women. Lauren Frayer has this report.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: On a maritime rescue boat out in the Mediterranean, Spanish sailor Carlos Blanco says he's rescued hundreds of pregnant women in the boatloads of migrants crossing the sea to Europe.
CARLOS BLANCO: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: "They always seem to be the happiest to be rescued," he says, "but honestly, I have no idea why they'd risk the journey in that condition. It's dangerous, he says." Back on land, the Spanish Red Cross estimates as many as a quarter of African migrant women who arrive in Spain are pregnant. Spanish law does not grant automatic citizenship to foreign babies born here, but many of the migrant women I've interviewed said they simply wanted to give birth in a safe place - Europe. Then, one day, I met a social worker - Encarnacion Marquez - who works with migrants on Spain's south coast. She took me into her office and shut the door.
ENCARNACION MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: "Many of these women are pregnant because they've been exploited sexually," she says. Sex is traded just like money to bribe border guards or police. Some sell sex to human traffickers in exchange for smuggling them into Europe. "This is the tragedy no one talks about," she says. There's little access to contraception along the way. Botched abortions are common, and it doesn't stop when they reach Europe, Marquez says. Many are forced into prostitution here to pay off their travel expenses.
Near a Madrid squared known as a hangout for African prostitutes, I met Nancy, who didn't want to give her full name for fear of retribution. Nine years ago, a man and woman, distant family acquaintances, came to Nancy's village in southern Nigeria and offered to take her to Europe but then forced her to work as a prostitute to repay them.
NANCY: You need to use your body to work for that money. You need to suffer for that money. And the most painful part - that money is not for you. You are working it to other person.
FRAYER: Nancy's traffickers told her she owed them $50,000. She'd never been to Europe. She had no idea what things cost.
NANCY: If I didn't pay, they are going to kill me. I don't have any documents. I didn't have any money. I didn't have anywhere to go.
FRAYER: Nancy worked as a prostitute in Spain for seven years and never managed to pay off her huge debt. Eventually, she told her captors she couldn't take it anymore.
NANCY: Because me, I'm very - I'm so tired, and I can't do the work anymore. I am ready to die now.
FRAYER: That day two years ago, she walked into a Madrid police station. For years, her traffickers had told her she'd be jailed if she told the truth. But what she didn't know then is that in Spain, prostitution is not illegal, but trafficking prostitutes is. She gave police descriptions of her captors, but they fled the country. Nancy started working with a charity that helps women like her.
NANCY: Because I have worked with many girls, and they normally tell me their stories, you know? For the road journey, there is a lot of country that we have to passed, like Niger, Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea.
FRAYER: At each border, she says, many women are forced into prostitution. The NGO where Nancy now works helps 1,300 new victims a month in Spain alone. The group's pro bono lawyer, Rocio Mora, helped arrange for Nancy to travel home to Nigeria last year for the first time to educate potential female migrants there.
ROCIO MORA: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: "We need to tell these stories there in Africa before they come here," Mora says, "because by the time they arrive in Spain, they're enslaved already. They rely on their captors for food, clothes - their entire life. Those are hard shackles to break," she says. Nancy hopes her story can help raise awareness of 21st century slavery right under our noses.
NANCY: Yeah. Me, I liked - I love to tell my story because that is what gives me the ability to move forward.
FRAYER: And, she says, help other women making the same dangerous journey from Africa. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.