TARIFA, Spain — Mercy lay motionless on the bed, afraid to move as the stranger pulled up his trousers and refastened his belt. Even after he left, she remained frozen. An hour passed. Then another. When the other girls in the brothel grew concerned and tried to coax her out of the room, Mercy screamed at them through her tears.
“No! That man is still out there!”
Mercy was 23-years-old and had been in Spain less than a month before financial need drove her to begin renting out her body. That was over 10 years ago, but she still remembers her first client with perfect clarity.
“Your first night with a man…” she starts to say, but trails off. She shivers. “It’s disgusting.”
Mercy fled her hometown of Benin City, Nigeria after escalating political violence threatened her safety. It took her over a year to reach Spain, propelled by the hope that Europe would provide a chance at a new beginning. She hadn’t pictured a scene like the one she now describes — shackled by fear inside a dimly lit bedroom.
Rates of sub-Saharan migration to Spain are increasing as border crackdowns in Italy and Greece force migrants to seek alternative routes to Europe. Over 28,000 irregular migrants — migrants who cross borders outside the European Union’s legal framework— were detected arriving in Spain throughout 2017, according to United Nations Refugee Agency, more than double the previous year.
Since early 2015, when migration rates to Europe began to surge, the most popular migration routes have been across central and eastern regions of the Mediterranean. But Italian-led training of the Libyan coastguard, and the reintroduction of a forced return policy, has resulted in fewer boats disembarking from the Libyan coast. Between January and mid July of 2017, Italy received over 93,000 migrants by sea. During the same timeframe this year, they’ve received less than 18,000.
Forced to look elsewhere, more migrants are choosing the western Mediterranean route— entering Spain via Morocco or Algeria. This is the first year Spain could potentially surpass Italy in the number of migrant arrivals. As of Aug. 13, Spain had received over 30,000 migrants to its mainland shores and enclaves.
Most of these arrivals originate from West African countries, namely Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Gambia, although a significant number also come from Morocco and Syria. African migrants and asylum seekers are overwhelmingly male, due to persisting gender disparities that give men more financial independence and social mobility. But hidden in the rising rates of migration is the increasing number of women who are choosing to risk the journey.