The United Kingdom’s Isleworth Crown Court on Thursday sentenced a Nigerian woman, Franca Asemota, to 22 years in jail after she was found guilty of attempting to traffic Nigerian girls through Heathrow Airport to work as sex workers in brothels across Europe.
Ms. Asemota, 38, was found guilty on Wednesday of a 12-count charge that includes conspiracy to traffic persons for sexual exploitation, trafficking persons outside of the UK for sexual exploitation, and assisting unlawful immigration.
She was part of a criminal network that trafficked girls, boys and women from Nigeria to Europe using threats to guarantee their compliance.
Ms. Asemota, who was identified as a trafficking suspect in 2012, fled from Italy to Nigeria when some of her co-conspirators were arrested by Immigration Enforcement investigators.
She spent time in Europe before the National Crime Agency (NCA) tracked her down to Nigeria.
In an operation co-ordinated by the NCA, she was arrested by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in Benin City in March 2015.
Once her identity was confirmed, Ms. Asemota was extradited back to the UK in January this year.
After a four-week trial, the Isleworth Crown Court found her guilty of conspiracy to traffic for sexual exploitation and assisting unlawful immigration.
The head of the Immigration Enforcement crime team, David Fairclough, described Ms. Asemota as the “lynchpin of a trafficking ring which targeted vulnerable young women in Nigeria, promising them a brighter future working in Europe”.
Mr. Fairclough said it however became clear soon that what she claimed to be doing was far different, as the victims, some who were as young as 13, were told they would be sold into prostitution.
“Asemota travelled with the girls in order to threaten them and keep them in line. Trafficking is a despicable crime, as this case shows. We work closely with our law enforcement colleagues internationally to identify the criminal gangs responsible and put them before the courts,” Mr. Fairclough said.
The head of the NCA’s UK Human Trafficking Centre, Martin French, said: “Franca Asemota and her criminal network took advantage of these vulnerable young women in some of the worst ways possible. They promised them a better life but in reality treated them as nothing more than a commodity to be sold into slavery.
“Asemota thought she could evade arrest by fleeing Europe and hiding in Nigeria. But the NCA’s partnerships give us global reach and mean international borders are no barrier to justice.
“This conviction is the result of many years of dogged investigation and co-operation between the NCA, Immigration Enforcement and our law enforcement colleagues both at home and overseas.”
Ms. Asemota’s gang targeted teenage girls in remote Nigerian villages, some of whom had never left their home area before, deceiving them that educational work awaited them in Europe.
“The girls would stay with her before leaving, and in interviews with specialist officers from the NCA’s Vulnerable Persons Team many of the girls told how they referred to her as Auntie Franca.
“Asemota travelled with the girls on flights from Lagos, Nigeria, to Heathrow, between August 2011 and May 2012, with the intention of reaching France. They remained airside during the transit at Heathrow so were not subject to Border Force passport checks.
“However, the trafficking attempts were prevented when French Authorities identified the girl’s false documents on arrival in France. When they were then returned to the UK, Border Force officers carried out further investigations and the case was quickly referred to Immigration Enforcement criminal investigations.”
Five of Asemota’s victims gave evidence against her during the trial. One of them was rescued from prostitution in Montpellier, France, during a joint operation by Immigration Enforcement and the NCA.
The cases were part of Operation Hudson, an Immigration Enforcement-led investigation targeting a number organised crime groups suspected of trafficking young women, via London, for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
Two other persons were convicted in 2013 as part of Operation Hudson. Odosa Usiobaifu, of Enfield, London, and David Osawaru, of Benin City, were sentenced to 14 years and nine years respectively.