Twenty-four alleged members of a trafficking ring accused of forcing Nigerian women into prostitution in France went on trial Wednesday in the latest case to highlight the increasing use of migrants as sex slaves in Europe.
Only one of the 17 complainants was present for the first appearance of the accused in the court in Lyon -- 10 women and 14 men, all but one Nigerian.
They risk 10 years' imprisonment on charges, including human trafficking, pimping, money laundering and helping people live illegally in France.
Nigeria was the main country of origin of the tens of thousands of migrants who arrived in Italy by boat in 2016 and 2017.
Many were women and girls lured to Europe with false promises of jobs as hairdressers or seamstresses only to find themselves selling sex to repay their smugglers.
Nigerians outnumber Chinese or Eastern European sex workers on the streets of France and some other European countries.
Last year, 15 members of a Paris-based, female-led pimping ring known as the "Authentic Sisters" -- many themselves former trafficking victims -- were jailed for up to 11 years for forcing girls into slavery in France.
Similar gangs have been dismantled in Italy and Britain.
The investigation in Lyon, where police estimate half the city's sex workers are Nigerian, began after authorities received a tip-off about a Nigerian pastor accused of exploiting sex workers who lived in apartments he owned.
Months of police wiretaps and surveillance led to the arrest of the suspects between September 2017 and January 2018.
The prosecution has presented the pastor as the kingpin of a family-based syndicate that includes one of Europe's most wanted women, Jessica Edosomwan, accused of recruiting destitute women in Nigeria for the sex trade in Lyon, Nimes and Montpellier in France.
Edosomwan, who is believed to be on the run in Europe, will be tried in her absence.
From prostitution to pimping
The UN estimates that 80 percent of young Nigerian women arriving in Italy -- usually their first port of call in Europe -- are already in the clutches of prostitution networks, or quickly fall under their control.
The accused in Lyon allegedly covered the entire gamut of sex trafficking activities, from iron-fisted "madams" and violent pimps to the drivers of vans in which the women performed sex acts, and those who laundered the proceeds.
Prosecutors estimate the victims, aged 17 to 38, made up to 150,000 euros ($166,000) a month for the syndicate by selling sex for as little as 10 euros.
Most of the women come from Benin City, capital of Nigeria's southern Edo State, a human trafficking hotbed.
Many told investigators they had taken part in "juju" or black magic rituals before leaving Nigeria, during which they had to promise to repay the money for their passage to Europe.
The trip often started with a perilous trek across the Sahara Desert to Libya, then across the Mediterranean to Italy, and finally to Lyon.
The victims' lawyers told the court Wednesday the women were absent because they feared coming under pressure from the accused or their representatives at court.
Unusually, one of the 17 victims in the case is also among the accused: a 28-year-old former prostitute who was released from sex slavery after paying off her debts only to then bring another young woman from Nigeria.
She was the only victim present.