Nigerian returnees from Libya disembark from a plane in Lagos. An emergency effort has begun to repatriate thousands of migrants stranded in camps across Libya. (Sunday Alamba/AP)

It was April when Loveth ran away from her crowded home in southwestern Nigeria to escape her father's incestuous advances.

She said she paid a smuggler $24,000 to take her first to Libya and then across the Mediterranean to Europe, where the 20-year-old planned to work as a prostitute to support her 2-year-old son.

Once she reached Libya, she was kidnapped, raped and sold to another trafficker, she said.

The trafficker told her it would take five years of sex work to earn her freedom.

She escaped and months later made it onto a U.N.-chartered flight back to Nigeria.

Loveth recounted her story outside a crumbling motel here that temporarily houses recent returnees. She is one of thousands of Nigerians sent home from Libya in 2017 as part of an intensified international effort to rescue stranded migrants from a thriving slave trade.

Yet it is a harsh homecoming. Survivors and experts say the rush to return Nigerians is doing little to break the cycle of sex slavery and may be perpetuating it: Returnees are dropped back into the epicenter of Nigeria's sex-trafficking industry, often deeper in debt and with fewer options than before they left.

Loveth and other victims of trafficking in this article spoke on the condition that only their first names be used to protect their safety in Nigeria.

"As images of modern-day slavery in Libya are impugning the conscience of our political leaders, it must be recognized as part of a bigger, systemic problem," said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a U.N. agency.

West Africa's "turbocharged" sex-trafficking industry "tends to get pushed aside," he said.

In December alone, the IOM returned more than 2,000 Nigerian men and women from Libya, more than double the number in all of 2016. In 2017, the IOM returned more than 6,700 Nigerians from Libya, with an additional 300 so far this year.

Traffickers send far more women from Nigeria to Libya than the number returned. From 2014 to 2016, the number of women trafficked for sex to Libya and across the Mediterranean increased by more than 600 percent, according to the IOM.

More than 80 percent of returnees are from Edo state and are processed at the rundown motel in Benin City, the state capital. Like much of Nigeria, Edo is beset by corruption, poverty, joblessness and a lack of education and development. Nigeria has grown rapidly to become one of Africa's largest economies, but inequality also has increased. Generations of Edo women have worked as prostitutes, voluntarily or involuntarily, in Europe, sending home remittances from sex work that pad the local economy.

Sex work is so ingrained that officials have witnessed families trafficking their daughters, with the expectation that they will benefit from the girls' earnings.

"When you want to arrest the traffickers because the daughter is suffering abroad in Libya, are you going to jail the mother?" asked Mercy, a police officer who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity to protect herself from professional retaliation.

Many of the biggest prostitution bosses are Nigerian "madams" who were once trafficked themselves. Women make up more than 40 percent of convicted traffickers, according to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, or NAPTIP, Nigeria's primary anti-trafficking authority.

Tessa, 32, twice tried traveling to Europe but stopped short, first after she found out she would be forced into prostitution and again after her guide stranded her just before crossing the desert to Libya. Jobless again in Benin City, she applied for a "travel agent" listing. She took girls to northern Nigeria, where she handed them off to another smuggler.

She quit more than a year ago, but said of the girls, "They want this."

Fewer women and girls are making it to Europe, where earlier migrants from Edo and across Nigeria found work. Instead, they are becoming trapped in Libya, where armed groups kidnap and enslave migrants, holding them for ransom and selling them for labor. Women like Loveth are often forced into sex work to repay near-impossible "debts" to traffickers.

The IOM estimates there are upward of 700,000 to 1 million migrants in Libya, many of whom are probably captive.

The recent furor over the slave trade in Libya kicked off a new round of finger-pointing late last year. Europe has largely responded to the crisis by paying African countries like Libya to keep the migrants at bay. The U.N.-backed government in Tripoli still does not control much of the country.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has criticized Libya for its part in the crisis, but his country is grappling with its own trafficking epidemic. Since its 2003 founding, NAPTIP has ­rescued nearly 12,000 reported victims. It has also arrested 4,224 people for human trafficking, but only 334 have been successfully prosecuted.

In June, the U.S. State Department downgraded Nigeria in its annual trafficking report.


Posters warn of the dangers of trafficking and migrating from Nigeria at Idia Renaissance, a nonprofit in Benin City that provides vocational training and support to survivors of trafficking. (Timothy Bowden/Timothy Bowden)

In 2015, the Nigerian government passed a series of changes
to strengthen anti-trafficking efforts, including requiring judges to give convicted traffickers jail time instead of fines.

The restructuring has allowed the agency "not only to bark but
to bite," said Joseph Famakin, ­NAPTIP's Lagos zonal commander.

Nigeria cannot do it alone, he said.

Even for local traffickers, "guiding" women and girls north is good business.

An older Benin City man named Sonny described how for almost a decade he had smuggled Nigerian girls into sex slavery in Libya. He insisted he had stopped some 15 years ago, leaving the lucrative trade to younger men.

"In Nigeria, the girl is free, but there is no food," he said, grinning. "In Libya, she eats chicken every blessed day."

Asked how long it would take girls to pay off their debt, he responded: "They don't."

When trafficking victims are returned to Nigeria, Famakin said, the government can do little to prevent them from being lured back into the business.

While many are given a small stipend and access to job training, they commonly say they are worse off than before.

After a November ceremony in Lagos hosted by NAPTIP, one 29-year-old returnee could not afford a taxi to transport the hairdressing start-up kit she had been awarded. In Libya, she had been forced to pay her madam about $600 — at $3 per client — before she was rescued and came back with nothing.


Hairdressing supplies provided by the Nigerian government to returnees from Libya and survivors of trafficking. (Timothy Bowden/Timothy Bowden)

The Nigerian government and the IOM are aiming to return tens of thousands more Nigerians in the coming months, but the effort is already strained. Last month, hundreds of Nigerians in matching tracksuits stepped off a flight from Libya to crowding news cameras, and some yelled at officials about their haphazard reintegration. Most were taken to the motel in Benin City, where the state governor recently criticized the federal response.

In early December, Loveth sat crying in a plastic chair outside the motel with her small, round belly bulging from her thin frame, a pregnancy resulting from the rape in Libya. Later, doctors told her it was too late for an abortion, and she decided to put the baby up for adoption.

She said she was happy to have left Libya but not to be back in Nigeria "because I have no place to go."