A female people smuggler who forced dozens of teenage orphans into prostitution and slavery using the threat of witchcraft is facing jail.
Franca Asemota, known to her victims as ‘Auntie Franca’, used Heathrow as a hub to traffic at least 40 girls and young women into Europe from remote Nigerian villages.
The 38-year-old promised them jobs, education and a better life, then used ‘witchcraft’, threats and violence to force them in to the European sex trade.
Her gang even managed to snatch back two girls who had been rescued and put in in foster care in Worthing, West Sussex.
Today, Asemota, originally from Benin City, Nigeria, was found guilty of eight counts of conspiracy to traffic people into sexual exploitation by a jury at Isleworth Crown Court.
The trafficking first came to light when Border Agency officials stopped two groups, in September and November 2011, travelling on false passports.
Although she was not arrested at the time, Asemota’s ticket had been booked at the same time, at the same travel agent in Lagos, and she was sat next to the group on the plane.
Investigators then linked Asemota to at least six other ‘successful trafficking trips’ and the kidnapping of two girls who had been placed in foster care on the south coast.
Paul Cabin, prosecuting, previously told the court how three victims were first stopped at Heathrow in September, 2011, and a further two were also to give detailed accounts of the smuggling.
They all traveled on fake passports that claimed they were over the age of 18.
Mr Cabin said: ‘They all came from remote Nigerian villages and had all been told that they were going to be educated, trained and employed in France.
‘They all had difficult histories – for example, some were orphans. One was a runaway from an attempted forced marriage.
‘They and their families and guardians are told that educational and work opportunities exist in Europe for them.
‘Initially, therefore, the girls go with the gang voluntarily.
‘Their compliance from that point on is secured by a mixture of threats, to themselves and their families back in their villages, the use of ‘Ju-Ju’ rituals and sexual violence, including in one case rape.’
He added: ‘All but one reported at the time that they had been trafficked by a female who accompanied them on the aircraft from Lagos, known variously as Auntie Franca or Violet.’
It was only when they had traveled ‘a long way from their villages were they told they were really destined for a life of prostitution,’ he said.
The ‘successful’ trips all took place within a few months of each other at the end of 2011, and involved 40 victims.
Asemota was identified as a main suspect in 2012 but fled back to her home nation when some of her co-conspirators were arrested, believing British justice would not catch up with her.
Investigators spent around three years trying to locate Asemota until the National Crime Agency successfully tracked her down to Nigeria on March 25, 2015.
She was arrested by the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crime Commission in Benin City in March 2015 and extradited to Britain.
A video shows her chuckling in custody and smirking as she is led into a van destined to bring her back to the UK to stand trial.
Asemota was located after two girls, who had been placed with foster parents in 2012 in Worthing by the immigration authorities, were kidnapped.
Mr Cabin said: ‘They settled in well and both went to a nearby secondary school.
‘They had both been detained at HMP Bronzefield after their arrests and may have met each other there, but obviously from this point on they were in close contact and became friends.
‘On April 6, 2012, both girls were reported missing by their foster carers..’
Both panned to go shopping but switched off their phones and failed to return home.
Five days later one was returned to the UK from Spain after travelling on a fake passport and taken into care.
In interview the girl explained that on the day of their disappearance her friend had been taking a lot of phone calls before they were picked up by two men in a car.
One of these men was Odosa Usiobaifo, who is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence after being jailed in 2013.
They were ordered to memorise their new names and birthdays, and told: ‘Your new life is at stake if you don’t get it right.’
The other girl who was taken to Spain feared she would never escape until she contacted, Amicale du Nid, a French charity working with prostitutes, in July 2014.
Jose Olivares-Chandler, defending, denied Asemota knew of any wrongdoing and said she acted as a ‘mere chaperone’ on the flights.
But it took less than 12 hours of deliberation for the jury to find her guilty of the eight conspiracy counts.
They also found her guilty of two counts of trafficking a person out of the UK for sexual exploitation and two counts of assisting unlawful immigration to an EU member state.
Asemota, of no fixed abode, will be sentenced later this month.
One count of conspiring to trafficking and one of conspiracy to assist unlawful trafficking were dropped during the trial.
David Fairclough, of the Immigration Enforcement crime team, said: ‘Asemota was the lynch-pin of a trafficking ring which targeted vulnerable young women in Nigeria, promising them a brighter future working in Europe.
‘But it soon became clear that this was far from the truth. The victims, some as young as 13, were told they would be sold into prostitution.
‘Asemota traveled with the girls in order to threaten them and keep them in line.’
Five of her victim’s bravely gave evidence during her trial, including one who was rescued from prostitution in Montpelier, France.
Martin French, head of the NCA’s UK Human Trafficking Centre, 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.’
Asemota flew with the girls on frights from Lagos, Nigeria, to Heathrow between August 2011 and May 2012 with the intention of reaching France.
The Home Office said the girls were not detected in the UK airport because they remained air-side during transit.
But they were caught by French authorities who spotted their false travel documents.