On a pleasure boat cruising Gulf waters near Dubai’s glittering skyline, a Nigerian woman dressed in a white dress and gold jewelry nodded and swayed as a gathering sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

Videos of Christy Gold’s 45th birthday party were posted in May 2022 on an Instagram account that showcases her glamorous lifestyle, months after Gold fled Nigeria, where she was facing sex trafficking charges.

Gold — whose name appears in court records as Christiana Jacob Uadiale — was a ringleader in a criminal network that lured African women to Dubai and forced them into prostitution in brothels, backstreets, bars, hotels and dance clubs, according to six Nigerian government anti-trafficking officials, a British human rights activist who has tracked her operation and five women who say they were trafficked and exploited by her.

A selfie of a woman with red lipstick, oversized black sunglasses and gold jewelry sitting in a car.
Christy Gold, referred to in court records as Christiana Jacob Uadiale, showcases her glamorous lifestyle on social media. Image: Christy Gold/Facebook

Three of the women said in interviews that Gold told them that if they didn’t do as they were told, they’d be killed and dumped in the desert. Those who didn’t make enough money for her were taken to a torture room in an apartment in Dubai, where Gold’s brother starved them, flogged them and shoved hot chili paste into their vaginas, according to three anti-trafficking officials and five women who provided detailed accounts in interviews and court statements.

“They beat the hell out of me,” one of the women said. “The suffering was too much.”

In a statement to the court after she was charged, Gold denied that she and her brother were sex traffickers. “I am not involved in human trafficking and I do not have any girls in Dubai working for me as a prostitute,” she said.

Gold remains a fugitive from justice — part of what anti-trafficking activists and officials say is a thriving underground of suspected sex traffickers who have taken refuge in the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf nation known for its wealth, futuristic skyscrapers and what rights groups say is a poor record on protecting foreign workers and basic freedoms.

The UAE is a major destination for sex trafficking, where African women are forced into prostitution by illicit networks operating within the country, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Reuters has found.

Emirati authorities do little to protect these women, according to anti-trafficking activists, Nigerian authorities and interviews with trafficked women.

This story is based on interviews with 25 African women, mostly from Nigeria, who described being lured to the UAE by Gold or other alleged traffickers, as well as dozens of interviews with humanitarian workers, investigators, Nigerian government officials and others with knowledge of sex trafficking in the Emirates. Their accounts are corroborated by court records and case files from Nigeria’s anti-human trafficking agency.

Human traffickers keep African women in sexual slavery by playing on their financial desperation and creating webs of manipulation and coercion. They subject them to threats and violence. They ensnare them in crushing debts, often totaling $10,000 to $15,000 — huge sums for women from poor families. And, in many cases, they exploit traditional African spiritual beliefs to make victims believe that they have no choice but to do what the traffickers tell them.

This investigation is part of a reporting collaboration led by ICIJ, Trafficking Inc., which is examining sex trafficking and labor trafficking in many parts of the globe. Media partners in the project include Reuters, NBC News, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and other news outlets in multiple countries.

Gold did not respond to questions for this story. In her statement to the court in Nigeria, Gold said she had helped Nigerian women and men move to the UAE by subletting space to them in an apartment she owned in Dubai.

“I even go as far as advising them like a mother so they too can make it in Dubai,” she said. But she told the court, “I cannot tell what these people did for a living in Dubai.”

A screenshot of a Versace cake on Instagram
Videos of Christy Gold’s 45th birthday party were posted on Instagram. Click to watch. Image: Christy Gold / Instagram

In a written reply supplied by the Dubai government’s media affairs office, the emirate’s police agency said claims that Gold had engaged in the sex trafficking of African women in Dubai are “false and have absolutely no basis in fact.” The statement said Gold had “entered and exited Dubai legally and was not implicated in any illegal activities.”

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs said any suggestion the UAE “tolerates human trafficking or that it has little regard to the victims of this heinous crime is utterly false.” Such allegations, the ministry said in response to questions, were “baseless and without foundation.”

The ministry said the UAE’s laws on sex trafficking carry heavy fines and prison sentences. A report the ministry shared said the UAE had referred 20 human trafficking cases to the courts in 2021, most involving sexual exploitation.

The UAE has also been involved in international police operations against trafficking networks, the ministry said.

Human rights activists and Nigerian authorities say the UAE doesn’t live up to its anti-trafficking commitments.

Fatima Waziri-Azi, director general of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, said there has been “no cooperation” when NAPTIP has reached out to Emirati authorities for help hunting down traffickers working out of the UAE.

Angus Thomas, a British activist who founded an anti-trafficking education organization based in Ghana, said UAE authorities were uncooperative when he urged them to help African women get away from Gold and her associates.

“I wrote, I phoned, I emailed, asking them to help me get the girls, sending addresses of apartments,” he said. “And I heard nothing.”

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In plain sight

Sex trafficking is one form of human trafficking, which is generally defined as using force, fraud or coercion to induce someone to provide a service.

Most of the 25 women interviewed for this story said they were promised other types of work but were driven into prostitution. Others said they chose to do sex work but were trapped in situations in which they were abused, their earnings were stolen and they were unable to get away.

The UAE made sex trafficking a crime in 2006 and has established an interagency anti-trafficking panel and opened shelters for survivors. The U.S. State Department said in 2022 that the UAE has made “significant efforts” to combat human trafficking but still falls short in key areas — including failing to “consistently screen vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators, which may have penalized some victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, such as immigration or ‘prostitution’ violations.”

The UAE follows Islamic law, yet prostitution and sex trafficking are open secrets. Business cards with photos and WhatsApp numbers for brothels disguised as massage parlors litter many parts of Dubai. Spas, dance clubs and bars are filled with sex workers.

Dubai at night with a view of the musical fountain in front of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world
Dubai is famous for its glittering skyline but sex trafficking is a dark open secret in the city. Image: Reuters

A hierarchy based on skin tone plays an important role in the UAE’s sex industry, according to interviews with trafficked women and visits to spots where prostitutes congregate. Lighter-skinned women from Europe are generally trafficked into higher-end venues serving wealthier customers. Darker-skinned women are often steered to alleys and street corners, providing sex to low-income migrant workers from South Asia and Africa.

One Nigerian woman described being taken by a trafficker to an open-air brothel in the desert between Dubai and another emirate, Abu Dhabi. She and other women would take off their clothes and spread them on the ground, and men would come to have sex with them from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

A Nigerian mother in her 20s said a trafficker led her and two other women to a parking lot in Ajman, one of the emirates that make up the UAE, and forced them to have sex with male clients amid vehicles that were being painted and repaired. At the end of the night, she said, the traffickers took all the money, leaving them with nothing to buy food.

After she broke free of the trafficker, the woman said, she slept in the streets and begged for food. She nearly lost her mind, she said, before a nurse from Nigeria rescued her and helped her get home.

The UAE’s sex industry is shaped by the country’s distinctive demographics and economy.

Nearly 90% of its population comes from somewhere else — mostly foreign workers employed in construction, hospitality and other industries. Most of them are men and they arrive alone. As a result, 69% of the UAE’s population is male. The government deals with these demographic realities by deploying extensive surveillance within the country — and by allowing a bustling sex trade as a way of pacifying male workers, according to two former diplomats who were based in the UAE and monitored sex trafficking.

Gold and Mercy

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Thomas, a photographer and anti-trafficking activist, had a one-day layover in the UAE before heading home to London. He was going into a supermarket in Dubai when a 19-year-old Nigerian woman approached him and offered him sex.

He declined, but asked her if she wanted to return to her home country.

She told him, Thomas said, that she and 22 other women were under the control of a trafficker named Christy Gold. Back in London, he sent her money to rent a safe place to stay and then arranged a flight home to Nigeria.

Thomas said he began trying to rescue other women trapped in Dubai. He started a campaign called Send Them Home, raising money to cover victims’ escape and travel costs. Over several months, Thomas said, he helped rescue eight other women who said they’d been held against their will by Gold or other traffickers operating in the UAE. Thomas’ account was confirmed by Nigerian anti-trafficking officials and women who Thomas helped escape from traffickers.

He also shared information that he had gathered about Gold with Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency, NAPTIP. His efforts included tracking Gold’s Instagram account, where she displays hundreds of online posts featuring lion-shaped pendants and other jewelry she sells through a gold trading business she runs from Dubai.

In a May 2022 email to Waziri-Azi, the Nigerian anti-trafficking agency’s director, Thomas wrote that Gold was “flaunting her wealth built on the backs” of young women “she trafficks to Dubai.”

Little is known about Gold’s background. In her written statement to the Nigerian court, Gold said that she traveled to Dubai in 2009 and after that began shuttling back and forth, buying gold, shoes and handbags in the UAE and selling them in Nigeria.

According to interviews and court statements, Gold and her associates targeted Nigerian women who were desperate for work and new lives, promising them jobs in hair salons, restaurants and other retail businesses in Dubai. Gold’s associates helped them obtain Nigerian passports and tourist visas to travel to the UAE.

Christy Gold is flaunting her wealth built on the backs of the young women … she trafficks to Dubai.

—  Angus Thomas, founder of the Hope Education Project

Descriptions of her operations come from five women who said they’d been trafficked by Gold. Three gave detailed interviews for this story. Two of those three women, along with two other women, have submitted witness statements in Gold’s criminal case.

Each of the three women interviewed for this article said she was trafficked after being approached by a recruiter, Mercy Ewere Owuzo, who worked with Gold.

One said she was working in a shop in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, in July 2019 when Owuzo told her that she could make much more money as a salesperson in a store in Dubai.

“I didn’t ask any questions because she told me she is trying to help young women and I thought, ‘She is a kind person,’ ” the woman, 25, recalled.

She said Owuzo paid for her passport, plane ticket and UAE tourist visa.

After arriving in Dubai, she said, she talked by phone to Owuzo, who told her there was no job for her in a store. Instead, she would be going to clubs, restaurants and hotels to sell her body. It was the only way, she said she was told, to pay down the $12,000 debt that she owed Gold for bringing her to the UAE.

A collection of signs plastered on the wall advertising "African bed space"
Advertisements for brothels disguised as massage parlors and other businesses litter many parts of Dubai.

The three women said Gold also controlled them by confiscating their passports. Then, they said, she created fake passports that appeared authentic enough to get them through routine police stops or past front desks at hotels — but not enough to get them out of the country.

It’s not clear from witness accounts and court documents whether Gold was the topmost leader of the alleged trafficking network. The three women interviewed for this story said she exercised a substantial level of authority and was deeply engaged in the network’s operations — personally threatening, for example, to leave their corpses in the Arabian Desert if they didn’t comply with her demands.

“Every time we don’t bring money, they would beat us, put pepper in our vagina, pepper in our eyes,” said one of the three women, who said she was working as a hairstylist in Nigeria before Owuzo promised her a better-paying job in Dubai. “Many of us had wounds, but we weren’t taken to hospitals because they don’t want people to know what they were doing to us.”

All three of these women spent time in a two-bedroom apartment in Dubai controlled by Gold. At one point, they said, Gold occupied one bedroom, while as many as 18 women were crammed into the other, with most sleeping on blankets on the floor.

It was here, according to interviews and court statements, that women marked for punishment were sent and where Gold’s enforcer — her brother Solomon — sexually assaulted them and beat their malnourished bodies with a hookah hose, broomstick or other implements.

NAPTIP officials said Solomon has not been charged with a crime. Gold said in her court statement that she never ordered Solomon to hurt anyone who stayed in her apartment in Dubai.

“I have never at any time instructed him to beat any of the girls as I have never had cause to beat any of them,” she said.

ICIJ and Reuters were unable to contact Solomon.

I have never at any time instructed him to beat any of the girls as I have never had cause to beat any of them.

— Christy Gold, who is accused of human trafficking and sex exploitation

Victoria Oburoh, one of NAPTIP’s top prosecutors, confirmed that Gold and Owuzo worked together. In May of last year, NAPTIP was able to win the conviction of Owuzo on sex trafficking charges in federal court in the Nigerian state of Delta. Oburoh said that case and the one pending against Gold are “sister cases.”

A lawyer who represented Owuzo during her trial declined to comment.

NAPTIP began an investigation of Gold after one of her alleged victims reported her to the police in Nigeria. Authorities charged Gold with six counts of violating Nigeria’s sex trafficking law.

After a judge released her on bail, she failed to show up for a scheduled court appearance on Nov. 3, 2021. Her lawyer told the judge that Gold had been “found half dead on the bed” and taken to a hospital.

The judge ordered that Gold be taken back into custody. But authorities had no luck tracking her down, NAPTIP officials say.

Christy Gold had disappeared.

‘Take me to prison’

Loudspeakers announced evening prayers at a mosque in Al Baraha, a working-class neighborhood in Dubai’s populous Deira district, when a reporter visited last August.

Steps away, young women in colorful wigs and low-cut evening dresses lined up in front of shabby buildings for their day’s work: providing sex to men. On the fourth and fifth floors of one building, South Asian men sat in the stairway, scrolling on their phones, sipping beer and waiting for their turns with the sex workers.

All the while police vehicles slowly navigated the district’s narrow alleys — part of the policing and surveillance apparatus that keeps UAE authorities deeply informed about what’s going on in Dubai and other emirates.

Women stand in front of a building at night
Dubai’s Al Baraha district in Deira, where trafficked, African women are forced to sell their bodies to pay thousands of dollars to their traffickers who confiscate their passports after reeling them in with job offers.

One of the sex workers was a young woman who arrived from Ghana in June 2022. She said she was promised a job as a housemaid but found herself doing an entirely different kind of work.

She rolled up her dress to show the bruises that came with the job.

“A few days ago, my eyes were swollen after being hit in the face and slapped when I failed to meet the target,” she said. “It’s my boss who did this to me.”

He told her, she said, that if she wanted to gain her freedom, she had to pay a debt of nearly $10,000.

“Where do I go? What do I do?” she asked, breaking into tears. She said her trafficker, whom she didn’t name, had taken away her phone and passport.

Another way traffickers and their subordinates control African women is by using the power of juju, a traditional African spiritual belief system.

Women targeted for sex trafficking are required to take “juju oaths,” solemn vows to do the bidding of the recruiters who have promised to help them find work abroad. As part of the oath-taking ceremonies, they are told to strip naked, kneel for hours and swallow noxious drinks that can make them dizzy. They’re warned that breaking their vows of obedience could put a curse on them that could cause injury, death, even generational misfortune for their families.

Most of the women interviewed for this story said they had been required to take a juju oath, with some of the ceremonies conducted in Nigeria and others after they arrived in the UAE.

Three women said in witness statements in Christy Gold’s criminal case that Gold’s associates required them to do oath-taking ceremonies in Nigeria before they traveled to Dubai.

“She makes us believe she has juju,” one woman who claims she’d been trafficked by Gold said in an interview. “That is, if we run away, we can become mad or die.”

In a statement to the court, Gold denied organizing such ceremonies.

When women brave the threats of real violence and otherworldly consequences to try to escape their traffickers, they say they often get little help from Emirati authorities.

Women gather in the street in Dubai's Al Baraha district in Deira
Authorities often turn a blind eye to sex trafficking in Dubai.

A 25-year-old Ugandan said that after she fled a brothel in Dubai’s Deira district where she was forced to work, she headed to the nearest police station. She said a police officer took her back to the brothel and negotiated with the trafficker to return the passport to her. The officer left without doing anything else, and the trafficker took the passport back again, she said.

She got away for good only after she reached out to Nyondo Rozet, a Ugandan YouTube broadcaster based in the UAE. Rozet posted a video about her plight, which raised the money for a plane ticket home.

Rozet, whose videos primarily appeal to the Ugandan community in the UAE, said in an interview that a woman who called her, saying she was the trafficker, offered her money to take the video down. When she refused, Rozet said, other people contacted her to threaten harm if she didn’t delete the video, telling her: “You are not going to survive.”

The Dubai police did not respond to questions about the incident.

A 23-year-old woman from Nigeria’s northeastern farm belt said she thought UAE police would help her after she fled a brothel in Abu Dhabi where she and six other women had been locked in a room filled with steel beds separated by curtains. Every night, she had to have sex with half a dozen men.

She had slipped away when her boss got drunk and left the key in the door. But when she walked into a police station in the Khalidiya area of Abu Dhabi, she said, an officer told her, “Go to where you came from.”

She said she pleaded: “Put me in prison!” But “they turned their back to me. I was crying, but they paid no attention. They said: ‘To Hell with Africa.’”

The police station in Khalidiya did not respond to a request for comment.

Fighting for justice

For years, large numbers of migrants from Nigeria and other African countries have sought jobs and new lives in Europe. Migration routes have changed as European Union members have pushed migrants back to Libya, the main transit point across the Mediterranean Sea. With the way to Europe increasingly blocked, African migrants have turned, in growing numbers, to the UAE and other rich Arab nations.

Oburoh, the NAPTIP prosecutor, said that when trafficking cases have links to Europe, governments there provide information and cooperation that help the agency apprehend and prosecute traffickers. But when it comes to the UAE, official cooperation is nonexistent, Nigerian anti-trafficking investigators said.

At home, NAPTIP operates in an environment where some government officials have been accused of engaging in human trafficking — and where, NAPTIP officials say, convicted traffickers often avoid jail terms.

In May 2022, a Nigerian court sentenced alleged Gold associate Mercy Owuzo to five years in prison. However, the court allowed her to avoid prison by instead paying a fine of roughly $5,000. The money was distributed as compensation to the victims in her case, according to Oburoh.

As for Christy Gold, she is being tried in absentia while Nigerian authorities continue to ask Dubai to arrest and extradite her, according to NAPTIP legal chief Hassan Tahir.

Gold posted images of herself in Dubai on Instagram as recently as February and March, although it is unclear when those images were captured. Her Instagram account still touts gold jewelry that she sells to customers of her business, Christy Gold Jewelry Empire Ltd, in Nigeria.

In one video, a purported customer shows off shiny earrings and a thick ring and says: “Christy Gold, Christy Gold. . . . Tested and trusted. … Can’t you see how you make me fine?”