Sophia was only a teenager when she was held by human traffickers and forced to ask her brother for €7,000 to be freed.

Just a year earlier, she had left her home country in search of better prospects. Having been raised in a remote village and born to illiterate parents who followed rigid gender roles, she felt she had no chance of being enrolled in school until she left her home country.

Her story is one of many featured in the Migrant Women Association’s cultural competence handbook that seeks to teach mental health practitioners to work with vulnerable cases of sexual- and gender-based violence.

Due to severe trauma and potential post-traumatic stress disorder, Sophia was unable to remember many elements of her story and could not fill in the blanks of how she reached Malta.

She told researchers she left Eritrea after her older brother, who had been living in a neighbouring country, offered to help her out financially. She set off to Ethiopia hoping of being able to find a school and start studying. However, once there, she realised it was difficult to explain her needs to many people because of a strong language barrier and a different culture. Desperate and alone, she turned to smugglers for help.

Passed them off to a group of traffickers

She went to Sudan to plan her journey to Libya. In Sudan, the smugglers transported her and other Eritrean migrants to a hangar on the coast of Libya and detained them until they agreed to pay more money. They then accepted to send her on a boat across the Mediterranean.

After the migrants agreed to the smugglers’ demands and made the payment, they realised the criminals had underhandedly passed them off to a group of traffickers, against a fee. “This, in effect, meant they had been sold off like a commodity,” the researchers said.

Sophia said the smugglers made her contact her brother and ask him to send €7,000 in cash immediately. Her brother told her she had to be patient until he obtained a loan from friends and relatives, she said, teary-eyed.

She had been sexually assaulted and abused by traffickers

In the meantime, she said she had been sexually assaulted and abused by the traffickers, until she ran away a year later. The experience made her lose any sense of living, thinking and she also suffered from apparent dissociative amnesia.

“Her case is one of many who would have been escaping not only a difficult situation in their home country but running away from traumatic instances along their journey,” the researchers said.

Sophia is now living in Malta and receiving treatment for her trauma thanks to the help of the Migrant Women Association. Malta was receiving a big number of migrants from many countries and, regardless of the changes and population trends, it would become an increasingly multicultural island, the handbook noted.

“As a result, mental health service providers are being increasingly confronted with the realities of migration and experience first-hand some of the migrants’ difficulties,” it added.

The Migrant Women Association encouraged practitioners to remain sensitive to issues of sexual and gender-based violence.

*The woman’s name has been changed.