Young girls spend years working as prostitutes to pay for their trip to Europe. Others are tortured or lose their lives in the quest for a better life.
The only ones benefiting from this lucrative trade are the ones cashing in on it, a Dateline investigation has revealed.
In $30,000 Ticket to Freedom, which airs on SBS tonight, UK journalist Benjamin Zand highlights the scale of people-smuggling across sub-Saharan Africa as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean bound for Europe.
Zand also looks at what European authorities are doing to stop the boats arriving and how they inadvertently help fuel the African migrant trade.
Tracing the smuggling route from the shores of Libya, the gateway to Europe and one of the most brutal places on the migrant trail, Zand goes back through the ghettos in the deserts of Niger, where the local economy relies on human trafficking.
He also heads to Nigeria where many immigrants begin their journey and speaks with women and girls who pay for their place on a boat to freedom through years of sex work.
Speaking to news.com.au ahead of the program going to air, Zand said the migrant crisis was one of the biggest stories of our time and he wanted to see what was happening for himself.
Zand said he thought he'd come back with a clear answer as to how it could all be stopped but had more questions than what he started with.
"The route through Libya has become more important than ever over the last year or so as other routes have been closed down, so it was a simple choice of where to go," he said.
Zand saw for himself just how dangerous this particular path was.
"The thing about the route that I did through Nigeria to Niger to Libya, is that you are travelling not only across the Mediterranean, a sea that has become synonymous with death because of how many lives have been lost there, but you are also travelling through the largest desert in the world in the Sahara - a place that is so treacherous many predict it could be as deadly as the sea, if not more," he said.
Lawlessness rules here.
"You have to travel into Libya, a country that is so unstable that it has multiple governments vying for overall power, it has detention centres that have little to no regulation at all and are often black holes where migrants go and never return," Zand said.
"These conditions do not make for an easy journey. It is a nightmare, and so many people are taken advantage of, assaulted, raped and robbed along the way. And they're kind of the lucky ones, the unlucky lose their lives."
Zand said he was shocked by the huge amount of misinformation people had, with many unaware or unwilling to believe the danger they were facing trying to get to Europe.
"I'd tell people that others just like them told me the route was horrible, that they wouldn't do it again, and the response would so often be 'I'll be the lucky one' or 'I need to see it for myself'," he said.
Others had no idea Libya was dangerous, believing it was somewhere they could make money.
But the level of misinformation wasn't the only thing which was hard to film, according to Zand.
For the Liverpool-raised documentary maker, the high levels of prostitution and the length of time girls stayed working in the trade to pay off their staggering debts to the smugglers was eye-opening.
"The numbers were ranging from $US30,000 to $US60,000 ($38,229 to $76,459) - it was just absolutely crazy," he said.
"Once again the misinformation, often spread by the smugglers and the female brothel owners in Europe, was rampant.
"A lot of girls assumed they'd be making so much money in Europe that they could pay this back in a year, and that they'd be free to go afterwards. In reality they were often having sex with around five men a day for over three years just to pay the money back, and they were kept in bondage to the brothel owners who treated them like property while they did it."
Zand admitted he felt unsafe in Libya especially travelling on roads renowned for large kidnapping and while on a coastguard boat searching for migrants on the Mediterranean.
He admits his documentary was uncomfortable to view and could see how many people, including Australians, turned a blind eye.
"Being inside detention centres, and in the homes of people just about to leave Nigeria for Europe, and in a compound in Niger, is quite rare to watch, so if people have a chance to watch they should. The migrant situation is so complex," Zand said.
"So I understand why people around the world and in Australia may be turning 'a blind eye', because it is not a nice subject, it is not an enjoyable subject, people don't want to have to see suffering, they don't like to think that they are living better lives than others who are searching for a similar life too."
Zand said it was worth watching documentaries like this to try and understand people's motivations and to put themselves in their shoes.
He said the future for those who attempted to reach Europe this way was often bleak, with people either losing everything trying to get there or stuck in a life of slavery.
$30,000 Ticket to Freedomairs on Dateline, SBS tonight at 9.30pm .
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