Trafficking in human beings has ancient origins, dating back millenniums before the Roman Empire. Although it is considered a totally inhuman practice to our day, it still persists, and it has intensified especially in the area of prostitution. According to the Financial Times, in 2015, this deal covered 21 million people worldwide, of which 4.5 were targeted for sexual exploitation. Most of the victims are Nigerian women who, for various reasons, flee their country to an utopian search for ‘European life’, promised by traffickers. Once they arrive, however, that much-desired dream is shifted into a slavish life, forced to prostitute to settle the debt previously contracted to arrive in Europe.
Although the problem has been in existence for some decades and has an international dimension, the situation is aggravating above all in Italy, because, thanks to a cross-cutting combination of factors, it is precisely our coast that is the main port of this sexual slave traffic. In 2016, 11,000 Nigerian women arrived in Italy, of whom 80% finished directly on the sidewalks. Given the current difficulty in managing the problem of migratory flows and the involvement of criminal organizations in traffics, the exploitation of these “vulnerable victims”, which are not a priority compared to the number of immigrants who land daily in Italy, remains virtually invisible to the authorities.
Who are the Nigerian victims of trafficking?
These women abandon their land with the hope of a better future and life, sometimes even to earn money to send to their families. The economic and social context in Nigeria is, in fact, critical. After the Biafra War (1967-1970), poverty and unemployment increased, combined with a mix of illiteracy and worse treatment of women. There are many testimonies of girls who are behind daily rapes (also by their family members) and group, who have arrived in Italy to escape this terrible destiny. As a result, some women contact themselves with traffickers, in some cases knowing that they will work as prostitutes, without realizing the inhuman conditions in which they will be. Most are deceived and manipulated through promises that will then turn out to be false. Once they arrive in Italy, victims of these lies, they enter a prostitution circle that will suck them for years.
Almost all of these girls are illiterate or have not received adequate education, easy money for traffickers who approach them as if they were gentlemen, arrived “at the right time to save them.” According to Simona Moscarelli, attorney at the International Organization for Migration in Rome, there is a strong increase in the number of juvenile victims (around 13-15 years), just because teenagers are more manipulable.
Recruitment does not only happen in big cities like Benin City as a few years ago, but also in more rural areas, where finding potential victims is easier because of extreme poverty. In recent years, this trend has also intensified dramatically following the complicated Libyan situation, which has opened new ways of illegality, especially by sea, at a very low cost, without the need to obtain false passports to make women arrive in Italy, as was the case before.
How does trafficking work in Nigeria?
Nigerian trafficking for sexual purposes involves criminals that vary considerably among themselves, and they are able to operate so effectively because they are in contact with local crime. These groups, whose organizational structure is becoming increasingly similar to the Italian mafia, are composed of a multiplicity of actors. Firstly, there are the so-called “specialists” involved in managing most of the transportation phases, many of which are business people traveling in Nigeria or people who are expelled from Italy who take advantage of previous travel experiences in favor of trafficking. Specialists also deal with recruitment, working with different manipulative techniques. Some Nigerians meet them in their family environment, through relatives or acquaintances; Others happen to come across a perfect stranger who stops them in the street. Even their families, taken from the desperation of total poverty, let themselves be huddled by recruits.
After the initial approach, they propose to travel to Europe and, as they are currently without money, to repay their debt by working in the new continent as carers, hairdressers, service women, shop-assistants and other lies. Victims also see audio cassettes and letters apparently written by people already in the place, in which the promising Italian life is praised.
The woman then comes into contact with another key figure, that of madam or maman, a sort of protector who ”orders” girls from Italy and in some cases recruits them in Nigeria. Some of them are victims of trafficking and, after finishing their debt, prefer to enter the criminal organization as madam. Their job is to organize work on the street and to collect the earnings, assiduously controlling prostitutes’ life – if it is possible to call so.
Before leaving, the girls are subjected to an oath that follows the rules of juju, the nigerian voodoo strongly rooted in society, used as a psychological terror tool to them. This ritual seals the covenant between women and traffickers, since the former commit themselves to obey, not to mention the deal and to repay the debt, while the latter promise to bring them healthy and safe at their destination and to release them once they have settled their debt. In case of violation of the covenant by the victims, the evil spirits would reach the girls and punish them, following the track of their blood.
Transportation will take place illegally via the Libya-Italy sea route, crossing Nigeria and Niger first by bus or car, then embarking on a dangerous voyage to the Sahara desert to get to Tripoli. In transit countries, especially Libya, women are raped and are already taking prostitution to earn some money, even because it may happen that they have to wait months before an expedition is organized in Italy.
Arrival in Italy
Many Nigerians, already exhausted by the exodus by sea, arrive in Italy in pitiful conditions. Some are full of serious injuries following raids and rape, others pregnant and forced to abortions to work as prostitutes. As soon as they land, they are recovered by the emissaries of this racket before or immediately after arrival in the reception centers. Most girls only find out at this moment that the much-desired European life is nothing but a lie, and that they will be forced to prostitute for repaying the debt they have contracted, which is usually around 25,000-30,000 euros. To pay it, being a particularly large sum, they are forced to work between eight and ten hours a day, paid with the ‘modest’ figure of 10-15 euros per performance.
This business, which fluctuated between $ 152 and $ 228 million a year in 2009 in Europe, remains invisible because Nigerian criminal organizations enjoy a “kind of consensus” by local ones. In fact, although the Italian Mafia has never been so propense to the exploitation of prostitution, it does not mean that it can not earn, allowing others to do so. Once they land in Italy, Nigerians are often approached by humanitarian workers and police agents, so they may denounce their traffickers. Instead, they prefer to remain silent, too afraid of the psychological blackmail resulting from the wodoo oath and the possible repercussions on the family in Nigeria. Very little succeed in getting out of this situation and ask for help, appealing to the Italian anti-trafficking law, which provides, in exchange for the revelation of the names of the tyrants, a special residence permit, followed by hospitality in appropriate reception communities and a path Of psychological franchise. Only a small part of the women who are released decide to repatriate because they know that they will be ostracized because prostitution is not morally accepted. Those who stay in Italy, if they are lucky, find some small work, but others, because of the difficulties that arise from integration into society, surrender and return to prostitution. Others, like Isoke Aikpitanyi, are no longer shocked by this exploitation, and try to help these girls through humanitarian organizations fighting human trafficking.
Translation by Lucia Loddo.