Sex trafficking is big business. The UN migration agency estimates that about 80 percent of Nigerian women who arrive in Italy are destined for sexual exploitation. Most are brought to Europe by Nigerian crime fraternities which are always looking for new ways of making money.
Many young women tell the same story. "I was promised a job as a hairdresser in Europe;" "I was told about this job by a girl I trusted, […] a customer, […] a woman I knew and liked, […] my aunt, […] she was good to me."
The phenomenon of human trafficking has been well documented in recent years, but that doesn't mean it has been stopped. Most recently, on January 25, Italy's Gazzetta del Sud newspaper reported that five people had been arrested, accused of human trafficking, prostituting minors and slavery charges.
It's a well-established system: In fact, there are criminal networks which stretch all the way from Africa -- towns like Benin City in Nigeria -- to Italy, Spain, the UK, Austria and Germany, via Libya and Niger. Each group along the route takes its cut. Not all of them are directly linked, but they are all getting rich from selling humans into the sex trade.
Massimo Lugli, a crime reporter with the Italian daily La Repubblica, estimated in April 2018 that there were nine million men paying for prostitutes in Italy alone and that business was worth 90 million euros per month. "When you buy these women, you are buying pain, a whole network of pain. Don’t do it!," Lugli said on Italian TV.
It is hard to find many women to testify directly to what they have suffered. Shyness and confusion about how they ended up as they did is a hallmark of their experience, says a new report "Stranded: Best practices in tackling trafficking, Nigerian Route," produced by the Sicily-based NGO International Cooperative South South (CISS) and co-funded by the European Union.
Nigerian crime gangs
The traffickers tend to be part of, or linked to, highly organized Nigerian crime fraternities that have existed since the 1960s. They rely on secret and often violent initiation rituals, sometimes reportedly even rape and murder, to bind their members to the clan. Nigerian newspapers report children as young as ten being initiated into some fraternities.
Some of the gangs have turned to the very lucrative practices of organized crime -- trafficking drugs, arms and people. Two of the biggest are the Confraternity of the Supreme Eiye, also known as "The Airlords", which even has its own Facebook page, and the Black Axe organization. According to Italian police, both these groups have been behind huge operations within the country and were raided several times over the course of 2018 in both Sicily and Sardinia.
"Before you leave [Nigeria] they take hairs from your intimate parts, hairs from your head and bits of your fingernails. Then you have to swear you will pay back a debt," explains a young woman named Patience, speaking on Italian TV in 2016. "A European might say they want to help us but they can't understand that we are not scared of something physical, it is a spiritual thing. Only we understand that. Even if you are Christian, you know that 'Juju' [Voodoo] exists and it works."
Patience bows her head. She was keen to work, she says, just not as a prostitute. But she pretty quickly understood when they told her that she owed a debt of 35,000 euros. "To get money quickly I worked day and night," Patience whispers.
Noemi tells a similar story on the TV program Ballaró. "We come around 9 pm and we leave at around 2 or 3 [am]" says one Nigerian girl dressed in a G-string and tiny top working by the side of the road in Italy. Another confides that the woman who recruited her was "Italian" in a so called "hotspot" center, but the men who brought her from Sicily to Verona were "Nigerian". Noemi says she was scared, partly because of the Juju ritual and partly because "people hit me, stole my money. One day, an Italian [client] arrived and pointed a gun at my head."
Unlike the other women who were forced to work as prostitutes, Blessing doesn’t hide her face. She has a degree from Nigeria in computer science and had a job repairing computers in Benin City before she was tricked into getting on a plane to Spain, chasing a job offer to work in computers in Europe.
"Why was I so stupid to accept that offer?" Blessing says in an interview about the book she wrote with journalist Anna Pozzi, "The courage of freedom. A woman escaped from the hell of trafficking".
"I read the newspapers, I know what goes on," she said, but still she believed the job offer from a trusted client who had been good to her, who "prayed every day," who seemed genuine. They got her a visa, a flight to Spain, everything. It was only when she arrived in Italy that she realized what was going on. By that time they had her phone, her passport and everything else she had with her. "They took away my dignity, ...I stopped feeling like a person and I started feeling like a product which could be bought, to be used, to be consumed."
In 2018, Blessing was honored by the US State Department as an inspirational voice in the fight against modern slavery. Now she works in Italy making sure that survivors like her get the help they need.
This is a huge and complex challenge. The number of Nigerian women trafficked in Italy has continued to grow, according to the CISS. Also, Nigerian networks have started to profit from the legal framework of migration set up in 2014. Now the networks encourage women who have been trafficked to apply for asylum, "often setting them up with a fake backstory," the CISS says. This may not get them asylum, but it does enable them to stay in Europe for around two years while they are waiting for their decision. As asylum seekers, their food and lodging during this time is taken care of by the Italian government.
The ways in which Nigerian women are traveling are also changing. In the past, they could be flown to Spain, the UK or Italy with fake visas and fake passports, which could be procured within three weeks, according to the CISS. In the 1990s, the Italian consulate in Lagos was even investigated after it issued a "suspiciously high number" of visas for Italy. Today, some women begin their journey independently, only to be sold in Libya or bought out of Libyan prisons by "benefactors." Others are recruited or forced into sex work once they arrive in Italy.
According to the Stranded report, even those who make their way to Libya independently can be sold at some point by gangs either in Niger to Libya or within Libya. Men are sold for as little as 400 euros and women for around 2000 euros. Men and women have to pay off their 'debts,' men working in agriculture or factories and women as prostitutes or as domestic servants. From Libya, the so-called benefactors put them on a boat to Italy and confront them with their 'debt' once they have registered in the Italian asylum system.
The report also notes that for many, exploitation begins on the journey. The victims will arrive in Italy with cigarette burns, stab wounds or even HIV. Some of them don't even realize that their arrival meant that someone paid their prison debt for them. That's the reason they don't tell the authorities that they are being exploited, says CISS.
To maintain control over the women once they arrive in Italy, many of the women are impregnated by the Libyan and Nigerian 'keepers' before. If the women try and 'rebel', the keepers threaten to harm their child.
The head of the International Organization for Migration IOM in Italy, Federico Soda, said in 2017 that 80 percent of Nigerians coming to Europe are "destined for sexual exploitation." The IOM identified 8277 potential Nigerian victims of trafficking in Italy in 2017 of which 6599 were confirmed as such. However, only 696 women have actually sought protection in Italy.
That is where non-profit organizations like CISS come in to help. Gloria Cipolla and Margherita Maniscalco have been working with and researching the phenomenon of human trafficking and exploitation of women for years. Maniscalco worked on the report Stranded with the organization BINIs, a transnational partnership of NGOs along the human trafficking route between Nigeria and Europe that aims to stop the trade and exploitation of women and children from Nigeria to Europe.
Maniscalco feels that even though there are fewer arrivals in Italy by boat, humans are still being trafficked. "Spain used to be an important hub [flying people directly from Lagos to Spain on false passports or tourist visas] on the trafficking route. So we imagine it will start playing a bigger role once again [following closures of Italian ports.]"
Gloria Cipolla explains that because awareness about the phenomenon has been growing in Nigeria, the traffickers have been targeting younger and younger children in rural areas in order to keep feeding the trade. "Before most of the women were around 18 years old, now we’re talking very young girls, 13, 14 or 15 years old," says Cipolla.
Hard to help
The challenge for organizations like CISS is finding ways to reach the women before they can be exploited on Italian territory. "After all that they go through in Libya, it is difficult for us to intervene," says Maniscalco. The organizations try and target the youngest women with the message that they can get out if they want. However, the success rate of this approach is relatively low.
"These people have no trust in authority when they arrive," adds Cipolla. "In their countries of origin, authorities tend to be corrupt. Then in Libya, often some form of authority will have participated in their exploitation. So by the time they get to Italy, they don’t think to confide in the police. They know they have this debt and they have threats on their family at home. So it is not easy for them to come and tell us," explains Cipolla.
"In Italy, regular migration routes have been blocked for at least three years," explains Cipolla. "It is very difficult for a Nigerian woman to get a visa to Italy now and arrive by regular means."
Coexistence of crime gangs
Cipolla explains that the Nigerian clans have effectively found a way to coexist with local organized crime. "The Nigerian 'mafia' avoid starting 'wars' with local organized crime groups. That leaves them autonomy to sort out their own business but they will pay some kind of 'service charge' to the local mafia. For instance, they will rent apartments, pay for street space for the girls to stand, and all the lawyers are Italian when the Nigerians have any legal trouble."
The Nigerian women keep to themselves and are usually kept within their community, says Cipolla. "They don't go alone to see a doctor for instance so it is very difficult to get close to them and to help them. The control is very high and if necessary the level of violence is extreme."
Raids by Italian police do happen occasionally. However, Cipolla believes that they mainly occur when the criminal activities expand outside 'just' prostitution. For the police to crack the prostitution rings, they would need denunciations, something that few Nigerian women are willing to give because they are too scared by multiple threats against them and their families.
Paying back the debt takes three to four years on average, Cipolla says. Talking about paying back a debt of 30,000 euros at some of the lowest rates of fifteen euros per time, this means the women have to be working a lot in the course of three years. "Some do it in two years," adds Maniscalco. Others might strike a deal with the clans, offering to recruit more women in order to lower their own debt.
But even after the debt has been paid off, for many women, it doesn't end there. A lot of them who do get out from the gangs will often fall back into prostitution because they don't find any other alternative. "It has effects on your self-esteem, it makes you question who you are," explains Cipolla. She concedes that "when they have finished paying their debt, they are free. [But] they will often stay working for themselves." Some turn the tables and become madames or mamans themselves, recruiting other girls to suffer the same fate that they did.
With the help of European funds, CISS is working to set up a safe house to help support a few women who have decided to leave the streets. They hope to open in the spring. There are a few other safe houses in Sicily for those who need protection, but compared with the numbers of women one sees on the streets of most major towns in Italy, they appear to be a drop in the ocean of exploitation, money and organized crime.
To stop the trafficking, thinks Cipolla, "you need to change the way you approach migration. […] Create legal ways for people to arrive. Otherwise, you have handed over the management of the routes to organized crime, and then there is not much that anyone can do."