Disheveled, barefoot and bleary-eyed, the Nigerian girls are some of the first to walk off the boats. A dream realised; they arrive in Europe — though the scene is anything but romantic.
Caskets are carried off, carrying those who didn’t survive the two-day journey across the Mediterranean, from Libya to the Sicilian port of Palermo. Babies wail and those sick and burned from the effects of the gasoline mixed with saltwater stumble towards the medical tent.
The Nigerian girls are given a plastic bag containing a litre of water, a piece of fruit and a sandwich. They’re ushered to a vinyl tent for “vulnerabili” — the vulnerable ones.
For at least 30 years, Nigerian women have been trafficked into Europe for sex work, but numbers have spiked recently. In 2014, the trickle of a few hundred women a year grew to nearly 1,500. The following year, it increased again to 5,600. In 2016, at least 11,009 Nigerian women and girls arrived on Italian shores.
These women used to arrive on planes with visas. Now, they come the “back way” — the smuggling route that has developed across Africa to bring hundreds of thousands of Africans to Europe.
Women make up a smaller percentage of total African arrivals to Europe, and aid response for them has been slow and misguided. Although the International Organization of Migration estimates that 80 percent of Nigerian females coming to Europe are trafficked, aid workers have no way of telling those seeking opportunity from those forced against their will. They hand out flyers warning against trafficking.
Time is of the essence: If officials can establish trust, girls who have not been trafficked may be less likely to become ensnared in sex work once they are in Europe. And those who were trafficked are more likely to supply details that reveal that they have been trafficked, allowing the IOM to refer them to Italy’s national anti-trafficking network, or local prosecutors, who can help them get international protection.
In the best-case scenario, they are placed in a safe house run by nuns or an NGO, which is supposed to house them for up to three years and try to integrate them into European life with school and job training, with the goal of becoming independent.
That’s the ideal scenario — but it rarely happens. Safe houses are built for a dozen women — there aren’t nearly enough to take in the thousands of women arriving.
Traffickers know this.
Before leaving for Italy, Nigerian traffickers give the girls and women a phone number for a madam, and tell them to call as soon as they arrive. Madams are older Nigerian women, sometimes former prostitutes themselves, who have climbed the organisational ranks. A younger male is also involved, working for the madam by following, watching and accompanying the young women.
After arriving, the Nigerian women are taken with other asylum-seekers to facilities around Italy, built to house them as they await their documents. Teeming with people from Nigeria, The Gambia, Eritrea and elsewhere, many of whom have been there more than a year, they’re allowed to come and go, and use cell phones.
“Madams actually recruit inside the big immigration centres,” explains Tiziana Bianchini, who works for Lotta Contro l’Emarginazione, a Milan-based organisation with an anti-trafficking mission. This means that girls who may not have been trafficked run the risk of falling into criminal networks once they are in Italy.
Peace is one teen girl who, in 2013 at the age of 17, migrated by boat to Sicily and was brought to CARA of Mineo, the largest refugee camp in Europe. Located in Sicily’s eastern province of Catania, the centre, once an American military base, houses more than 3,000 men and women. It has become notorious for its dubious finances and for giving residents cigarettes instead of the payments they are entitled to under Italian law.
While she still lived in the camp, Peace stopped a Nigerian man on a street nearby, and asked to borrow his phone. She dialled the number she had been told to, and spoke to the Nigerian woman on the other line. Within days she was a sex worker. “Once you make the call, you’re off. You never go back to the camp,” she says.
I met her earlier this year in a small room in Sicily where church services are held, several months after she left the street.
She’s an energetic, fast-talking, smiley young woman, whose youthful stature is nonetheless marked by a distinct confidence. She wears her hair up high, with a long braid hanging down her back, bouncing as she walks and talks in the glaring Sicilian sunlight.
Peace isn’t her real name — it’s an alias we agreed to use because she still lives in fear of her traffickers, or that she’ll be deported. Or of repercussions for her family because she didn’t finish repaying her debt.
Trafficking officials would call her a typical victim: She grew up in Benin City, in the heart of Nigeria’s poor, rural southwestern Edo State, a major source of trafficked sex workers in Europe. She’s the eldest girl from a large family — and older girls are the most likely to be trafficked. Her mother died when Peace was 16, and her father “was not caring.”
She decided to leave, feeling the pressure of needing to help her family financially, and escaping from a situation that was hurting her.
When a woman approached her, telling her she was beautiful and asking if she wanted to go to Europe, Peace agreed. She knew she’d have to work on the street, and she knew she would need to pay the woman 30,000 euros once she arrived in Europe. She completed what Nigerians call the “juju oath,” an animist, spiritual contract in which the girl agrees to be brought to Europe, and binds herself to her debt with bits of her pubic hair and blood.
The ritual is taken extremely seriously — and violation is considered justification for murder of a girl or her family.
“Back then, I just thought, f*** it,” said Peace.
Languishing in the camps
The lax oversight at these migrant centres has led to calls for a different response to migrant arrivals in Italy. The centres, which Italians call “welcome homes” and the people inside call “camps,” were Italy’s stop-gap solution to provide recent arrivals with housing as they awaited their documents or the result of their applications for international protection.
A process that was supposed to take a couple of months now lasts years, while applicants languish in overcrowded centres, often in the middle of nowhere.
“Italy was completely unable to create a national program to deal with the arrivals from Africa,” said Bianchini, explaining that the responsibility lies with understaffed and underfunded local governments, who end up outsourcing the oversight of these camps to private organisations, “making contracts with whoever.”
This means there is little oversight or transparency. Much of the staff operating these centres speak little to no English (nor French nor Arabic for that matter), the centres are overcrowded, and the people inside of them tend to be given little access to information on Italy’s legal system.
When I visited one centre, many people asked me if they should try to get to France. Rumour has it that it’s increasingly tough to cross the borders out of Italy.
“The Italian system of housing asylum-seekers is completely inadequate for victims of trafficking,” Bianchini added, noting that women in general, but especially victims of trafficking, require specific psychological and educational support that these centres are unable to provide.
Every so often, law enforcement officials in Italy decide it’s time for a sweep and deport Nigerian women back to Nigeria, where they run the risk of being re-trafficked.
“Forcibly returning the girls to Nigeria would be another heavy violence against them,” explains Sister Valeria Gandini, a missionary nun who eight years ago founded Palermo’s Street Unity, a group of lay and religious volunteers who visit the women on the street each week. “Sooner or later, they will meet the same people who betrayed them and brought them to Europe the first time around.”
Deportation rumours often spur more women to run away.
Impossible to pay
Another young Nigerian woman who ran away from her camp, only to wind up on the street, is Favour — again, not her real name. When I met her, she had a big, warm smile beneath a fashionable knit cap.
Like Peace, Favour is from Edo State, though from the more rural area, outside of the city. Before she agreed to seal the oath, Favour asked the woman who approached her if she was going to Europe to “do prostitution.” It was only once the woman assured her that she would be working in a shop that Favour agreed.
She was told the money would be easy to come by once she was in Europe.
When she first arrived at the madam’s house, Favour was exhausted. She slept for two days. On the third day, the woman said it was time to go to work.
In addition to the 30,000 euros she had to pay off, she would have to pay 80 euros a week for food, 250 euros a month for the rent, as well as the gas and electric bills. Favour was ready: OK, no problem. Just show me the shop, she said.
First, the woman took her shopping. They bought clothes that Favour says she “didn’t understand.” A few days later, the woman said she was ready for work. They took bus after bus, and then they walked. She found herself in the “bush,” standing on the side of the road. She was told to put on different clothes, clothes she had bought earlier with the woman, and that were now tucked inside the bag she had brought.
When it finally dawned on her what she would have to do, Favour cried. She cried all day, and for many days she refused to work. When she went home with nothing, the woman would beat her. After some time, she felt she had no choice, and she gave in.
In Palermo, women and underage girls like Peace and Favour work the streets among the trees lining the busy road of La Favorita, or along the trash- and urine-ridden streets around the port.
They are there six nights, or days, a week, depending on their shifts. As the months get warmer, the clothes get skimpier: see-through tights that reveal a lacy thong, shirts open to reveal naked breasts. They wear wigs directly from Nigeria that cost 20 euros each. Blessing (not her real name), a woman of tiny stature and boundless energy who works on a Palermo street, shows off her fake eyelashes, which can stay on for several weeks
Peace now shares an apartment with an Italian woman whom she helps around the house. In her room, she brushes her hair, smiles often and laughs a lot. She is candid but guarded about her experience working on the street.
“It all depends on the client,” she says. “Sometimes, those clients don’t even want sex so much as they want company, and with them, you try to be jovial, you make them laugh. But then there are the clients who don’t want to pay you, the clients who are aggressive. Those are the bad clients.” Peace can talk about it without showing too much emotion, but she is reluctant to go too deep. She would like to go back to Nigeria eventually, but for now, she feels pressure to make money, either for herself or her family — she wasn’t clear.
Favour’s experiences were worse. Once, a client knifed her. Another time, two men who approached her gave her a bad feeling. “Via,” she told them. “I’m not working tonight.” “You must,” they replied, before slapping her and dragging her into a room in a local train station. She cried a lot as she told her story. When she came to, she said she asked the first person she found to bring her to the hospital.
After that, she decided to get out.
The Street Unity group in the town where she was working had been asking her for months if she wanted out. Street Unity groups, like that established by Sister Valeria in Palermo, approach the girls offering medical support, and in the case of the religious groups, prayer.
The Nigerian women are extremely religious (there is no one in Nigeria, Peace once said, who can honestly say that they don’t believe in God), and prayer is often a source of bonding. Once the connections have been established, the groups can be a way off of the street — a difficult and uneasy step.
Sicily has a 22-percent unemployment rate, high even by Italian standards. The only jobs available to Nigerian women are in cleaning or taking care of the elderly or children. But these jobs require Italian language skills, and they don’t come with guarantees of good payment or treatment.
As Sister Valeria sees it, “the women who are victims of trafficking, who have been forced into sex work for years, who are in the end destroyed, physically and psychologically — what future can they have here?”
Against all odds, Peace one day decided she would leave. It was a scary decision, because of the juju oath she had made back in Nigeria. Article 18 of Italy’s Consolidated Immigration Act provides protection and temporary residence permits to victims of trafficking who denounce their traffickers or madams, or who show visible signs of being in immediate psychological or physical danger.
But Peace, like many of these women, refused to take this route. Denouncing her madam or her trafficker would be the biggest violation of her oath. “I’m protected, in Europe,” she explains, “but I have to think about my family.”
Back in Nigeria, it would be easy for them to be killed or badly hurt. And, there is the fear of going crazy. She talks about her friend, Mary, who convinced a whole group of girls to denounce their madam. Mary has since gone “totally wacko” — a problem, Peace explains, that is not psychological but spiritual, linked directly to the effects of the juju oath.
Peace and Favour are moving on with their lives. Peace attends classes in Italian, sewing and cooking. She sings in her town gospel choir, and helps organise meetings in her church’s community, where she leads discussions about work opportunities and community empowerment.
Favour lives in a safe house in northern Italy. She is also taking Italian classes, and the operators taking care of her are working hard to find her job opportunities so she can be independent one day. Peace says she’s thankful for her experiences. She feels she has grown, and says it’s for this reason that she does not think of herself as a victim (though she admits that she can say this only because she is no longer on the street).
Favour, for her part, calls herself “a very big victim,” but she is looking forward, too.
* Maggie Neil is a writer and researcher based in Italy, focusing on trafficking and migration thanks to a Fulbright research grant. She reported this story with the assistance of The Fuller Project for International Reporting.