Around 12,000 Nigerian women Mostly Prostitutes reached Italy by sea over the past two years
(Adds Italian govt figures and comment in paragraphs 21-24)
By Tom Esslemont
CATANIA, Italy, Sept 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Nigerian
teenager Beauty arrived in Sicily after crossing the Mediterranean from
North Africa last year, she had only hours to phone the man who trafficked
her – or risk lethal repercussions for family members back home.
Before her journey through Niger to Libya, a spiritual priest practicing a
form of black magic known in Nigeria as “juju” had forced her to swear an
oath of obedience to her trafficker.
The threat of a “curse” if she broke her oath and the possibility of
violence by her traffickers at home in Benin City, a southern Nigerian hub
for human trafficking, were enough to trap her into sex slavery.
“If I had reported him to the police, my family would have been in great
danger,” said Beauty, 19, fiddling with black-and-blond braids as she
recalled the events of last summer.
“At the (migrant) camp a man came to pick me up in a car. I got into the
car and I was taken away.”
Beauty, who uses a pseudonym and declined to reveal her full name, is one
of around 12,000 Nigerian women who reached Italy by sea over the past two
years, official data shows.
That’s a six-fold increase over the previous two-year period, with the
majority – almost 80 percent – of the young women victims of trafficking,
according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Young, exhausted and vulnerable, many victims report being told that
prostitution is the only way to repay hefty debts ranging from 25,000 to
100,000 euros ($28,000-$112,000) to their traffickers, Italian charities
Fear plays a large part in the juju rituals, with pubic hair, fingernails
and blood collected from the victim as she is made to swear never to
report her situation to the authorities, rights groups say.
In some cases, fearing the juju “spell” may be turned on them and they may
die, Nigerian parents insist their daughters obey their traffickers,
testimony from Italian court documents shows.
Beauty only learned later that she had been trafficked – and that the man
who had brought her to Europe, a friend of her father’s, now demanded she
pay back 25,000 euros ($28,000) by working as a prostitute.
“My pimp was a nice man. I think he was a good man,” she told the Thomson
Reuters Foundation in the security of the safe house where she now lives.
But as she provided sex services for dozens of Italian clients in a town
in southern Italy, a tyranny of abuse unfolded, she said.
“The man pimped me. His girlfriend beat me.”
“OUT OF CONTROL”
With numbers of Nigerians rising in Sicily, prostitution is a thriving
business, campaigners say – though nobody knows exactly how many women end
up plying their trade on the streets.
Close to the vibrant cultural centre in the island’s southeastern port
city of Catania, six or seven African women posed outside shuttered-up
shops at night as teams from a local charity, the Penelope Association,
offered support and advice.
“The women need help to reintegrate in society,” said Oriana Cannavo, head
of the charity’s Catania branch, nodding towards a woman in a short
turquoise dress sauntering up and down the pavement.
The offer of support is a delicate one, Cannavo said, because the girls
are already in the psychological clutches of their traffickers.
The number of Nigerian women arriving in Italy is accelerating –
complicating the task of law enforcement agencies determined to keep tabs
on the location of pimps or their female brokers known as “madams”.
Dozens of Nigerian men and women have been arrested in Italy in recent
months on trafficking related charges, prosecutors say.
More than 13,500 unaccompanied minors – some from Nigeria – were “reached”
by social workers in 2013 and 2014, with around 9,200 taken into Italian
state care, according to a report commissioned by the interior ministry.
The Italian government did not respond to repeated requests for the number
of adult victims of trafficking supported or granted asylum.
“Female victims of violence are granted special protection similar to that
accorded to refugees,” the Italian interior ministry said on its website.
The new arrivals of trafficking victims are stretching the workload of the
IOM, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and local charities, aid workers say.
“It is reaching a stage where it is out of control,” said Margherita
Limoni, a legal advisor with the IOM in Catania.
The number of Nigerian women arriving in Italy has almost doubled in the
past year, surpassing 6,300 in the first eight months of 2016, up from
3,400 for the same period last year, according to the IOM.
Unaccompanied children from Nigeria – some as young as 10 or 11 – have
also flocked to Italy. Around 1,700 arrived in the first eight months of
this year, while 1,000 came during the whole of 2015, the IOM data shows.
PIMPS AS “BENEFACTORS”
Although minors are offered state protection, Beauty was not eligible for
this as she was already 18, she said.
After running away from her pimp late last year, she fled to the local
office of the Penelope Association, which found her a place in sheltered
accommodation late last year.
Beauty is one of 45 people the charity aims to support this year by
finding them a place to live and employment in restaurants, well away from
the preying eyes of traffickers, Cannavo said.
But the assistance is not always accepted.
Seven of Beauty’s friends slipped back into prostitution out of fear of
their pimps, or loyalty, the teenager said.
“Many times the girls see their pimp as a benefactor who is trying to
improve their lives,” said IOM’s Limoni, who briefs newly arrived migrants
about the dangers of trafficking. “They trust them 100 percent.”
Victims are also put off from fleeing pimps by actual stories of families
being targeted or killed back in Nigeria – a reminder of the need to
fulfil their obligations or stick to their juju oaths, another
Sicily-based campaigner said.
If a girl breaks her juju oath then she loses the spiritual protection, or
so they believe, said Vivian Wiwoloku, president of the charity Pelligrino
“There was one Nigerian girl some years ago who abandoned prostitution.
Then someone was really sent to her home in Nigeria to kill her brother,”
said Wiwoloku in his small office in the island’s main city of Palermo.
Wiwoloku, also from Nigeria, said his charity work – helping more than 400
women abandon prostitution since 1996 – was not without its dangers. His
car has twice been set on fire.
“When you try to help somebody not everyone will be happy,” he said.
The IOM’s Margherita Limoni agreed that the strong spiritual and
psychological grip of Nigerian pimps, madams and traffickers makes it
harder to support the victims.
“The traffickers are getting smarter and smarter by the day,” she said.
($1 = 0.8901 euros) (Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Timothy Large;
Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, human
trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)
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