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Nigerian women are being trafficked into Sicily at a rapidly increasing rate

Disheveled, barefoot and bleary-eyed, the Nigerian girls are some of the first to walk off the boats. A dream realized; 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 liter 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 organizational 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 centers,” explains Tiziana Bianchini, who works for Lotta Contro l’Emarginazione, a Milan-based organization 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.

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[Photo Credit: Midge Wattles]
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