People & Money

Nigerian Sex Workers Left to Starve in Italy during the Lockdown

With over 242,000 recorded cases, Italy is among the countries most devastated by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The country’s healthcare system is collapsing under the massive weight of the pandemic. The European Union expects the Italian economy to shrink by a tenth this year and public debt to rise to 160% of GDP. But there is another fallout of the pandemic that has gone unnoticed amidst its health and economic ravages—the impact on the lives of Nigerian sex workers in Italy.

During the three-month lockdown imposed on the country, thousands of sex workers were abandoned by trafficking gangs and their “handlers” in their houses with no food or means of earning income. They were simply left to starve. Since their immigration status and jobs are not legal, they did not qualify for government-funded money for the newly unemployed. The traffickers who are technically their employers and the only “constituted authority” in charge of their lives abandoned them. Alberto Mossino, co-founder of Piam Onlus, an anti-trafficking organization noted that the women are only money making tools to the criminals. Since they couldn’t make money during the lockdown, they were like worthless commodities to be discarded. This caused the women unspeakable trauma.

Italy has a very troubled history with sex trafficking, particularly in relation to Nigeria. Italy’s thriving sex industry is propelled, in major part, by Nigerian girls who are coerced to work as prostitutes. This practice began in the late 1980s during the height of the panic over the outbreak of AIDS and amidst an economic downturn in Nigeria. Many Italian men were paranoid about sleeping with drug-addicted Italian women who they feared carried the virus. They started to look elsewhere. This coincided with the arrival of Nigerians who came to Italy on work visas as farm hands picking tomatoes. These women turned in droves from this humble but honest and honourable employment as Italian punters offered them very good money for sex. What a few Nigerian women were willing to do for far more money than they could earn picking tomatoes for Italian pasta sauces quickly escalated into a large market for the trafficking of Nigerian women to work as prostitutes in ever growing number of Italian towns. The domestic pipeline kept expanding as economic mismanagement flattened investment and economic growth in Nigeria and plunged millions into poverty. It is calculated that as many as 9 million Italian men pay for sex.

Since the 1980s, about 30,000 Nigerian women have been trafficked from Nigeria to a life of prostitution in Italy. In 2016 alone, 11,000 Nigerian women were recorded to have landed in Sicily, 80% of whom were victims of trafficking. These women are often found in cities like Palermo, Turin, Milan and of course, Sicily. The details of the practice are even more nefarious than the statistics suggest. Young, impressionable and poor Nigerian girls are often targeted by these traffickers [many of whom are sweet-tongued madams] who offer them an escape from the humdrum that is their lives and a chance to earn foreign currency in the paradise-like cities of Europe. Such an offer is often irresistible to someone for whom even three decent meals a day, let alone the miracle of planes, trains, sneakers etc. appeared unattainable. But leaving Nigeria, they are coerced into performing a “ritual” using their blood, hair and/or clothing. This is to spiritually “bond” the women with their traffickers. They are told that spirits would send illnesses and death to them and their families if they reached Italy and fled from the trafficker.

The women hence submit themselves to be used by the traffickers. They work to pay off their debts which could be as high as €45,000, several times higher than the sums invested in bringing them to Italy, soliciting customers every day on the streets. Many of the mamas had also been trafficked.

More than 85% of the trafficked women are from Edo State. The Benin monarch, Oba Ewuare II took steps to weaken the hold of the fear of the juju oath which the trafficked women take not to leave the services of their mamas and on which the evil business depends. He issued a decree calling for the end of trafficking in Nigeria, berating the native doctors who administered the oaths. Oba Ewuare II invoked his powers as the supreme religious authority and hence head of the native doctors to neutralise all oaths and placed a curse on those who administered further oaths to assist the business of smuggling women into Italy for sex.

However, the stark realities make the Oba’s intervention ineffective in the long run. According to Osas Egbon, president of Women of Benin City, an organization which tackles sex trafficking in Edo State, the trafficked girls do not have any form of social or physical safety and are therefore unlikely to seek a life of independence in a land that is not their own. They would prefer to stay with their traffickers even if they believe the Oba has neutralized the oath.  Girls as young as 13 years are now being trafficked to Italy from Nigeria.

Ironically, the new coronavirus pandemic could make the journey to Italy more attractive to more young women and the parents who actively encourage their daughters to embark on it. With an additional 7 million Nigerians predicted to fall into poverty by the World Bank this year, many more women would be tempted to seek a better life on the cold streets of Sicily. It is not clear what effects the Oba of Benin’s proclamation is having on the dynamics of the trade. While it will do nothing to lessen the economic incentives for young women to go into the perilous trade, without fear of spiritual consequences, a few bolder girls could strike out on their own without waiting to be freed by the mamas. There are indications that the custodians of the trade in female flesh are now using violence besides the juju oaths to cow the women-they impregnate them en route to Italy so they could use the threat of harming their children to maintain a hold on them. Increasingly, Nigerian cult groups, with origins in universities, have piled into sex trafficking, thus raising the use of violence. It is not likely that the traffickers start to negotiate fairer terms e.g. paying them back over 2 years, with the women.  The only viable long term solution seems to be jobs creating reform and economic revival in Nigeria.

Without fear of spiritual consequences, the women could negotiate fairer terms of business that would not lead to their exploitation. But this is unrealistic. First of all, many of the targeted girls do not have the resources to demand a contract that protects their rights in the business. Also, there is no way of ensuring the terms of business are adhered to by their madams and the gangs when they get over there. After all, there are other means of coercion beyond juju. Ultimately, this all depends on if the traffickers are willing to engage in a business in which they do not have an unfair upper hand that gives them maximum profits.

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