Story highlights

A record number of women from Nigeria have arrived in Italy over the past year, and experts fear they are the victims of the growing illegal sex trade in Europe.

More than 1,200 Nigerian women arrived in Italy by boat in 2014, compared to just 300 the previous year, according to a new report by the International Organisation for Migration.

Rome, Italy - A record number of women from Nigeria arrived in Italy over the past year and fears have been raised that many fell victim to Europe's growing sex trade.

More than 1,200 Nigerian women came to Italy by boat in 2014 compared to 300 the previous year, according to a new report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

"We don't have the official figures yet but estimates suggest as many as 80 percent of the women are earmarked for sex work," said the migration agency's spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo. 

The Nigerian connection

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime named Nigeria as one of the worst eight countries in the world for human trafficking.

Prostitution

Evidence gathered in Nigeria by Sister Eugenia Bonetti, who has been internationally recognised as a driving force in the fight against human trafficking, suggests one-in-three women in Benin City, Nigeria, have been approached by local traffickers who promise them non-existent jobs if they go to Europe.

Many of the women who agree are then raped, beaten, and psychologically abused by members of the Nigerian mafia that control the trade. The use of systematic violence throughout the women's journey is aimed at preparing them for intensive exploitation once in Europe.

A study conducted by the Italian NGO Be Free, which supports victims of trafficking and gender-based violence, found that in 2011 there were 30,000 Nigerian women who had been forced into prostitution. Many feel unable to leave under pressure from the debt incurred during their trip - which can run as high as 65,000 euros ($74,000), according to Francesca De Masi, who co-authored the Be Free report.

"We documented the existence of brothels in Libya run by the Nigerian mafia where many of the women were initiated into the trade," said De Masi, who has also co-authored a book on the trafficking of Nigerian women to Italy. "They were forced to work in these places for even up to [a] year, often without any contraception. Some of the women told us they inserted wool from their mattresses inside their genitals, hoping it could in some way protect them."

In early 2014, IOM launched a new anti-trafficking operation to help women escape from the cycle of exploitation.

"Upon their arrival to Italy, our teams approach them and inform them of their rights before they can be reached by traffickers," said Di Giacomo.

In Nigeria, recruiters from criminal syndicates often pose as benefactors offering to front the money for the women's trip. The women are then often taken to a witch doctor, who performs a voodoo ceremony in which the women vow to repay the sum - and are told that if they fail to do so, they will die or become insane.

"Their belief in the power of the rite is so entrenched that often after pressing charges against their exploiters, many of them experience an acute feeling of suffocation," De Masi said.

Libya: 'Highway into Italy'

Migration researchers say the ongoing fighting in Libya has emboldened existing criminal networks in the country, making it easier for traffickers to bring women into Italy.

I slept on a mattress on the floor of the brothel and was allowed out only to prostitute myself ... If I broke any of the rules, Queen would beat me with a broken glass bottle.

- Blessing Johnson, trafficking victim

"In the absence of the rule of law, smugglers and traffickers alike operate virtually undisturbed. Harbour towns like Zuwarah have become virtually a highway into Italy," said Di Giacomo.

Under Italian law, victims of sex trafficking can be granted residency in order to access the state-run welfare system.

But analysts warn too many of these women fall through the cracks of a system geared towards controlling migration, with a disproportionate number living in Italy in a state of near slavery.

"I slept on a mattress on the floor of the brothel and was allowed out only to prostitute myself," said Blessing Johnson, 26, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisals against her family back home by the Nigerian mafia.

"If I broke any of the rules, Queen [the madam of the brothel] would beat me with a broken glass bottle," added Johnson, who has a big scar across one of her feet, which she said was the result of an attack.

Johnson said she worked in Queen's brothel for five years, from 2007 to 2012. Every night she was required to bring back 120 euros ($140), which required an average of six clients or more per day. Only part of this money went towards repaying her debt.

"The madams also charge them for food and accommodation as well as renting the sidewalk" where they work, said De Masi, which she explained is managed by madams or other members of Nigerian criminal gangs.

Exploiting the vulnerable

Johnson said she met Queen for the first time in 2006 in her hometown of Benin City. Her father had recently passed away and her family had a small income. A neighbour introduced the then 18-year-old Johnson to Queen, who fronted her the money to take her to Italy, and who reassured Johnson she would be able to quickly repay the sum.

"She told me I owed her 35,000 euros [$39,700]," said Johnson. "I had no idea what that even meant."

Johnson escaped from the brothel, but her asylum claim was rejected and she was deported to Nigeria, where Queen's gangsters were waiting for her. "They said they wanted the rest of the money. I was afraid they would kill me," said Johnson.

In June, after several threats from the Nigerian mafia, she fled back to Italy.

Upon her arrival she was detained at the Ponte Galeria detention centre, because authorities suspected her of being an economic migrant.

"We have been able to stop her deportation to Nigeria and apply for her to enter [Italy's] victim protection scheme, but a growing number of women like Blessing are being wrongly identified," said De Masi, who with Carla Quinto, a lawyer from Be Free, is working on Johnson's case.

Budget cuts

In 1998, Italy passed into law Article 18, which grants residence permits to victims of human trafficking. But the intense psychological manipulation and physical abuse to which the women are subjected during their journey often dissuades them from trying to obtain a residence permit when they reach Italy.

The Italian government's Equal Opportunities Office has said protecting victims of trafficking remains one of its top priorities, but it is struggling to cope with the increase of arrivals amid recent budget cuts.

"Over the past 14 years, our network has allowed over 24,000 victims to exit prostitution," said Corrado de Rosa, a spokesperson for the department. "However, our victim protection schemes have recently encountered some setbacks due to a reduction of the available funds." 

Be Free and other NGOs say the government's stricter migration policies are also to blame, because they place undue pressure on the women.

"We had to set up a victim support programme inside a detention centre, as many of women trafficked into Italy end up there," said De Masi. "Why should we have to do this when there is a law that protects them?"

Source: Al Jazeera