Palermo, Italy – It is Saturday morning and Osas Egbon is in her office in Palermo. She dials an Italian number on her mobile phone, but the line goes to an answering machine. The message is in French.
“The girl is in France,” she says to the four women in the room. “How could she leave all her luggage?”
They are concerned about a young Nigerian trafficking victim who has run away from a charity-run dormitory where she’d been offered emergency accommodation.
Egbon, 36, is also originally from Nigeria, and has lived in Italy for more than 15 years.
In 2015, together with Sandra, Mercy, Doris and Doris Sada, she set up an organisation called the Women of Benin City, a reference to the capital of Nigeria’s predominantly Christian Edo State – from where most Nigerian women begin journeys into sexual slavery in Europe.
Their drop-in session offers practical, legal and health advice. But their key asset is experience – they were also all trafficked.
Calls for help have risen since March, when the Oba of Benin, the Edo people’s traditional ruler, issued a decree against traffickers using voodoo curses to coerce young women into repaying their debt.
Before leaving, the women are forced to sign deals with the traffickers, incurring debts of up to $41,000.
As part of the ritual, victims would be taken before a juju, or black magic priest, ahead of their departure, to pledge loyalty to those who offered them passage to Europe.
This left them fearing for their lives – and those of their families – should they decide to flee before paying back the impossibly high sum.
There are many girls who want to quit, but in Palermo, there's nowhere to take them.
Upon hearing of the Oba of Benin’s intervention, an effort to reduce trafficking, Egbon and her colleagues took to the streets at night to distribute flyers announcing the “end of the slave trade” from Nigeria, as they raised awareness among sex workers about how the decree might affect them.
Nigerian media quoted the Oba of Benin as saying future traffickers would “face the wrath of our ancestors”; his address was hailed as a step forward. But reality soon sank in.
“The problem is that girls are still asking: ‘Where should we go, what should we eat?’,” Egbon says. “There are many girls who want to quit, but in Palermo, there’s nowhere to take them. If safe homes are full, you take them to the charity dormitory, where they have to wake up [and leave by] 6am. That’s not life.”
The young woman who appeared to have travelled to France had left a temporary shelter.
“The girl was tired. Maybe she called her parents in Nigeria, they probably connected her to someone in France. What else was she supposed to do?” Egbon said.
According to Biagio Sciortino, deputy director of the Palermo-based Casa dei Giovani, a non-profit organisation that runs a project for trafficked people, the city has about 25 shelters for victims, both women and men. There are 83 throughout Sicily.
Over the past year, the organisation helped 25 women off the streets. At least five returned for lack of better options.
In 2016, 11,000 Nigerian women, 80 percent of whom were possible victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, arrived on Italian shores, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), compared with 1,454 in 2014.
Those who were unable to answer questions about the cost of the trip were considered likely trafficking victims, Federico Soda, director of the IOM’s coordination office for the Mediterranean, told Al Jazeera.
“Women are not necessarily aware they will be exploited,” she said. “They don’t want to believe it, they think they have made it to a safe place. Or they are afraid, controlled by traffickers who know where they are from, who their families are.”
The number of Nigerian women arriving at Italian ports fell last year – 5,425 arrived in 2017, according to Soda – in line with lower Europe-bound migration overall.
“There are about 500 girls in Palermo and 30 ‘connection houses’ in Ballaro,” Egbon estimated, referring to the famous neighbourhood that has become a stronghold of the Nigerian mafia, the Black Axe.
Most minors work from these houses and not on the street.
The Nigerian cartel is believed to operate with the goodwill of the weakened Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra.
At the end of May, 14 people were sentenced to a total of 90 years in jail on charges of exploiting prostitution, drug trafficking, and mafia association.
At the drop-in session, Sandra is a little impatient.
She walks up and down cuddling 17-month-old Mattina – whose name means morning in Italian – swung in a bundle around her back.
They are waiting for a woman to arrive; the woman had told them she came to Italy with ambitions of becoming a model.
Sandra remembers her own journey to Italy.
“I was working as a hairdresser, learning to plait hair,” she says of her life in Benin City in April, 2007. “It’s in that place that I met someone, I was doing her hair.”
She soon left for Europe.
The youngest of seven children, Sandra had been separated from her mother at 12, when her father married another woman.
“I needed to give my mother a better life,” she says.
But upon reaching Agadez, in Niger, Sandra was arrested and forced to wait there for eight months.
She eventually made it to Libya, where she was forced into sex work.
“There were a lot of girls in the place where they put us, many came with another [trafficker],” Sandra said.
Conditions were bleak. Food was not given regularly. Only a third of her earnings went towards repaying the $30,000 debt she was forced to accept to get to Libya. The rest allegedly went towards rent and food.
A scar on Sandra’s forehead is an unwanted reminder of those two years in Libya. The customer, she said, wanted his money back.
According to Italian law, trafficking victims in Italy are entitled to a residency permit for humanitarian reasons whether or not they report their traffickers to police.
While the law is seen as one of the world’s most progressive, its application remains patchy and at the discretion of local police authorities.
“It works for a girl out of 10,” Isoke Aikpitanyi, an author and anti-trafficking activist, told Al Jazeera.
Aikpitanyi said she reported her traffickers at her own risk.
“Some girls will report, but they will name people who really have little to do with it, and this doesn’t lead to great results in terms of the investigation,” she said.
In order to overcome the fear to name bigger fish, Aikpitanyi said victims must be assured of their safety.
As for the Oba’s decision, she calls it a “missed opportunity”; the anti-trafficking system in Italy did not make the most of the moment.
“[Criminal groups] won’t easily give power up,” she explained. “Lately, we have seen them becoming more violent, it’s still them who run the show.
“There was a kind of truce for a while, but as that moment passed, the girls who quit thinking they were free, have been caught back.”