Italy: Migrant Prostitution
I drive along country roads on the outskirts of Rome and cannot help but notice scantly clad women dot the landscape. The majority are Africans working as prostitutes to send money home to their families. Some women are working by their own choice; others are not. For nearly twenty years the women of Benin City, a town in the state of Edo in the south-central part of Nigeria, have been going to Italy to work in the sex trade and every year successful ones have been recruiting younger girls to follow them.
The Nigerian trafficking industry is fueled by the combination of widespread emigration aspirations and severely limited possibilities for migrating to Europe.
The term ‘Trafficking in persons’ is restricted to instances where people are deceived, threatened, or coerced into situations of exploitation, including prostitution.
This contrasts with ‘Human smuggling,’ in which a migrant purchases services to circumvent immigration restrictions, but it is not a victim of deception or exploitation.
Ensuring a better future for one’s family in Nigeria is a principal motivation for emigration within and outside the trafficking networks. Working abroad is therefore often seen as the best strategy for escaping poverty.
Traffickers are wealthy citizens who are searching for huge returns on quick investments.
They have in their employment staff who plays specific roles in facilitating the trips to Europe. These are the recruiters, trolleys, the passport racketeers and others believed to include embassy staff, immigration officials, law enforcement agents and fetish priests.
I meet Sharon towards the end of a hot summer day. I ask if I could talk to her.
When she realizes I am not interested in her services she drops her business like attitude and our exchange assumes a more friendly tone. She tells me to wait a few minutes so that she could get changed and asks if I can give her a lift to the train station five kilometers down the road. She has been in Italy for eighteen months and her Italian is remarkably good. She tells me of her fifty thousand Euro debt with her sponsors and of voodoo practices as if it was an old story I should have already known. Many of her friends who work along the same stretch of road declined my wish to portray them. Sharon suggests I go back the following morning. She agrees to be photographed as long as I don’t show her face but I have to be fast as she wouldn’t want us to be seen by the Madam’s black boy who sometimes patrol these roads.
Italy, with its more porous borders, experienced its first wave of immigrant prostitutes when many Polish women arrived from a home country locked in an ideological struggle for democracy. The phenomenon became so noticeable that Italians began referring to prostitutes as “the Polish.” They were followed by Nigerians and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, women from Eastern Europe, especially from still-Communist Albania, just across the Adriatic Sea. The dynamics of the Nigerian sex trade are characterized by the creation of a binding pact which both sides have to honor – women have to pay off the debt regardless of what is suffered along the way, and the Madam has to let them earn money for themselves after the debt has been paid off. This differs greatly from trafficking in other parts of the world where force is more commonly used.
Another characteristic of the Nigerian trade is that primarily women organize it within a self-reproducing organizational structure. The ones who fulfill the pact and are free to earn a living on their own often find it difficult to find work in Europe that is unrelated to sex. The success of many Italos, as these women are called, is evident in Edo. For many girls prostitution in Italy has become an entirely acceptable trade and the legend of their success makes the fight against sex traffickers all the more difficult.
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