Trafficked to Turin: the women forced into prostitution
Thousands of women have been lured into Europe under false pretences to work as sex slaves, writes Annie Kelly
Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30
It's just after 9pm when the first Nigerian women start to appear on the streets of Asti, a small city near Turin in Italy. Some stand in groups of two or three, flagging down passing cars. Many are alone - solitary figures backlit by the stream of headlights moving into the city. Princess Inyang Okokon slows down her car as she spots two girls standing on a corner. Even with makeup they look no older than 15. "So many new faces," she says, as she pulls her car to the side of the road and gets out to speak to them.
Princess, a 42-year-old mother of four from Nigeria's Akwa Ibom state, has spent the last 17 years working for Progetto Integrazione Accoglienza Migranti (PIAM), an anti-trafficking group in the city. According to her, most of the Nigerian prostitutes working Asti's streets are victims of trafficking.
Princess knows first-hand about the horrors these women are living through. In 1999, she was trafficked herself from her home in Nigeria to Turin. "I know their story because it is my story, too," she says.
For three decades, a thriving sex-trafficking industry has been operating between Nigeria and Italy. The trade in women began in the 1980s when Nigerians travelling to Italy on work visas to pick tomatoes realised selling sex was more profitable than harvesting.
Since then, 30,000 Nigerian women have been trafficked into prostitution, finding themselves on street corners in Italy and other European states. In 2015, 5,633 Nigerian women arrived by sea in Italy. The UN believes 80pc of these are victims of trafficking
More than 85pc of these women have come from Nigeria's Edo state, where traffickers have exploited poverty to sell false promises of prosperity in Europe.
Princess was one of the first wave of women to come from Nigeria. Then a single mother of three children, she was approached by a woman she knew from work, who offered her a job in Italy. "In Nigeria there was nothing. I wanted more for my children. This woman said I could pay back the cost of travel when I started earning. I believed her."
She flew to London on a fake passport. When she arrived she called a number she'd been given and a man picked her up and drove her to Italy. She was taken to a house in Turin full of other Nigerian women. When she told them she was going to work in a restaurant, the women laughed. "They said, 'Here no Nigerian girl works in a restaurant. Whether you are a princess or a queen you are here in Europe and you must work as a prostitute'. I was distraught."
Princess was told she had to pay back €45,000 before she could leave. She was now under the control of a "madam", a Nigerian woman who worked for the trafficking rings, controlling the women and their debt.
She was given high heels and makeup and driven to a street corner. "I said 'I will not do this,'" she recalls. "I hid behind a big bin all night and cried." And then the beatings began. Her madam attacked her so violently with the heel of a shoe that she was hospitalised. "They said that they would kill me if I didn't work."
For months, Princess worked the streets. But her debts never got smaller. "The work was so dangerous. I was stabbed twice," she says. "The only way I kept strong was promising myself I would leave this life."
Eventually, her prayers were answered. She was walking home one day when a man called Alberto Mossino pulled over in his car and asked if he could take her to the beach. He offered to help Princess leave her madam. "At first I didn't trust him but he helped me pay off my debts. Since then he has been my partner in everything."
Princess's life has changed since those days. She and Mossino started PIAM, married and had a daughter. She pursued her madam through the courts and saw her sent to jail for four years.
Yet 17 years later, the situation for other Nigerian women has become far worse than what Princess lived through. In the past, women would have to be flown in to Europe with fake passports. Now they embark on the dangerous 2,500-mile journey overland through Africa and Libya before making an equally hazardous crossing by sea to Italy on migrant boats. In 2014, 1,500 Nigerian women arrived by sea in Italy. In 2015, this rose to 5,633.
"What we are seeing in terms of the scale of the criminal trade in Nigerian women is unprecedented," says Simona Moscarelli, an expert at the UN's International Organisation for Migration. "Before, the women were exploited but there was a small chance they could pay off their debts. Now these girls really are slaves. The age is getting younger, too."