A lot of teenage Nigerian girls are increasingly being trafficked to Italy to work as street prostitutes, experts have revealed.
The girls are promised jobs as baby sitters and hairdressers once they arrive in Italy but instead end up on the streets selling themselves for as little as 10 euros (£8.90) a time, terrified into submission by gang rape and voodoo curses.
Teenage girls and young women sitting on beer crates or cheap plastic chairs in dusty lay-bys are a common sight on the periphery of Italy’s major cities, and even along country lanes in places such as Tuscany and Umbria.
Nigerians now make up the biggest nationality crossing the Mediterranean in smuggling boats launched from Libya, and many of the migrants are girls and young women who are destined for the sex trade.
Of the 100,000 migrants who have been rescued at sea so far this year and brought to Italy, 15 per cent were Nigerian.
“There are girls aged 13, 14 and 15 on the streets now – a lot of them are underage. They are so young and they are living such terrible experiences,” said Anna Pozzi, an expert on the sex trade and the author of a book, Slave Merchants.
“They come from desperately poor families. Many have not been to school and are illiterate. They dream of a better life in Europe, they see Italy as a paradise. They are getting younger and younger,” said the author, who has travelled extensively in Nigeria to research trafficking networks.
Some of the women have only the vaguest idea of where they are heading, but worry about having to cross “a very wide river” – by which they mean the Mediterranean.
It is estimated that 80 per cent of Nigerian teenage girls and young women who make it to Italy are forced into the sex trade.
Blessing Okoedion, 29, is one of the rare women who managed to escape the trafficking gangs and speak out against the flesh trade.
She came to Naples four years ago on the promise of a job as a computer technician but was forced onto the streets as a prostitute.
“The number of girls on the street is increasing and some of them are very young,” said Ms Okoedion, who now works as a cultural mediator and wrote a book about her ordeal, The Courage of Freedom. “When I see them out there, I remember my own time on the street. I felt like I was dead. You no longer feel like a person, you feel like a product that is bought and sold. They take everything away from you.
“Even now, when I ask street directions from a man in Italy, often he will say ‘how much do you cost?’”
The young women live in terror of the madams who run them, as well as Nigerian criminals who organise the trade in league with Italian mafia networks such as the Camorra of Naples.
Female migrants are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and violence
Even local churches are involved – Ms Okoedion claims one preacher she came across is a well-known trafficker.
Once they arrive in Italy they are told they must pay 30,000 euros or more in order to win back their freedom.
Over the last three years there has been an almost 600 per cent increase in the number of potential sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy by sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration, the UN’s migration agency.
In 2014, just under 1,500 Nigerian women and girls reached Italy. That number rose dramatically to 11,000 in 2016.
The exploitation “increasingly involves younger girls – often minors – who are already subject to violence and abuse on their way to Europe,” the agency said in a report released in July.