|TURIN, Italy (WOMENSENEWS)--The
Nigerian girl didn't know she was going to Italy. A circuitous
smuggler's route wound the 17-year-old through Ghana, Ivory
Coast, England and Germany before a train deposited her near the
Swiss border. There, a woman took her from her escort and
confiscated her passport.
"She paid him the money and told me
that from then on I was to do as she asked," the girl later told
a caseworker, Laura Emanuel of Gruppo Abele, a Turin-based
non-governmental organization. "I had to resign myself to
prostitution like all the Nigerians who come to Italy."
Immigrants from the West African country make up the largest
percentage of foreign prostitutes in Italy, a population that is
growing. While statistics on this underground industry are by
nature slippery, the International Organization for Migration
Rome estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 migrants enter the
Italian sex trade each year. As in much of the rest of Europe,
domestic prostitutes are yielding to ones arriving from
less-prosperous and more conflict-ridden nations, a more
vulnerable group and one that is increasingly including females
17 years old and younger.
"Many who arrive know why they are coming," Emanuel said.
"But they don't know they will never have money, that they'll be
raped, hit; that they won't be able send money to their
Italy, with its more porous borders, experienced its first
wave of immigrant prostitutes when many Polish women arrived
from a home country locked in a 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. Two years ago, a
toll-free, government hotline set up to help prostitutes began
posting Albanian speakers 24-hours a day.
"It's pretty difficult for undocumented women to find work,"
said Julia O'Connell Davidson, a professor of sociology at the
University of Nottingham in England who specializes in
prostitution. "However, it's not difficult for foreign women to
find work as prostitutes."
"Exotic" Looks Encourage Continued Trafficking of Illegal
In Italy, these women's accents and uncommon complexions
become desired commodities and they quickly develop reputations
for sexual appetite and ardor.
Immigrant prostitutes are especially defenseless, often
ignorant of local laws and subject to threats of deportation and
criminal prostitution. Some have their passports taken away by
their bosses. Many fear the authorities.
Unwilling or unable to report attacks, they are also
susceptible to violence. In 1999, 189 immigrant female
prostitutes were killed, up 23 percent from 1992, according to
the Italian Ministry of the Interior.
"These are people who come from countries where the police
are not on their side," said Teresa Albano, head of the
International Organization for Migration in Rome.
The vulnerability is further increased when the woman is
younger than 18 years old. Statistics are impossible to come by,
but many groups that monitor the sex trade, including the
International Organization for Migration, believe that the
number of minors being trafficked for sexual exploitation is on
the rise. In Italy, 85 percent of illegal, unaccompanied minors
are between 15 and 18 years of age. Even younger migrants have
entered Italy in recent times, especially from Albania.
Government, Advocates Hope to Stem Flow of Sex Workers
The International Organization for Migration has tried to
warn women before they leave their countries about the fate that
might await them. Television, print and radio ads illustrate the
dangers of trafficking. Potential migrants receive information
on visas, laws and places to go for help.
Italy, too, has launched an information campaign, centered
around a 1998 amendment to its immigration law, which offers
trafficked women a six-month residence permit that can be
converted into a regular study or work visa. The program's
toll-free hotline received 188,000 calls over an eight-month
period in 2000. And almost 3,000 women, including about 90
minors, have started a process that will take them off the
streets. But to receive a residence permit, a woman must
denounce her captors, and, often out of fear, many choose not
to. As of March 2001, only 675 Italian residence permits had
been issued for sex workers who entered the country illegally.
These efforts target the trafficked--those women brought to
Italy by fear, force or fraud, and who constitute 10 to 20
percent of the foreign prostitutes. They do little for the
larger population of female sex workers who suffer under
economic, rather than physical or emotional coercion, said the
British scholar Julia O'Connell Davidson.
Most prostitutes aren't working under threats of violence,
she said. They are victims instead of tightening immigration
laws that push them into unlawful employment, and to increasing
economic disparities that allow some to afford to pay for sex
while forcing others to submit to it for money.
As Patrizia Testai, a Catania-based caseworker with Lila, a
non-governmental organization offering health services to
prostitutes, said, "Many prostitutes, even if they're not being
physically forced, would like to change jobs."
Stephan Faris is a freelance writer based in Lagos,
Nigeria, who covers Africa.
For more information:
2nd World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of
"The Sex Exploiter" by Julia O'Connell Davidson:
The International Organization for Migration:
TED Case Studies:
"Trafficking of Nigerian Women into Italy":