ASTI, Italy – As she sat in the rubber boat that was taking her to Italy, Blessing,16, thought of a tale her grandmother had told her once, about a goddess of the sea who had the power to swallow souls forever or save them.
One night last September, a man had woken her up with a kick while Blessing (not her real name) was sleeping on the floor of an abandoned warehouse in Zawiya, on the western coast of Libya. He told her the weather was good, the sea was finally calm and it was time to head to Europe.
Now she was floating in a boat across the water, which was darker and bigger than she could have ever imagined. But she was not afraid. “On the other side of the sea, beyond the divinity that kills or forgives, there is Italy,” Blessing told herself.
She thought there was a job waiting for her. But in Italy she only found abuse and exploitation.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), says 11,009 women came from Nigeria to Italy by sea in 2016, almost double the 5,600 who made that same journey the year before. A report by the organization estimates that 80 percent of the Nigerian women who came to Italy in 2016 were – or still are – potential victims of trafficking.
“What our report shows is that human trafficking networks are becoming brutal and efficient to exploit the vulnerability of migrants,” said Simona Moscarelli, an anti-trafficking expert at IOM, in an official statement.
Blessing grew up in a village in Imo State, one of the poorest areas in Nigeria. Her father died when she was 7 years old, and she and her siblings stopped going to school. Her older brother had to take a job as a mechanic. Some of the other children in the family started selling water and bread in the streets or turned to begging.
One day, a woman approached Blessing in the village market. “I know your family needs help, they need money,” the woman told her. “My sister lives in Europe and she can help you.” The woman had also spoken to Blessing’s friend Gift, 15, saying that in Europe many families needed cooks. Both girls loved to cook.
“The woman told me and Gift to follow a friend of hers, who would accompany and protect us from Nigeria to Libya. So one night we took a backpack and ran away,” Blessing says.
The woman’s friend was one of the many “connection men” who have become key figures in human trafficking. They usually work for criminal organizations, taking girls from their home nations through Libya and, if they escape arrest or drowning, on to Italy.
When the girls finally got to Italy, their connection man gave them a mobile number and told them to call their madam.
“When I came to my madam, she told me I had to start working immediately to repay the debt of the trip. In that moment, I realized that my debt was 40,000 euros,” says Blessing.
“She gave me a bra, saying: This is your job. Go onto the street at night and come back in the morning with money.”
That was how Blessing found herself standing half-naked on a road near a disused bridge in the province of Asti, northern Italy. “The first night, I hid behind the bushes and cried. I just wanted to call my mom and go away, go home,” she says.
“I wasn’t angry. I was just full of shame.”
Blessing says she was beaten until she agreed to work. For three months, she was forced to have sex with up to six men a day. “I did not know Italian,” she says. “My madam had only taught me to say ‘20 euros’ or ‘30 euros’ based on what those men asked me to do.”
Then one day, another Nigerian woman named Princess approached Blessing on the street. “I know what you are doing, because I’ve lived it too,” the woman told her.
Princess is the cofounder of PIAM Onlus, an Italian NGO working to rescue trafficked girls. The organization’s other founder, Alberto Mossino, says the rise of Nigerian girls being trafficked to Italy is indicative of the growing power of traffickers.
“In the past two years, we have seen that many girls reach Europe in a very short period, sometimes less than one month, from a village in deepest Nigeria to Italy,” says Mossino. “This means the mafia who control the trafficking have the power to bribe the tribes and militias along the journey. And the traffickers know they can take advantage of Nigerian poverty and, on the other end, the power vacuum in Libya.”
Mossino says the work that groups like PIAM Onlus do to help the girls is made more difficult by the lack of government support. If a girl who escapes her traffickers is under the age of 18, she usually ends up in one of the country’s various centers for minors, where she can stay until she turns 21. After that, she is expected to find a job and a place to live, with little help.
Mossino would like to see centers and programs dedicated specifically to trafficking victims. PIAM Onlus runs six such homes in Asti, but it’s not nearly enough, he says. “Trafficked girls need specific projects and for [that] we surely need more funds. Many of the girls risk ending up in the hands of the traffickers again, and just being moved to other European countries.”
Happiness, 16, lives in a government center for minors near Bologna. Sometimes she thinks of her family back in Benin City, and she cries.
Last year, her sister had suggested she leave Nigeria for Germany, where a woman was looking to hire a hairdresser. After a week of traveling, Happiness was in Libya, sitting in a minivan being driven to Tripoli. She told the driver she wanted to go home.
“Impossible,” he told her. “Your sister has sold you, now you will learn to work here in Libya.”
Happiness was held in a house on the outskirts of the city and forced into prostitution, along with about 30 other girls. “An older woman told us that we would have to practice before we went to Italy,” she says.
When another group of girls from Nigeria arrived at the house four months later, Happiness was taken to Garaboli, on Libya’s western coast, to wait for the rubber boat that would take her to Italy. Once in Sicily, Happiness ripped up the sheet of paper with the number she was supposed to call to reach her madam. Instead, she found her way to a local humanitarian NGO and asked for help.
Now Happiness is waiting to see what will happen to her next. “When I called my sister, to tell her what was going on, she shouted that I had to do prostitution, otherwise [the traffickers] would ask for their money back.”
Happiness hasn’t called her sister since.
Pseudonyms are used for all the trafficked women in this article to protect their identities.