A Broken Promise: The Story of How a Nigerian Girl Was Trafficked to Italy

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Photo: IOM 2017

By: Flavio Di Giacomo

Crickets chirping was all that could be heard on that mid-August day in the Sicilian countryside, where temperatures hit 40°C, almost melting the roads.

The typical Sicilian Summer heat is unbearable for most people, making it intolerable to walk in the streets during the day. Cars are also a rare sight.

A girl walks up and down the road, wearing a suffocating red wig. Her shoulders hunched, she is overtired from patrolling the same street for more than two hours. Her head starts spinning. As she begins to stumble, feeling more and more lightheaded, Italian police officers drive by. The officers notice that something is not right and escort her to the nearest police station.

Promise* had no documents and claims to be 21 years of age. She explained that she was on her way to visit her sister, who lives in Palermo city, when she fainted. Through checking records, the police officers realized that Promise is actually 17 years old and from Nigeria. She had arrived in Italy by sea — alone — five months earlier.

*Promise’s name has been changed to protect her identity and this story has been published with her full consent.

The officers reached out to the IOM’s, UN Migration Agency, field team active in that part of Sicily. They rapidly found her a safe place to stay at a protected centre for young people under the age of 18. While initially reluctant to speak out, Promise began to open up to an IOM counsellor.

After a few ice-breaking sessions, Promise could not stop the flood of words pouring out.

“Yes, I’m 17. I wanted to come in Italy because I had been told I would work at a hair salon but as soon as I arrived, I found out that none of it was real. The job was a lie. They forced me to become a prostitute. That was the only way to pay off the debt of the journey, which they had told me before I left that I did not need to pay for.”

Promise’s story is sad but not unusual. The “promised job gimmick” is a typical recruitment technic used to trafficking women for sexual exploitation.

“That girl, who had never experienced any sexual encounters before leaving her country, was forced into prostitution. She had to be out in the streets for 12 hours a day. She is also afraid that she had contracted a disease,” explained the IOM counselor who first heard Promise’s story.

“As it usually happens, she was subject to a voodoo ritual and the madame knows her family. We met her every day for a month. At first, she could not sleep at all. She was too afraid that the voodoo curse would kill her. She would often run away from the centre by knotting sheets and climbing down the window. Other times she would pack all her things but then stop right at the door. At last, the fear of being forced to get back on the streets prevailed and she decided to press charges against her traffickers. Even though her family back in Nigeria was receiving violent threats, Promise had their support. She now lives in a protected shelter, far from Sicily. She speaks Italian perfectly and is currently studying to become a cultural mediator.”

The abuse Promise endured is a common fate for many Nigerian girls, who reach Italy by sea. According to IOM counter-trafficking teams, 80 per cent of Nigerian women and girls that arrive through Libya are potential victims of trafficking for sexual purposes. Traffickers target younger and younger victims. They advise the girls not to reveal to authorities that they are underage so, that they will not be transferred to a minors’ centre, where it is more difficult to run away from, making it harder for them to start working on the streets.

“Young people represent the most vulnerable of the migrant population that come to Italy by sea,” explained Federico Soda, Director of the IOM Coordination Office for the Mediterranean. “We have heard many other horrific stories, which do not exclusively belong to victims of trafficking. Just to name one from a few weeks ago, there was a baby girl, 15 months old, who was rescued but left orphaned, after her mother died at sea during the crossing. Many children and young people tell us they had to leave their parents behind in Libya. Not having enough resources to pay for all the family members’ crossing to Italy, mothers try what they can to send their children to Europe first, in order to spare them a longer stay in a country where migrants are subject to daily violence and abuses.”

In 2016, 25,846 unaccompanied migrant children arrived in Italy by sea, compared to 12,360 from the previous year. The number of child arrivals actually marks a higher increase than the overall number of migrants’ arrivals last year. Most are in their teens; some migrated to Libya to find a job there, others were dreaming to go to Europe from the very beginning, but they fall all the same into the spiral of violence and abuses there. For those who did not plan to come to Europe in the first place, crossing the Mediterranean becomes the only way out to survive. Then, there are the young girls who are trafficked, whose fate has been already sealed in the country of origin, and who are psychologically manipulated and then “escorted” to Italy.

IOM is actively providing assistance to young migrants through dedicated projects, from legal counselling at landing points to assistance to victims of trafficking and interventions at the minors’ centres. IOM field staff in charge of assistance to vulnerable groups are always trying to find solutions for children and teenagers that, at their age, should have the right to go to school and lead a safe life.

A child should be free to lead a life with a strong and untroubled sense of discovery, excited about what the future will bring. For an unaccompanied migrant child, too often, danger, abuse and even death is a reality they have to face.

Flavio Di Giacomo is IOM’s spokesperson in Rome. For further information, please contact him at IOM Italy, Tel: +39 347 089 8996, Email: fdigiacomo@iom.int

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Official account of IOM, the UN Migration Agency.

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