By Stephan Faris
Monday, January 21, 2002
Nigerian women, many of them teen-agers, now make up the largest percentage of illegally trafficked sex workers in Italy. Albanian teens are now joining them. The Italian government is trying to assist them in leaving this dangerous industry.
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 families."
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 Immigrants
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.
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