Coming to Italy was supposed to provide them with a good job and a better life. Instead, they are forced to sit on the side of the road for hours every day and sell themselves for a few euros. This is the reality of many girls who have been trafficked to Italy and forced to become prostitutes.
For the past two years, OM workers in Italy, along with women from local churches, have been working to support the trafficked girls and raise awareness about their situation. Almost every Thursday afternoon, two or three women from the team, along with a male driver, will go to the streets and talk with whomever is willing. Most of the girls they meet were brought from Nigeria.
Emma*, one of the women on the team, said building relationships with the girls was difficult in the beginning. “We had to gain their trust step by step” she said. “We could have been anything; we could have been part of the police. But step-by-step, they started to trust and to see that we wanted to help them.”
OM team member Katja* explained that one of the most important needs for the girls was “to be shown they have value and a purpose in Christ—that their destiny is not in prostitution, but that there can be another option and a way out.”
The team has worked hard to engage the Nigerians and create friendships with them. Every outreach, they greet the women by name and offer them food and drink. Sometimes, they will bring birthday gifts, clothes and Italian lessons, so the girls can integrate better into society. They also spend time outside outreaches with the girls, taking them to dinner, the beach or church. The team is now well received, and many of the girls feel safe enough to trust them with their stories. By providing holistic care and support, OM ultimately aims to lead the girls to hope and freedom in Christ.
Along with the girls they see weekly, new girls will show up on the streets after being trafficked to Pisa. “Last year we met two young girls who had just arrived,” Emma said. “They were terrified and crying. They didn’t know what they were coming to Italy to do. They asked us to pray for them and to ask forgiveness from God because they knew this was not pleasing Him.”
The number of girls being trafficked continues to increase. Simona Moscarelli, an anti-trafficking expert at the International Organization for Migration, estimated that the number of Nigerian sex workers smuggled into Italy by sea has gone up more than 300 per cent over the past three years. “What we are seeing at the moment in terms of the numbers and scale of the criminal trade in Nigerian women is unprecedented,” she said. “Before, the women were exploited, but there was a chance that they could pay off their debts and be free. Now these girls really are slaves and subject to terrible violence. The age of the women is getting younger, to the extent that a large percentage of those arriving now are classed as unaccompanied minors when they come off the boats.”
Traffickers exploit the poverty, discrimination against and lack of opportunities for girls by giving them false promises of a better life in Europe. Some girls are sold by their own family members. The girls are brought into the country by boat or by plane then told they have to sell themselves in order to pay their debt. This debt, upwards of 30,000 euros (about 36,798 USD), is in exchange for passage to Italy and employment.
The traffickers use threats and voodoo to fill the women with fear and keep them on streets. They tell the girls if they try to escape, their family will be killed or they will be cursed. These convictions of possible harm have a powerful hold on the girls’ lives and prevent many from leaving the streets.
Myria Vassiliadou, the EU’s anti-trafficking coordinator, said Nigerians in Italy are among the most vulnerable victims of such modern slavery and remain largely unseen due to the influx of people arriving in Europe.
Working with trafficking victims can be taxing for the OM team when faced with the sheer enormity of the problem. They say the most difficult part of their ministry is accepting that they cannot help everyone. Looking towards the future, Katja hoped to be able to care for the women more holistically and to create a network of people who can address the girls’ different needs—including spiritual and psychological—and facilitate their social and economic integration. “Otherwise there is no realistic way to begin a new life,” she said.
The OM team wants to create more awareness about the realities of trafficking. “People say, ‘Oh, they earn a lot of money; it's their choice,’” Emma reported. “But it's not their choice.”
Another team member said she wished the men who bought the girls would realize they were buying women who are enslaved and prisoners. “The exploitation affects the individuals for the rest of their lives,” Katja added. “Our western culture’s mindset, selfishness and sin drives the trafficking forward. In Italy every fourth or fifth man buys sex yearly, but the problem is not tackled. If there were no demand, there would be no trafficking.”
*Name changed for security