The Mediterranean Sea crossing from North Africa to Europe is considered the world’s deadliest route for migrants. Amnesty International estimates a record 2,500 people died during attempted crossings from January through September.
Despite the dangers, migrants continue to try to reach Europe. The Italian Ministry of the Interior said more than 154,000 migrants have arrived in the country so far this year. Most come from Syria, Eritrea, Mali, Nigeria, Gambia, the Palestinian territories and Somalia.
In a worrying new trend, women have become a growing presence in the migrant flow, according to the International Organization for Migration. The Geneva-based organization said 16,839 female migrants have arrived in Italy this year, more than double the 7,658 who arrived during the same period in 2013.
An African rescued by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station reacts as the ship Phoenix reaches Sicily's port of Pozzallo. The charity provided this courtesy photo Oct. 5, 2014.
Joel Millman, the organization’s spokesman, said almost 1,300 Nigerian women migrated this year compared with just under 400 at this time last year. Most come from the country’s western Edo state and many are believed to be potential trafficking victims, he said.
"According to the IOM teams that are debriefing them when they arrive in the ports in Italy, many are complaining of being raped or trafficked as sex workers during their journey," Millman said.
"They are immediately trafficked into [the] sex trade, including in brothels in Libya, where they are forced to pay off their transit fees, and then we assume that that continues in Europe as well," he added.
Anti-trafficking teams deployed
The organization has established two anti-trafficking teams, in Sicily and Apulia, whose job is to detect and identify victims of exploitation.
Many young women know the smugglers who make promises to lure them into making the journey, Millman told VOA.
They soon discover the traffickers have lied, he said.
"We know that some of those women are told they owe debts," Millman said. "There is even talk of voodoo ceremonies being conducted. Sometimes, they feel that some supernatural force will punish them if they do not pay."
He said the migration organization provides therapy in Europe that includes "explaining to the women who are terrified that they should have no fear of this voodoo oath that they submitted to in Africa that obligates them to pay these smugglers."
Some Nigerian women have identified their traffickers to IOM staff in Italy, Millman said, noting that some of these traffickers have been arrested.