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Confined to Fringes, Nigerian Girls Advise Others Not to Follow Them to Europe

Three young women from Benin City wait in the shade of a lane for clients on the outskirts of Pozzuoli near Castel Volturno. The girls said they had been in Italy for two years. (J. Dettmer/VOA)

The shift this Saturday morning starts early — to catch male weekend vacationers heading to the beach. The first women on the main road running through the decaying Italian seaside resort of Castel Volturno, 30 kilometers north of Naples and home now to an estimated 20,000 African migrants, are older Central Europeans, but younger Nigerians aren't far behind.

By 9 a.m. there are about 30 sex workers touting for business along the strip — a small fraction of the nighttime contingents.

Castel Volturno is one of Italy's ground zeros when it comes to a migration crisis roiling Italian politics and trying the patience of Italians. Anti-migrant rage is mounting, with Italians increasingly frustrated by the influx of mainly economic migrants from sub-Saharan countries — an increasing number the last two years from Nigeria. Many of them are women who authorities say are trafficked for prostitution by crime syndicates.

The sex workers on the main drag through Castel Volturno draw catcalls and lewd gestures from passing youngsters. Matronly Italian wives sitting by their husbands look away with the same disdain visible on the faces of supermarket shoppers the previous night, as a Nigerian migrant and his wife proffered a plastic bag full of the smallest coins to the checkout assistant.

The Nigerians are bolder than the Central Europeans, waving down cars occupied by single men. Some women sit on battered plastic chairs, others on discarded bricks in front of abandoned shops or by trash cans overflowing with waste.

No attention from police

On the strip today there are two police cars. But the policemen pay no heed to the bustling sex business, despite the fact that several of the Nigerians seem exceptionally young. The police are focused on checking vehicle registrations and they wield speed cameras — although the biggest risk here are fender-benders caused by curb-crawlers stopping abruptly.

The Nigerian sex workers are reluctant to talk with reporters. To get to interviews involves painstaking negotiations, and even then, the consideration can be very oblique.

On Friday night, a correspondent sat down with young women — Doress and Lovert, sisters from Nigeria's Benin City, the hometown of the majority of the more than 16,000 Nigerian women who have arrived in Italy the past two years.

Women from Central Europe — mainly Romania and Moldova — start touting for business earlier than the Nigerians in the morning, but the Nigerians continue much later into the night. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
Women from Central Europe — mainly Romania and Moldova — start touting for business earlier than the Nigerians in the morning, but the Nigerians continue much later into the night. (J. Dettmer/VOA)

The sisters give their ages as 21 and 26. They look younger. According to the charity outreach worker, a Ghanaian who arranged the encounter, both are involved in sex work and have been since they arrived by boat from Libya last year. Their clients are both Italian and African, he says.

Lovert has been trying to break free from prostitution and has been picking tomatoes to earn money. Neither girl is willing to admit openly that she works the streets, and when they talk about the sex trade it is always in terms of their friends.

They say their journey through Niger and Libya was terrifying, and they are adamant that none of their three siblings or friends hazard the trip through the badlands of those two nations.

"It is very risky," said Doress, who is thin and wearing a gray track suit. "I saw lots of things. Many people were raped, many people were killed, but I know that God guided me," she added.

They say they came to Italy because "Nigeria is a very bad country" without jobs or opportunities. Their father is a farmer who earns little money. Doress says she had conversations via Facebook with friends already in Italy. "They said it was good, it was fine, and I decided to come. No one told me to come," she said, denying she or her sister contracted with people-traffickers for the journey.

Quick money

Why do Nigerian girls work the streets?

"They want to find the money quickly," chimed in Lovert.

"You choose what you want to do," said Doress curtly, becoming surly when pressed about sex work. During the hourlong interview, both girls are ill at ease when the topic of prostitution is raised.

And with Doress there's a feeling of sullen anger.

Social workers say many of the Nigerian sex workers they encounter on the streets — or who agree to break free from prostitution to enter overcrowded shelters — exhibit pent-up rage, which can fuel sudden violent eruptions.

"A lot of the Nigerian girls clearly suffer from trauma and can be very violent and aggressive," said Pescara-based Fabio Sorgoni, an official with the Italian charity On the Road, which helps prostitutes escape sex work.

"They can get very aggressive when faced with problems. They use their hands a lot. They beat each other," he said. "They have been beaten lots of time themselves, probably even before they came to Italy, so for them it is normal to lash out.

"This is one of our biggest challenges. We have had fights break out in our shelters and have to call for police assistance."

Unlike the Central European sex workers, the Nigerians will wave down cars. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
Unlike the Central European sex workers, the Nigerians will wave down cars. (J. Dettmer/VOA)

Lovert says the girls can earn up to 50 euros a day working the strip and acknowledges that would mean having sex with up to 10 men — as most girls charge clients only five or 10 euros. Most girls earn much less, and a lot of what they do earn will go to the men or women who manage them.

"They do the work because of the madam," said Lovert. She mentions that some madams beat recalcitrant girls.

Cost of freedom

Doress said a girl can break free "if you have paid the money to the madam she has suffered to carry you from Libya to here."

"They took a juju oath," added Doress, explaining that for the Nigerian girls, most of whom come from poor rural areas, blood oaths made in front of a voodoo priest before setting out north are sacred. "If they break the oath, they'll face the consequences — it will drive them crazy."

Her sister Lovert starts shaking her head, mimicking someone enduring a fit or going crazy.

The sisters insist none of the Nigerian girls realized they were coming to Italy to work as prostitutes. "The madams say there's plenty of work in Europe, but when they get here, they are pushed out on to the street," said Lovert, who's shorter and heavier than her sister and is wearing a blue-and-white-striped dress and sandals.

Many outreach workers now suspect that most girls, especially the more recent arrivals, knew what the score was before leaving Nigeria. But they didn't know how grueling their work would be in Italy, how poorly it would pay and how long it would take them to pay off their debts to the traffickers, who charge them about 35,000 euros for the journey.

Castel Volturno, Italy
Castel Volturno, Italy

"The girls knew from the beginning what they were going to be doing; up to a point, they chose their road," said the Reverend Carlo Ladicicco, a Catholic priest who works with migrants in Castel Volturno. "They are playing a game, but they do want to get out of the business as soon as they can, and it is an intolerable business."

Lovert says she worries the Italians will deport her. The sisters have applied for asylum, but it isn't clear their applications will be accepted at an immigration hearing, which is months away, possibly even years.

Most likely, the laborious Italian immigration system will overlook them and their destiny, say outreach workers, like so many others, probably to be condemned to a twilight, undocumented existence confined to the fringes of Italian society.