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How Nigerian Girls Live In Italy- Retired Nigerian Prostitute


Princess Inyang Okokon,  is an ex- Nigerian prostitute, who has lived in Italy since 1999. The a 42-year-old mother of four from Akwa Ibom state, has spent the last 17 years working for Progetto Integrazione Accoglienza Migranti (PIAM), a migrant rights and anti-trafficking organisation in Asti, a small town near Turin. According to her, most – if not all – of the Nigerian prostitutes working on Asti’s streets are victims of trafficking.

Princess should know, having received first-hand knowledge about the horrors prostitutes in Italy live through. In 1999 she was trafficked herself from Nigeria to the streets of Turin.

Princess was one of the first wave of women to be brought from Nigeria. Then a single mother of three young children, she was approached by a woman she knew from her workplace, who offered her a job in Italy.

“We saw people come back from Europe rich and they would tell us that we could also have this life,” she told guardian.co.uk. “In Nigeria there was nothing. I wanted more for my children. This woman said I could pay back the cost of my travel when I started earning. I believed her.”

Princess flew to London on a fake passport. On arrival, she called a telephone number she had been given and a man came to pick her up and drive her to Italy. She was taken to a house in Turin full of other Nigerian women. When she told them she was going to work in a restaurant, the women laughed in her face.





“They said, ‘Here no Nigerian girl works in a restaurant. Whether you are a princess or a queen you are here in Europe and you must work as a prostitute’. I was distraught, I thought there must be a mistake.”

The next day she was told she had to pay back a €45,000 debt before she could leave. She was now under the control of a “madam”, a Nigerian woman who worked for the trafficking rings, controlling the women and their debt. She was given high heels and makeup and driven to a street corner with another Nigerian girl. “I said ‘I will not do this,’” she recalls. “I refused. I hid behind a big rubbish bin all night and cried. I said, ‘God, is this the life you have brought me to?”

After that night, the beatings began. Her madam attacked her so violently with the heel of a shoe that she was hospitalised. “I did not know any one, they wouldn’t let me call home. They said they would kill me if I didn’t work,” she says. “I realised the only way was to start this work and try and find someone who would help me.”

Every day and night for more than eight months, Princess worked on the streets in Turin. “Italian men, they love Nigerian girls,” she says with a short laugh. “I had a queue every night.”

But no matter how hard she worked, her debts never got smaller.

“The work was so bad, it was so dangerous. The men were so violent. I was stabbed twice, I was threatened with a gun,” she says. “I was ashamed all the time. The only way I kept strong was promising myself I would leave this life.”

Eventually, she said, her prayers were answered. She was walking home one morning when a man called Alberto Mossino pulled over in his car and asked if he could take her to the beach. Mossino, who was living in nearby Asti but working as a DJ in nightclubs in Turin, offered to help Princess leave her madam. “At first I didn’t trust him but then he helped me pay off my debts to my madam and I managed to leave that life. Since then he has been my partner in everything.”

Princess’s life has changed since those days on the streets of Turin. She and Mossino moved to Asti, he started PIAM (she came on board later), and the couple married and had a daughter. (Of her four children, three are in Italy with her – the two oldest and Maria, her six-year-old daughter with Alberto. The other is studying in Nigeria.) She pursued her madam through the courts and eventually saw her sent to jail for four years.

Yet, 17 years later, she said the situation for other Nigerian women has become far worse than what she lived through. All the women on the streets of Asti have debts of more than €40,000 and most will have been forced to undergo ritual “juju” ceremonies where they have been told terrible things will happen to them and their families if they don’t repay what they owe.

“Those who leave Nigeria are told they will need to pay back €15,000 and when they reach Italy the madam tells them their debt is €45,000,” says Princess. “Or they are told they will be able to pay back the debt in three months but when they arrive they must pay rent, for their place on the street, food and other costs, so they are trapped because the debt never goes away.”

“These traffickers use beatings and juju to fill their victims with fear,” she says. “The women believe the juju so much that I have seen women leave their traffickers and then go mad because they think the curse will come true. This is how powerful a hold it has over them.” Mossino, who works with refugees and asylum seekers as well as victims of trafficking, says that in the past decade the trade in Nigerian women has become a hugely profitable and ruthless criminal industry, controlled largely by Nigerian gangs that took root in Italy in the 1980s.

“Every woman represents hundreds of thousands of euros to these people,” he says. “In Asti we saw 10 or 15 women a year when we started. Now we come into contact with 30 or 40 a month.”

In the past women would have to be flown in to Europe with fake passports. Now they embark on the dangerous 2,500-mile journey overland through Africa and across Libya before making an equally hazardous crossing by sea to Italy on migrant boats.

In 2014 about 1,500 Nigerian women arrived by sea in Italy. In 2015 this figure had shot up to 5,633. The UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) believes that 80% of these women are victims of trafficking.

“What we are seeing at the moment in terms of the numbers and scale of the criminal trade in Nigerian women is unprecedented,” says Simona Moscarelli, an anti-trafficking expert at the IOM. “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.”

Since PIAM was founded, Princess and Mossino have helped more than 200 women leave their traffickers in Asti and gain access to legal support, employment and counselling.

They have also created refuges and communities for those kept isolated by their traffickers and who are hundreds of miles from home. Princess arranges for the women to live and work together. “The trauma these women have gone through is very, very heavy,” she says. “They need a family and a mother as well as the other things we can give them.” At the weekends Princess helps organise parties and dances with the women.

“These traffickers take away everything from you, everything that makes you human,” says Princess. “I want to give that back to these women and say to them, let us not rest until we have brought them all to justice.”


About Bamidele Johnson

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