Italy's sex slaves

Young women from Africa and Eastern Europe are lured to Italy with the promise of good jobs and a new life. But when they get there they are beaten, raped and forced into prostitution.

By Laura Fraser
Published July 3, 2003 9:41PM (EDT)

It's late at night in Naples, a southern Italian city known for its faded Renaissance beauty, its pizza, its clear-blue sea and its splendid views of nearby volcanos. But most of the young women who arrive here daily from Africa and Eastern Europe -- Nigeria, Albania, Romania, Russia, Libya and the ex-Yugoslavia -- see only a small stretch of its streets, and know Naples only as a seamy town of small-time criminals, racketeers and prostitutes. Like them.

I'm cruising the roads near the train station in a van with a group of social workers who stop to offer the girls working the streets a little warmth, some coffee, medical advice, condoms and a ready ear to listen to their problems. When we slow down to approach the girls -- most in their early 20s -- some wave us away, fearfully. Others are glad to see us, grateful for a place to sit and have a cappuccino and a chat. Giusi Coppola, one of the social workers, explains that while some of the women we pass are working for themselves, to send money back home to their families and children, others are virtually slaves or indentured servants, trying to pay back a huge debt they owe for the dream of coming to Italy.

Most of the girls we talk to -- a group of Libyans, a dark-haired Romanian with a scarred face, a young mother from the Ukraine -- didn't come here to be prostitutes. They thought they were coming to Italy to make money working in a hair salon, a bar, or as an au pair. But the people who made those promises and smuggled them into the country took away their passports and forced them to work the streets instead. The immigrants, most who barely speak Italian, usually work 12-hour shifts, engaging in quick sexual encounters in clients' cars or behind bushes by the road. Most have pimps who monitor their every move by cellphone. Some are brought to their places on the streets blindfolded, so they won't know the route home in case they try to escape. They're locked up during the day, beaten if they don't work hard enough, and rarely see any of the money they earn.

At one desolate corner, we stop and let a Nigerian, Marika, into the van. She's working alone, and Coppola reminds her, as she makes an espresso on the van's little stove, that it's a lot safer to work with someone else. Marika shrugs. She's wearing a miniskirt that barely covers her bottom, gold eye shadow, a ratty pair of high-heeled black boots, long fake black braids, and a top that reveals most of her breasts. Marika complains that there isn't much work this evening, because there are too many police in the area. (Prostitution on the streets is legal in Italy, but the girls get hassled anyway.) She's worried because she still owes $15,000 to the people who brought her here, even though she's already paid them $40,000 -- at about $5 per five-minute trick. "Two more years," she tells me wearily, "and I can do some other kind of work." It may be longer, though, if her recent luck holds up -- she was robbed a few days before at gunpoint by a client who took all her money.

"When I came here," she says, "I thought I was getting a job at a supermarket." She rolls her eyes at her childish naiveté -- she was 19 then, and now she's a much older, harder 21. But at least, she tells me, she doesn't have the problems the Albanian women on the street have. "The Albanian women are raped by their pimps, but not the Africans," she tells me in her broken Italian. "The Albanians hit them. All I have to do is pay back my debt."

Coppola tells Marika that she knows some friends who never paid back all of their debt, and they're working somewhere else now, not on the streets. Nothing bad ever happened to them.

Marika considers that, then dismisses it. "No," she says. "They lie all the time."

"Really, it's true," says Coppola, but she can't push. If the organized criminals who traffic in women found out that she was encouraging the prostitutes to escape, the van would become a target. As it is, it's only barely tolerated by the police and racketeers. All Coppola can do is hint, and hope that Marika finds the widely distributed pamphlets and the courage to call the "numero verde," the free "green" number to get help.

There is a way for Marika to escape her debt and prostitution, but it isn't easy. Italy, alone among European countries, has a law that offers immigrant women who have been forced into sexual slavery a safe haven through one of 49 different projects across the country, funded by the government, the Catholic Church and ARCI, an Italian social and cultural organization. Each project provides female victims of trafficking with housing, language lessons, psychological counseling and jobs. After a year, they are granted Italian residency -- the equivalent of a U.S. green card -- for six months, renewable when they've found jobs. In other countries, immigrant women are usually forced to return home, where they face poverty, an impossible debt for their passage to Italy, and sometimes, in Muslim countries like Albania, disgrace or even death when it becomes known that they've been a prostitute. Worldwide, some 3 million people are trafficked each year through about 50 organized circles of criminals, according to the United Nations. Each year, there are 15,000 to 18,000 immigrant women prostitutes in Italy, and about 3,000 of them are considered sex slaves. Over the past three years, since Italy enacted its Article 18 law for immigrants forced into prostitution, about 1,500 of them have been helped off the streets and back to freedom.

But first they have to get away to a phone -- maybe by convincing a client to take them -- and then they have to call the green line. Maybe someday Marika will make that call, but not tonight. Tonight she's too scared. She doesn't trust Coppola when she says there's a way out. Marika got into her present situation by trusting someone who was going to "help" her out of poverty by bringing her to Italy. She can't afford to trust someone again. She finishes her plastic cup of coffee and slips back out into the night.

Last year in Naples, through the ARCI project that runs the van, 14 women were rescued. Each, after calling the green number, made her way to a public place to talk with a social worker, who determined whether she actually had been exploited and was eligible for the program. They made an appointment for a second meeting, at which point they left with the social worker, hopefully never to return to the streets. But many don't make it to that second meeting. "They change their minds," says Coppola. "It's not easy. They're far from home, they have no friends, they don't know anyone. Often their captors are their lovers, too, and they're in a psychologically dependent relationship."

Anna Angioni, a psychologist in Rome who works with the young women after they have escaped, says that for many, their enslavement is as much mental as it is physical. During the long journey from their homes, they become dependent on their traffickers, since they don't speak the language and are powerless to know where they're going. Some are raped and beaten, and as a result, do whatever they can to avoid pain and to save their lives. "They try to be good prisoners," Angioni explains. "They do what they're asked, and turn into well-functioning machines." Acting like a machine is a psychological defense, so that whatever they do, having sex with strangers in the most degrading way possible, doesn't touch them personally. It's like the girls I saw on the streets in Naples who wore plastic falsies on their breasts -- not to look bigger, one told me, but so that no one touched their real breasts. They hide their feelings by acting like perfect prostitutes and obey even the most terrible requests in order to save themselves.

The time most make a break from their captors is when they do everything they're told, make plenty of money, and still get beaten. Then they're afraid that being good isn't good enough. "A person can accept anything to save their lives, but when they no longer are sure they'll save their lives, they panic," says Angioni. "That's when they call the green number or go to the police." Calling the green number is an irrevocable act -- if their pimps find out, they could be sold, violently beaten or killed.

Once they slip away, they are taken to a temporary safe house. Sometimes, they work with police to denounce their captors, providing evidence against them. After a few days in a safe house, they are transferred to another city, where there's less chance that they'll be tracked down. They live in a house with other girls for six months, at which point they can live independently, with a social worker checking in.

On a warm Sunday afternoon, just outside of Rome, I visited one of the safe houses. The old stone villa, with rambling gardens, is owned by the church and occupied by about a dozen girls and an in-house social worker. Downstairs, several girls watch TV, while another two mind a baby. Others prepare pasta for lunch, and fight over lost barrettes, like sisters. Sitting down at a long table over lunch is like being at an international dorm at a college. The young women are from Albania, Romania, the Ukraine, Nigeria and Russia. They're dressed in sloppy Saturday around-the-house sweats, a far cry from the clothes they wore on the streets. The oldest is about 30, and the youngest is 16. They swap stories about their week, and their jobs cleaning houses, assisting at a hairdresser's, or taking classes.

I've come as a friend of one of the social workers, since journalists are not allowed to interview the girls, and so I don't ask them questions about their past. But I've read the case reports.

The tall, beautiful Nigerian girl, Alicia, is proud that she worked for a time as a model, and brags about it. She seems at home in Italy, until, walking around the garden, I realize she can't identify an olive tree. Her one-time boyfriend, who took her to Latin America to model, left her, and she returned to Nigeria. There, another man promised her work in Holland as a model. Instead, they went to Milan, where another couple, upon arrival, took away her passport and told her she owed them $45,000 for her trip and their help finding her work. Told there was no work as a model, she was sent to several cities, and ended up in Naples. She worked every day from 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., then was back on the streets from 4:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Her pimp took her money for the debt, and told her she had to pay for food, clothing, rent and other expenses -- meaning it would take years for her to pay it off. After she'd already paid $18,000, she found the green number and arranged to escape.

Marina, a Ukrainian girl, left her drunken husband and a small boy to come to Italy. She was taken from town to town in Eastern Europe, passed from boss to boss, raped and beaten along the way. She couldn't communicate with her captors, who spoke a Slavic language. She worked in a town outside of Naples, after her pimp took her there blindfolded, and she wasn't allowed to speak to the other prostitutes. After several months, she got a client to take her to a meeting with a social worker, and she escaped.

At the other end of the table sat Kira, who worked in Nigeria as a hairdresser. One day, some people arrived at the store offering her work in Italy at a shoe factory, with assurances that soon she'd find a job as a hairdresser. They said she'd have to pay for the voyage, but didn't tell her how much. They took her to Morocco, where she stayed in a hotel in Casablanca for five months. Another man came one day and took her across the mountains by foot to the sea. They tried to cross the ocean in a rubber dinghy. They spotted a police boat, and one of the other girls in the boat went overboard to avoid it and drowned. The police put Kira in prison for five days, then returned her to Algeria, where the man who arranged the first attempt found her again. They took another ferryboat to Spain, and then a bus to Italy, where she worked for several months to pay back her $40,000 debt. When she escaped, and contacted her family, she found that the organized criminals had beaten her mother in Nigeria so badly she would never again walk without limping. Frightened, she went to the police and denounced her captor, and ended up in the safe house.

Dara, a dark-haired, 21-year-old Moldavian eating a plate of pasta, got a degree as a computer programmer at home, but couldn't find work. A friend's boyfriend told her he could find work for her in Italy in a pizzeria. When Dara accepted, he told her there wasn't enough time to call her family to say goodbye. A group of men with cellphones, including a bald-headed boss, took her and several other girls to Hungary, changing cars several times along the way. When the man told them they'd have to become prostitutes to pay a debt, they cried. They were constantly guarded by two Yugoslavian men, and brought to a house where men came to look them over, touching their bodies and genitals. When they left with the men they understood that they had been sold. They were forced to cross the mountains in Albania barefoot, so as not to make noise, in November, when the temperature was near freezing. In Albania, they went in a police car to a hotel, where rubber rafts were waiting. They crossed the sea to Italy, where they walked for hours in a forest until they met a car driven by an Italian. He hid them in the baggage compartment and back seat until they arrived in Bologna.

Dara worked in Bologna, where she was constantly controlled by her pimp, who told her she couldn't talk to the other girls. The boss threatened to kill her family in Moldavia if she tried to escape. He forbade her to wear pants on the street, even in winter, and forced her to have anal sex with clients so she could double her price. One day Dara left her post and went with a client who offered to help her. He told her he couldn't do anything for her without a passport, and returned her to the street, where her boss was waiting. He beat her viciously and locked her in a bathroom for a whole day without food. Later that night his brother beat her violently and threatened her with death. The next day, he sold her to another group of Albanians. After working for several more months, always accompanied by men who held her head down in the car on the way to work, a client helped her escape, hid her in his house, and told her about the program against trafficking, where she finally arranged to meet with a social worker.

The young women at the table don't seem to carry the emotional scars of their past two years on the streets. They cheerfully clear the table and do the dishes, taking turns holding the baby. None of them ever talks about their former lives, either in the countries they came from or on the streets in Italy. They do what the social workers tell them, but no more.

But Anna Angioni, the Rome psychologist, says the emotional scars remain. It's hard for these girls to take an active role in shaping their own lives, since they've always done what other people told them to do. Many of them are passive, thinking that what happened to them happened because they're fundamentally weak. Many of them are focused on making money, as if their debt still exists. Some of them constantly wash their hands, obsessively, as a way of trying to rid themselves of their dirty experience. But the very fact that they lived through the experience, and managed to escape, Angioni says, is the basis for building their self-esteem.

"These girls have survived," she says. "Now they have to take their lives into their own hands."

For these young women, born into such desperate poverty that they would trust a stranger to take them away from their families, living in Italy for free while someone helps them learn the language and get a job is an amazing opportunity. Finally, after all they've been through, they've managed to make their dream of living and working in Italy come true.

Meanwhile, Italian TV programs, hungrily watched by Eastern European girls who want to learn the language so that they, too, can go to Italy, air commercials warning that what sound like good job opportunities end in forced prostitution. Some of the girls will believe the commercials and stay home, some will hope they won't have to be on the streets too long, and others will go anyway, trusting that their boyfriend's friend will get them that job in the pizzeria.

Laura Fraser

Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Her most recent book is An Italian Affair (Vintage).

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