In August 2018, I spent one month volunteering at Centro Donna Giustizia (CDG) an organisation that works to end gender violence in Ferrara, Italy. The CDG hosts a number of projects and services including a listening point for survivors of domestic violence, a women’s shelter, a street unit which offers services and support to sex workers, and Oltre la Strada (Beyond the Street) which develops protection and integration programs for survivors of human trafficking. I got involved in this last one where I worked as a project assistant. During my volunteer experience, I witnessed a big discrepancy between women’s own perception and the Italian asylum system’s representation of victims of human trafficking. For this reason, in this article I will examine how migrant women involved in protection and integration programs show agency and resilience in sharp opposition to the representation of victim placed on them by the Italian legislative system. In the first part, I will briefly describe the structure of the Oltre la Strada project. In the second part, I will give an overview of the Nigeria sex trafficking process. Finally, I will explain why the bureaucratic representation of victim comes into conflict with women’s agency.
Oltre la Strada project
In 1998, Italy adopted a regulation that aimed to protect and assist victims of human trafficking. It states that foreign victims of violence or of high levels of exploitation can receive a residence permit. Whether this is the case has to be verified either through a judicial process or by social workers. In case of a positive decision, the local police will release the residence permit for six months. The police will also recommend the attendance of a protection and social integration program which is run by local, specialised organisations (UNHCR 2021: 20-28).
CDG is one of these organisations. During my volunteering period, the participating women were mostly Nigerians and were living in women’s shelters in a secret location to protect them from being contacted by their former traffickers. The organisation supported them during the bureaucratic procedure for the residence permit as well as with the collection of information to present and validate their status as victim of human trafficking for the Italian authorities. Furthermore, CDG helped with daily activities such as doctor appointments, blood tests, monthly bus tickets, Italian courses, and so forth. (http://www.centrodonnagiustizia.it)
Nigerian women and sex trafficking in Italy and Europe
I chose Ferrara, located in the North-East of Italy, as I spent most of my school years there. In recent years there has been an increase of Nigerian survivors of human trafficking involved in sex work. According to a 2015 report published by the United States Department of State Trafficking in persons: “Nigeria is a transit, and destination country for women and children subjects to forced labour and sex trafficking. The internal trafficking often leads to sex trafficking out of Nigeria with Europe as main destination” (EASO 2015:13). In the 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, the UNODC reported that “Trafficking of young women from Nigeria to Europe for the purpose of sexual exploitation is one of the most persistent trafficking flows” (EASO 2015:13).
Most of the women participating in the Oltre la Strada project were coming from the area of Edo State or its capital Benin city. The women that are recruited by the traffickers are usually between 17 and 28 years old. The recruitment can happen in markets, schools, churches, and sometimes by a family member. The process often involves a madam who plays a crucial role in Nigerian sex trafficking. For instance, she can finance the journey to Europe for the women becoming their sponsor. According to the information dated 2005, madams in Italy are between 25 and 30 years old and some experienced sex trafficking themselves. Madams can be in Nigeria and in the country of destination where they become responsible for the recruited woman.
Many women are actively seeking migration opportunities to Europe and a way to finance their journey. The so called “travel agent” is often met through a family member or other personal networks. After having met the “agent”, the woman is put in contact with a madam. As Nigeria is considered a ‘risk-country’ and visas are difficult to obtain for its nationals, illegal migration is often the only option for Nigerians travelling to Schengen countries. Traffickers may ask the women’s families to pay a fee for the journey, or if the women make the deal themselves, they end up owing a debt to the traffickers. A research paper from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dated 2013 states: “One characteristic of African sex networks is the debt system. These debts are typically quite high, taking between one to four years to repay, and [women] are released once the debt is repaid. However, they remain vulnerable because they are left without money, skills, legal status or a support network. Another characteristic of these sex trafficking network is the use of voodoo as a means of exerting pressure over their victims.” (EASO 2015: 26)
Many women are informed about the amount of their debt once they arrive in Europe; some may know the size but do not realise what they must do to repay it or how much it represents. A debt of 35,000-50,000 euros would take an average of three years of sex work to be repaid. On top of that, Nigerian’s families usually expect a remittance from their daughters. For these reasons, even though women may try other ways to repay the traffickers, sex work is the quickest way to repay the debt. The madam, who is central for sex trafficking, is the person deciding when the girl has fully paid back the debt. Madams can also threaten the victim with physical and mental abuse and survivors’ have reported madams threatening them with Juju, which is a form of Voodoo particularly popular in Edo State.
Juju oaths are “often administered in a ritual ceremony and their potency relies on securing an item of clothing or body part from the person on whom the oath is being administered and placing them in a concoction of other ‘magical’ items such as the blood of animals, kola nuts, water, palm oil, earth taken from a graveyard, alcohol and herbs Some favoured body parts include hair, blood, nails and teeth; to make the rituals more ominous, items could be taken from intimate parts of the body.” (EASO 2015: 27)
Oaths are called Juju by Nigerian women and become a tool of coercion for women exploited in the sex trafficking. “Juju oath works as a form of psychological control as the fear of consequences of breaking the oath, i.e punishment by the gods, is extremely strong” (EASO 2015:27). They are used to intimidate exploited women and dissuade them from revealing information about traffickers or to ensure that they pay their debts (EASO 2015: 27). Taliani points out how young women that took part in these rituals rarely know exactly what they experienced or what kind of Gods have been invoked during the rite as “the ritual experience is not part of a larger pedagogic system, a wider transmission of knowledge” (Taliani 2012: 588). However, the rite creates a form of coercion that prevents women to escape from the sex trade provoking at the same time the fear of dying by breaking the oath: “During these rituals, acts and words receive a symbolic value aimed at reiterating a social norm that is common and widely shared in the cultural and historical context of the Edo, Ishan and Urhobo groups: the domination of the junior individual by a more senior one.” (Taliani 2012:598)
Therefore, the ritual creates a relationship of domination where what are arbitrary and social difference are transformed in what becomes for the women a natural one (Taliani 2012: 598). The ritual exceed the sphere of the reality and the madam becomes a witch with metamorphic powers who can also act in the dreams. (Taliani 2012:592)
From a complaint made in 2010 by a woman from Benin City: “I was accompanied by one [blanked out] to a traditional priest for the voodoo rite. I was made to strip and wear a white robe, then the priest began to make cuts with a razor blade all over my body, on my forehead, chest, shoulders and on my back. He then covered the wounds with a black powder, while I was forced to sit on my knees. I was made to swear, in front of several scuplputheres of heads, that once arrived at my destination I would not flee, and I would never denounce those who were organizing my journey in Italy, under penalty of death. I had to eat a dry fruit and the heart of a chicken, and swallow it with the help of a traditional alcohol.” (Taliani 2012:594)
Some of the women coming to Italy knew that this would have involved sex work (Augustín 2007: 30). Indeed, when girls are recruited by traffickers they may know what their job will be once in Italy but “may not understand the work condition and the actual size of the debts; others may be peer-pressured, while others are duped or deceived” (EASO 2015: 17). Indeed, ‘knowing beforehand’ doesn’t prevent forms of exploitation from happening, and what started as voluntary migration can then converge to forms of forced migration (Serughetti 2018). In addition, women that experienced exploitation may decide to continue sex work even after the repayment of the debt as it remains one of the only lines of work that allows them to provide for themselves and their families back in Nigeria. Indeed, the certain degree of agency shown by these women during the migration process, which involves acts of resistance and life choices, doesn’t undermine their exploitative experience. However, it makes difficult it to attribute a passive victim script to them as required by Italian law to benefit from protection and residency (EASO 2015: 24-27).
During my volunteering period at CDG as part of the project Oltre la Strada, I had the chance to observe some interviews with Nigerian women. The interviews aimed at collecting information about abuses and exploitation the women endured during their journey in order to present it as proof of their victim status and to validate their residence permit extension. Observing the interviews, I noticed how most of the women—even though they were clearly describing human rights violations—were reluctant to portray themselves as victims, showing a high grade of resilience.
But why is the status of the victim so important?
The UN Trafficking Protocol together with the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrant by Land, Sea and Air defines “human trafficking as an act – recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons – carried out by means of threat, deception or coercion, among others, for the purpose of exploitation. While migrant smuggling is framed through voluntariness on the part of those who are smuggled, human trafficking implies a form of involuntariness, based on the use of means that vitiate the victim’s consent to the subsequent exploitation. (Serughetti 2018: 20).
What is evident is therefore the creation of a clear distinction between voluntary (economic) and involuntary (forced) migration (Serughetti 2018:22). However, this distinction doesn’t take into account the complexity of the reality and the various reasons migrants can have for leaving their country of origin. This particularly applies to the narrative about migrant women and girls that end up in the hands of traffickers. As I have already mentioned, over the past years migrants have showed a growing level of awareness of sex work being the job waiting for them in Italy and other parts of Europe. However, the migration process can still become an exploitative experience due to the size of debt and working condition (Serughetti 2018: 21).
Based their answers to the questions of the Italian authorities, when migrants first arrive in Italy they are divided into ‘economic’ migrants and asylum seekers. Following from this, in recent years there has been an increase in the classification of Nigerian women as economic migrants and their being sent to detention centers facing deportation. Only a small percentage is assigned to anti-trafficking programmes despite many more being identified as “potential victims of human trafficking by International Organization for migration (IOM)” (Serughetti 2018:23). What prevents the full recognition of victim of human trafficking is not just a simplistic understanding of migration processes, but also the: “discrepancy between the legal implications of migratory experiences and the perceptions of the migrants themselves. Many new arrivals who have been subject to human trafficking do not see themselves as victim of trafficking and are reluctant to identify with this status.” (Serughetti 2018: 23)
The UNHCR lists as part of the trafficking experience severe exploitation, such as rape; sexual enslavement; enforced prostitution, forced labour etc. Victims of human trafficking are then identify as carrying “special vulnerabilities requiring coordinated and effective responses.” (Serughetti 2018: 23) In this regard, the Italian legislation “states that applicants for international protection who are identified as victims of trafficking can benefit from a social assistance and integration programme, which includes measures enabling individuals to escape from the exploitation imposed upon them.” (Serughetti 2018: 24).
The notion of vulnerability is central in this definition as a consequence of exploitative experiences. However, to be able to obtain the status of asylum seekers and to access protection and social integration programs in Italy survivors of human trafficking have to validate their status producing certain documentation, such as a report of their journey to Italy including the form of violence encountered, and by performing coherently the bureaucratic representation of a victim of human trafficking (Serughetti 2018: 25).
I am pointing this out to shed light on the labels applied to refugees and survivors of trafficking and to underline how the bureaucratic labelling of trafficking victims fails to capture the complexity of reality. The requirement to conform to the label of victim applied by the bureaucratic system can indeed lead to situations in which survivors of trafficking become compromised/inadvertently compromise themselves. This is for instance the case when Nigerian women that are part of a protection programme and living in shelters decide to perform sex work to increase their income, they can easily lose the status of asylum seekers (Serughetti 2018:26).
In this rigid labelling process, the role of gender is pivotal; women are seen as innocent and helpless. And for this reason, women voluntarily performing sex work (i.e. showing sexual and personal independence) cannot be recognised as vulnerable victim by the bureaucratic process. Yet, it is important to pay attention to the construction of vulnerability from a gender perspective in which women from developing countries are seen as apolitical and passive subjects in sharp opposition to sex workers that have and use sexual agency (Serughetti 2018: 29-33). The access to the system of protection is therefore reserved for those who are identified by the state as “real” victims. According to the bureaucratic framework, asylum seekers that use these categories as a survival strategy can be framed as taking advantage of the Italian protection system as agency and vulnerability cannot coexist in the “real victim” script, and in which resistance and resilience cannot appear in a vulnerable condition (Seughetti 2018). In this regard, Serughetti uses the notion of vulnerability as an intrinsic quality of human condition, “who due to their constitutive bodily fragility are radically exposed, from birth to death, to the possibility of injury” and therefore, “agency and victimhood are not incompatible” (Serughetti 2018: 30). In this Serughetti, quoting Butler, underlines the paternalistic white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied gaze on vulnerable groups. Furthermore, vulnerability besides being a constant of human condition is also an “effect of social, economic and institutional relationships.” (Serughetti 2018: 31). Recognising vulnerability as an element of humanity is the first step to debunk the role played by unequal distribution of privilege, states, and supranational institutions. (Serughetti 2018: 32) This is particularly evident in the European border policies that are responsible for reducing legal access and safe passagecontributing to the creation of dangerous migration routes.
Women participating in the protection and social integration project Oltre la Strada were far from being passive victims. During my experience at CDG, I met women that showed high degrees of resistance, agency, resilience, and strength which is far from how the Italian asylum system portrays and wants them to be and behave.
Therefore, in both the approach to the migration process and in the creation of social integration programmes I agree with Serughetti in claiming the need to overcome a certain form of binarism, and that it is essential to use a gender approach to recognise personal agency and resilience as another possible expression of a vulnerable condition (Serughetti 2018:33).
Augustín, Laura María. 2007. Sex at the Margins, Migration, Labour, Markets and the Rescue Industry. Zed books. New York. pp. 1-53
Centro Donna Giustizia Ferrara. http://www.centrodonnagiustizia.it. Last access 30/03/2021.
EASO, European Asylum Support Office. 2015. EASO Country of Origin Information Report. Nigeria Sex Trafficking of Women.
Serughetti, Giorgia. 2018. “Smuggled or Trafficked? Refugee or job seeker? Deconstructing rigid classifications by rethinking women’s vulnerability”. Anti-Trafficking Review 11, 2018: 16-35
Taliani, Simona. 2012. “Coercion, Fetishes and Suffering in the Daily Lives of Young Nigerian Women in Italy”. Africa Journal of the International African Institute, November 2012, Vol. 82, No.4, November 2012: 579-608.
UNHCR. 2021. L’ Identificazione delle vittime di tratta tra i richiedenti protezione internazionale e procedure di Referral. Linee Guida per le Commissioni Territoriali per il riconoscimento della protezione internazionale.