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Sex Trafficking from Nigeria to Italy: A Complex and Vicious Cycle

Written by Leah Kenny

January 4, 2017

In two years, over 12,000 young girls and women reached Italy from Nigeria. These women were victims of modern day slavery. The history of trafficking between these two countries is relatively long, and trafficking for prostitution has been in existence since the mid-1980s. The changing face and increasing numbers of sex workers calls for more open discussions, in-depth understanding of the contextual causes, and active efforts to make a change.

Although gathering reliable data on sex workers is extremely difficult and subject to rapid change, the proportion of sex workers in Italy that are migrants is growing and estimates suggest they make up to 90% of the sex worker population in Italy. Most are female and the majority of these come from Nigeria, where the women trafficked are getting younger and younger. Most of the women, and the traffickers, are from the Edo State, Southern Nigeria. However, girls are increasingly being hooked from more rural areas, where they end up in urban areas of Italy, including Turin and Verona.

The Trafficking Cycle

Contrary to traditional views, the smuggling of girls and women from Nigeria is often carried out by ‘madams’. This is a case of the victim perpetuating the cycle, as these women have previously been trafficked themselves. Madams have a close network of contacts and assist with the logistics of travel and pay for the dangerous journeys these women make from Nigeria to Italy. Increased airport and border control has made flying a less attractive mode of transport. Therefore, the journey now involves traveling by land from Nigeria to Libya, and finally across the Mediterranean Sea and on to Europe. In the last year over 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy after crossing the Mediterranean and our news has been filled with stories highlighting the dangers of making this crossing. Too often these women get lost amongst other migrants and are mistaken for asylum seekers or economic migrants.


The cost of the journey is fronted by madams, resulting in a debt that must be paid back over a short period, with high interest rates. It is hard to know the true value. However, various sources suggest this can be as much as 45,000 euro, or more. To ensure this debt is repaid and that the victims do not reveal the identity of their smugglers, religious rituals such as ‘juju’ and traditional oath-taking are carried out. Fear is used to bond these women to their trafficker. If these oaths are broken it is believed that a number of misfortunes will befall them or their family. Consequently, it is made more difficult to track down the traffickers and find victims.


Differentiating between women migrating for work, which can be empowering, and being forced into sex work is complex. The case of Nigerian women travelling to Italy is complicated by issues surrounding consent. News pieces and case studies reveal that these women are increasingly aware they will be involved in sex work and agree to make the journey. Unusually, the stigma that commonly surrounds sex work is not seen in areas with a long history of sex trafficking, such as in the Edo State. Family and community members have started to accept this work as a valuable source of income, and women are socially excluded if they come back having failed. This journey is attractive for several reasons. Situations of poverty and a lack of employment opportunities for women make the prospect of earning good money in Europe appealing and their remittances are an important contribution to the economy. Additionally, the success stories of those who make it back wealthy, though few, perpetuate the cycle. However, one question that must be asked is how much informed consent comes into play. 

On arrival, the reality is different and these women are subject to violence, both physical and psychological, abuse, and risk poor health, particularly sexual health. Nigerian sex workers are additionally subject to intersectional discrimination, including, but not restricted to, gender, race and poverty injustices. Few women are aware of the trauma they will face.

Breaking the Cycle

In Italy, organisations such as Progetto Integrazione Accoglienza Migranti Onlus (PIAM) have been running since the early 2000s who, amongst other things, offer counselling, and help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by providing condoms, for example. The organisation was set up by a former victim of sex trafficking Princess Inyang Okonon and her Italian husband, allowing her to help women who, like her, were trafficked into the sex trade.  In Nigeria, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP), was established in 2003 to prevent human trafficking, identify traffickers, and provide protection to victims by working with local NGOs. One NGO they work with is the Girls Power Initiative (GPI) in Nigeria, providing support to victims and education programmes to empower adolescent girls and young women. 

The complex nature of this specific situation, combined with the migrant crisis, means the issue won’t be solved overnight. Fighting the symptoms by ensuring women who have been coerced into sex work have access to health and social services, including information about their rights and means of protection and integration is crucial. Awareness and education programmes, at the grassroots level, could be critical in ensuring that future generations of girls and their families are fully informed of the consequences of illegal trafficking and the types of work and living conditions victims face. Sensitisation campaigns such as those carried out by GPI should be expanded, especially into new rural areas where girls are being sourced from.  It is equally important to utilise the voice of women who were trafficked themselves, to speak up about their experience.

Increasing awareness at the local, national and international level is a must.

Leah Kenny is a recent MSc graduate in Sexual and Reproductive Health Research, LSHTM. She is passionate about international development, and is hoping to go into research in global health issues to do with maternal and sexual health.

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