Paula Szewczyk: When you left Nigeria as a young girl, did you think you were going to Italy to work as a waitress?
Princess Inyang Okokon: A woman I knew offered me the opportunity to leave Nigeria and work. I thought, I’ll try. I wanted a better life for my three children. Europe seemed like a paradise at the time. I saw people coming back from there, they were rich for us because we had nothing in Nigeria at the time.
That woman was going to organise and pay for my trip, and I would give her the money back when I start earning. I was picked up by a stranger on the spot. There were other Nigerian women in the house in Turin where he took me. Seeing what kind of a place it was, I protested and assured him that it was a mistake because I had a job in a restaurant, I was to be a waitress. The girls there laughed in my face saying, “You may even be a Nigerian queen, but you are in Europe and here you can only be a prostitute.”
It turned out that you wouldn’t be able to leave as long as you hadn’t paid your “debt”?
When I left, I heard that everything would cost EUR 15,000, that I would be able to give it back in a few months. When I got there, it turned out that I had to pay back three times as much. There were fees for accommodation, food and care. I even had to pay for my place in the street.
The day after my arrival, I was given clothes, high heels and cosmetics. I was supposed to get ready and start earning money. I was crying, I didn’t want to agree to it. One of the Nigerian women involved in human trafficking in Italy, called “madame”, then beat me so badly that a doctor had to treat me. I was told then that if I didn’t start working, they would kill me. I couldn’t imagine that that’s what my life would be like from then on, but I had no choice. I had no one, I didn’t have any documents or money.
Besides, I also exposed myself to violence every day in the street. Men were brutal, I was stabbed twice, threatened and beaten. I worked but the debt was not decreasing at all. It lasted for eight months.
It was then that you met Alberto Mossino, now your husband, with whom you run PIAM, an organisation that helps victims of human trafficking, among others.
I felt my prayers were finally answered. Alberto showed up in the morning, he saw me walking back down the street alone. He stopped and asked if I would like to go to the beach with him. I agreed, although I didn’t trust him at first. He was the first person to listen to me. Usually men don’t listen, they come for one thing, pay and leave. I was lucky to find him, I told him that I wasn’t here by choice, that I was forced to do sex work. Then we continued to meet, he helped me pay off the debt, and finally I could leave, start my life in Italy anew.
I moved to Asti with him, gave birth to my daughter and soon we started PIAM [Project for the Integration and Welcoming of Immigrants].
You didn’t want to leave it all behind you?
No, helping girls who have found themselves in a similar situation to me, who are as powerless as I was back then, has become my mission. I wanted to do it because I knew very well how this system worked. I believed that I could get something positive from what had happened to me. I knew the challenges. I figured if I managed to get away, others could too.
I came to Italy with one of the first waves of women brought here from Nigeria, it was 1999. Over time, the network of traffickers expanded more and more. I felt I had to act. Before I started working with their victims, I had to educate myself, undergo training, and get the minimum resources. A friendly priest then provided us with his desk so that I could see girls in need of support once a week, and that’s how it started.
Are many Nigerian women forced to do sex work in Italy?
The problem is big, on average 80 percent of victims of human trafficking come here from Nigeria. It started back in the 1980s, when Nigerians working on workers’ visas in Italian orchards realised that human trafficking was easier and more profitable than picking tomatoes. We estimate that 30,000 Nigerian women have been forced to do sex work since then, not only in Italy but also in other parts of Europe. The problem also applies to underage girls.
Today most, if not all, Nigerian women work compulsorily in this way. They don’t consciously choose sex work, they just don’t have a choice. Moreover, traffickers often intoxicate them with drugs, make them addicted on purpose, and additionally put them in debt in order to have full control over them, and it is a spiral. It takes years to break out of it. Only individual women know where and why they are going, and if they agree to it, they are deceived by profit. The traffickers promise them mountains of gold, they create visions of a rich future, when in reality they only get a few euros, and when they don’t earn, they don’t eat. The rest is taken by those who exploit the women. Therefore, the number of forced sex workers isn’t decreasing. Such trafficking is simply a lucrative business for Nigerian gangs.
It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that there are also women in these gangs, that the victim turns into a “madame” over time.
It’s hard for us that a woman can do something like this to another woman, but it still happens. Nigerian women who take on the role of “madame” see it as a business opportunity with time, they want to earn, they know how the system works, and they know nothing else, this is the easiest option for them. Indeed, this is still a taboo subject, not everyone can easily accept the cruelty that sometimes characterises a “madame”. Part of our job is to explain to girls and women that they cannot take on these roles, why this is not a solution.
Is the practice different today than two decades ago?
The way women are recruited is similar, although the work system itself has changed somewhat. There are no more girls standing in the streets. Only that makes it harder for us to intervene. Sex work is hidden in a better way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier for women. I would even say that the situation of Nigerian women in Italy has worsened. And it is not only about a debt of several tens of thousands of euros, but also the mass nature of the problem. When we started working, we were in contact with over a dozen women a year. Now we reach 30-40 a month, and we are not able to help all of them right away. Sometimes we don’t have the money or the space in the centre to free them from the “madame”.
Together with PIAM you have helped 300 women so far. What is your work with the victims like?
I used to go out to the streets to see women, hand out condoms, talk about the need to protect themselves, the possibility of venereal diseases, gave advice, and built trust step by step.
Often, women who are forced into sex work are victims of violence and rape of the men who control them. They hear, “If you tell someone, we’ll kill you,” so they don’t want to speak. We convince them that with us nothing will happen to them. Still, every now and then Nigerian women die in the street, and sometimes we don’t even know their identity, because they use made up names and the police don’t have their fingerprints in the database. And since we don’t know who they are, there’s no way to let the family know.
Is it difficult to gain their trust?
It is so much easier for me that I can say “trust me, I used to be where you are now.” I am an example for them that it is possible to break out of this cycle. Sometimes it takes months to understand it, but we don’t get discouraged, we give them time. They must be ready for it, dare, believe in their own strength, regain the sense of value suppressed by the traffickers.
It’s not that simple when you’re addicted, beaten and blackmailed. Human traffickers take away not only the sense of security, but also dignity, agency, and the belief that they are fit for something. And there is also the “juju” ritual.
This is a ceremony to intimidate women. Before they even leave Nigeria or Sicily, which is usually their first stop in Europe, they hear from traffickers that if they don’t obey and pay their debt, terrible things will happen to their families. If a loved one actually dies, women are convinced that it is their fault.
The ritual uses women’s clothes, pubic hair or menstrual blood to symbolically bind them with the torturers. Victims take an oath obliging them to remain silent. In this way, the traffickers take control of them and their lives in a symbolic way.
I realise that for Europeans it seems irrational to hear about this type of ceremony, but for Nigerians the ritual of using a bird’s feather or an animal head serving as “juju” is a curse. An element of traditional beliefs from their native country, passed down from generation to generation, in which they firmly believe. The men who use them realise how the threat of such a spell frightens these women, the guilt it causes towards their loved ones, but it is a simple way for them to make these women keep it secret. After “juju”, women lack the courage to tell anyone what happens to them for a long time. We explain to them that it is not magic, but a way to enslave them.
How do you know when a woman is forced to do sex work?
Today we try to find them even before they cross the border, we conduct interviews with immigrant women who are just coming to Italy. Already at the first interview, we are able to find out whether, for example, a woman and a man claiming to be married are really husband and wife, whether it is a fake story, a cover for a trafficker who plans to transport a woman to Italy and make her a sex slave. In many cases it turns out that the marriage is fake, and the “husbands” have connections with gangs working in the country, their task is to deliver the woman to the indicated place, for which they get their share of the payment. Thanks to our intervention, Nigerian women are separated from their torturers and instead of going to the street, they will end up in our centre.
The shelter in Asti is often the first place where nobody uses them, a substitute for home?
Women can not only take refuge here. It is a space where other Nigerian women who have been in the same situation and understand each other meet. Before the pandemic, we organised meetings for them every weekend, there was dancing and singing. We wanted them to have at least a bit of normality here, to be mentally strengthened, to be able to stand on their feet.
The first thing we do when they come to us: we take the woman to the clinic. She is thoroughly examined there, we need to know what her condition is, if she’s sick, so that she can start possible treatment right away. In many cases, the costs are covered by government funding. Some of those who come to us are already infected with HIV, some have sexually transmitted diseases.
When the “madame” beat them, they didn’t pay attention to their illnesses, the women had to work with fevers or on their periods, every day. They had no access to health care or insurance.
At PIAM, we are also looking for lawyers for abused Nigerian women to fight for justice for them. It is important that those who intimidate and abuse women pay for it. In time, I myself managed to bring the “madame” to justice for beating me up and holding me against my will. She was sentenced to four years in prison.
Do the women who come to you ever return to their previous life?
It happens, though rarely. Usually, women stay with us because they feel how dangerous it would be to leave, because the traffickers could take revenge on them. They know that nothing will happen to them in the centre, that even if they have been threatened, the perpetrators won’t hurt them anymore. The address of the centre is not a secret, but the shelter is guarded, has security, and no one is allowed to enter here. The girls aren’t locked up around the clock, they can go out, we can’t keep them here by force, it’s not a prison after all.
Anyway, we ask them to inform us about possible threats, and then we have grounds to act, to pass the contacts on to the police. The approach of the services began to change over time, the policemen think that the girl on the street was there by choice or that it was her fault less and less often.
Besides, if they left us, they could lose their documents and the chance to obtain a residence permit in Italy, for which we are applying for them, so that they can have a normal life here.
How can you start such a life anew?
That’s where all the trouble is. Getting out of the hands of the torturers is just the beginning. Later, it is necessary to ensure that Nigerian women have a future in Italy. How can you do this without education, without language, without profession? They wouldn’t stand a chance of finding a job. That’s why learning Italian first, often from scratch, and communication is a priority. We start with small steps so that they can go out to the shops and communicate. With time, we enrol them in various courses: designing, making ceramics, preparing them for work in the kitchen, behind the bar, women also learn to make pizza, undergo nursing courses, and get driving licences.
At the same time, we work with psychologists, we provide them with emotional support so that they feel that working for traffickers is not the only thing that awaits them in life, that they can do more, that they will be able to cope on their own. And that no matter how they worked and what happened to them, they are good people. This is sometimes the hardest for them to believe. I know this because I couldn’t do it for a long time myself.
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