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Nigerian Women in African Migration, Vulnerable and Abused


An Operation Sophia rescue, July 2016, by the European Union’s naval force in the southern Mediterranean, which aims to counter human smuggling and trafficking rings stemming from Libya to Europe. There has been a huge increase in the number of Nigerian women ending up in Italy, forced into sexual slavery and other criminal behaviors.  

Barbie Latza Nadeau is an American journalist based in Rome, covering the large refugee migrations from the Middle East and Africa since 2011, often with an emphasis on women. She has recently written a book, “Roadmap to Hell: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast,” zeroing in on a huge increase in the number of Nigerian women who arrive in Italy and are forced to become sex slaves, drug mules or weapons smugglers.

Nadeau has seen a lot of horror in her reporting, symbolized by unmarked coffins at a funeral in Italy of drowned girls who remain nameless in death at the tragic end of a journey toward hoped-for better lives.

In a recent conversation with Joanne Myers, director of programs for the Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs in New York, Nadeau talked about how traditional patterns of migration from Africa to Italy have changed and how the recent arrivals of more Syrians risking a treacherous Mediterranean crossing has led to greater focus on the Africans in the migration mix. The complete podcast is here.

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BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: What we have seen through this greater number of Syrian refugees is higher numbers of the African migrants coming across, and part of that is because of the lucrative business of human trafficking and smuggling.

JOANNE MYERS: The thrust of your book is on the horrifying detail behind trafficked migrants forced into sexual slavery. How do you distinguish between these migrants who are often smuggled and people who are trafficked?

NADEAU: There is a lot of confusion, I think. If a person is smuggled, they have made a conscious decision to put their lives into the hands of the smuggler, usually for monetary exchange in order to get across to a country in which they are not legally allowed to cross into. People who are trafficked don’t give their permission to be moved from country to country. It is very common that trafficked people are also smuggled because the people who are trafficking them pay the smugglers for the move. Smuggling is really very much about the movement of people; and trafficking, instead, is about the exploitation of people.

MYERS: You mentioned that in 2016 about 11,000 Nigerian women [were] trafficked into Italy in a forced sex trade, a racket that everyone knows about but does not stop. Since this has been going on for maybe five, seven, eight years, why hasn’t it been widely reported and why has it taken so long to learn about this?

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NADEAU: Well, there was in 2016 a 600 percent increase in the number of Nigerian women who came across the sea. . . . It happens to be that the easiest group of women to traffic happens to be Nigerian, which is a complicated phenomenon, in the sense that Nigeria is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. It is an oil-rich nation [but] most Nigerians live on less than $2.50 a week. . . . You have a very high unemployment sector in Nigeria, and the women are very easy to exploit.

The other aspect of that comes right here from Italy. Because so many Nigerians over the course of these last 20 and 30 years have settled in Italy to work in the agricultural sector or to work in organized crime syndicates or to help with the drug trafficking . . . you have Nigerians exploiting their own people.

MYERS: How are these women lured to Italy? What is the ruse that gets them to buy into being trafficked?

NADEAU: What happens is in Nigeria, often in a house of worship, is they are pinpointed or picked out and someone says: Listen, you look like you’re different. You look like you’re special. I’ll bet you want a better life.

Then they will say to them: I have a cousin, a sister, a brother, someone in Europe who is looking for someone just like you, who is looking for a babysitter, who is looking for a hair braider, who is looking for someone who does exactly what you do. If you just get to Italy, you’ll get the job.

What inevitably happens is the young girl — most of the women who are trafficked are between the age of 14 and 20 –believes the dream. The traffickers in Nigeria will say, First of all you, need to take the juju curse; that is a kind of witchcraft that ties them and binds them to the people who are going to help them. These girls will go across the desert, usually in pickup trucks, usually in the dark of night, a very dangerous journey . . . and they end up in Libya.

Eventually, they make it onto a rubber raft or a wooden boat and they set out at sea. They are almost always rescued by a nongovernmental organization [NGO] or by the Italian Coast Guard or by other military or naval assets that are out in the Mediterranean Sea. Then they get to Italy, and that is really when the hard part begins, because that is when they realize they have been sold into the sex trade.

MYERS: What happens to them when they arrive in Italy?

NADEAU: When they got onto the Italian shore [among hundreds of other migrants], the first thing the authorities do is look for terrorists, national security threats, and they start the process of weeding out [other] people. If you’re looking at 600 people, they will take the single men out first. Then they are looking for people who might be carrying diseases that might need to be in some way isolated or cared for, or they have suffered incredible torture.

Then the next group of people that the Italian authorities concentrate on are the unaccompanied minors, of which there are tens of thousands every year, young children whose families die in Libya or in the desert.

By the time they get to the vulnerable woman who might be trafficked for sex, she has already been sucked into the system. This process of sorting people out doesn’t happen at the port. People are taken to what are called welcoming centers, which really aren’t very welcoming, but they are [migrant] camps, spread out across Sicily. . . . Young women who have been earmarked for the sex trade are easily taken out of those camps, are easily smuggled out.

MYERS: Is it possible to escape the migrant camps once they realize what has happened to them, that they have been sold, or do NGOs intercede in any way to help them?

 NADEAU: Many of the NGOs don’t have people who are equipped to necessarily deal with identifying and protecting women who have been trafficked for sex. . . . Most  of the girls have to sell sex on the street . . . she is owned by a woman who is inevitably Nigerian, and she is told at that moment that she owes between 30,000 and 60,000 [euro]. She gets stuck in that cycle because she is afraid, she has been through incredible trauma, she doesn’t have a document, and she doesn’t have anywhere to turn. The madam who owns her inevitably tells her that the police aren’t her friend, that no one is going to help her, that the white man in Italy will exploit her further.

There are many girls who are virgins, whose virginity is auctioned off by their madams when they first arrive, if they haven’t been raped in Libya. There are many girls who end up pregnant, [and] they are forced to abort the babies so that they can stand on the street and sell sex. The atrocities that befall these women are not singular; there is almost a domino effect. And you have to consider that these girls are between 14 and 20 years old, and many of them don’t even really understand what sex is.

MYERS: Doesn’t the government of Nigeria warn these women and stop the sex trafficking of their own people?

NADEAU: Nigeria does have an antitrafficking organization, called the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). For years and years, this organization was very corrupt. In fact, they had to get rid of their entire board of directors in 2016 because they were found to be complicit in the trafficking. Right now they have a new director, who is a dynamic woman skilled in law enforcement, and she is introducing for the first time ever measures that will punish the witch doctors, for example, who perform the juju curse [and] the people in places of worship that recruit these girls and send them along their way.

But it is going to take a long time. When you consider that there are between 20,000 and 30,000 Nigerian girls estimated to be on the streets of Europe right now, there is very little that can be done for them. [Nigerian officials in Italy don’t want to be involved, even in cases of girls’ deaths, Nadeau said. They claim that the bodies can’t be identified as Nigerian since they had no documents to prove who they were.]

There was a case in November of one of the shipwrecks, one of the rubber dinghies that overturned. There were 26 young Nigerian girls who perished, and they were given a group funeral in the southern Italian town of Salerno that I attended. What was most striking to me, other than the fact that nobody had names — there were no names on any of the matching coffins — was that there was not a representative from the Nigerian embassy in Italy at that funeral service . . . which means that they choose to turn a blind eye.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joanne Myers is director of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs’ Public Affairs Programs, for which she is responsible for planning and organizing more than 50 public programs a year, many of which have been featured on C-SPAN’s Booknotes.

Previously, Myers was director of the Consular Corps/Deputy General Counsel at the New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol, where she acted as the liaison between the mayor of New York and the consulates general. Myers holds a J.D. from the Benjamin C. Cardozo School of Law and a B.A. in international relations from the University of Minnesota.

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