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RIGHTS-ITALY: Trafficking From Nigeria Rises Sharply

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Sep 11 2009 (IPS) - An alarming rise has been recorded in the number of Nigerian girls trafficked to Italy.

Last year 1,782 young girls from Nigeria arrived in Lampedusa, compared to 166 in 2007, human rights organisations say. Lampedusa, an Italian island 205 km from the Italian coast, located between Tunisia and Sicily, is used as a holding centre for migrants, particularly from Africa.

Human trafficking has become the third biggest source of income for criminal organisations globally, following drug and arms, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published earlier this year. Close to 80 percent of people trafficked, mostly women, are sexually exploited, the report says.

Women's representatives from 25 countries have asked the G8 countries to lead global, concrete action against such gender-based violence. The G8 is a group of developed countries that include the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia.

"The Italian presidency of the Group of Eight (G8) gives us a unique opportunity to put the global issue of violence against women on the leaders agenda," equal opportunities minister Maria Rosa Carfagna told a conference of women's groups in Rome Sep. 9-10. "We are not here to grieve over women's condition, but rather to show the world our determination to change."

The meeting raised several issues such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, access to education, and violence against young girls. A joint statement resulting from the conference will be submitted to the G8 foreign affairs ministers meeting at the U.N. General Assembly later this month.

While the U.N. report says most victims of traffickers are women and girls, they are also the majority among perpetrators in 30 percent of the countries that provided evidence on the gender of traffickers. Many former victims, pushed by psychological or financial reasons, become traffickers.

"These women, who we call maman, force us on the streets for days without pause, also when we have our period, also when we are pregnant…and a few days after childbirth we are pushed on the street again, or the maman would steal babies from us," Isoke Aikpitanyi told IPS.

Aikpitanyi, 30, left Nigeria in 2000 on promise of a job in London, but was 'sold' to a criminal group, sent to Italy and forced into prostitution. "Here I found true hell," she said, "a world of daily violence perpetrated by men, and by other women, and also by our own families who pretend they're not aware, and take their part of money."

Aikpitanyi says she raised 40,000 dollars through her work for the people who arranged her trip to Europe. Criminal organisations lend women money to pay for the trip, and the women are meant to pay that back through their work. Invariably, they are forced into prostitution to pay the debt. "Today, girls are asked for 80,000 dollars," Aikpitanyi says. "In many cases, it takes years (to pay back).

"Girls who are forced into prostitution say that for each woman victim of human trafficking, an Italian woman is safe from rape," she said, because they are often approached by violent men who are potential rapists.

A girl who shared a room with Aikpitanyi was killed after reporting violence to the police. In 2003, when Aikpitanyi found the courage to escape her jailers and inform the police, she was assaulted and reduced to coma.

It was a long time before she could find protection from a women's organisation and then build her own organisation, Girls from Benin City, named after a city in southern Nigeria. The group now helps many Nigerian victims or former victims of trafficking.

"The government of Nigeria is doing a lot to stop human trafficking," Barry Bibata, minister for women's promotion and child protection told IPS. "In 2003 we enacted a law providing for a very severe sentence for anybody caught trafficking in persons, and we set up an agency for the prohibition of human trafficking (Naptip) that secures shelters and protections to victims.

"These girls are often very young, they are not mature enough to decide about their future," Bibata said. The Nigerian government is cooperating with Italy to identify victims, she said, assist them when they come back, and integrate them back within their family in their country of origin.

Italy offers protection to victims of trafficking under a law that provides residence permits to women who escape traffickers; 673 women received permits between 2000 and 2006. Victims can also call a free number (800 290 290).

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