Detail from book cover.
Detail from book cover.

Roadmap to Hell: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast, with Barbie Latza Nadeau

May 24, 2018

Rome-based journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau tells the horrifying story of the thousands of Nigerian women and girls duped into being trafficked to Italy, where they are forced to become sex slaves, drug mules, or weapons smugglers. How can this be stopped? The Nigerian government turns a blind eye, Libya, the transit point, is a failed state, and Italy is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of migrants--plus prostitution is legal there.

JOANNE MYERS: Welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Council.

Today I will be speaking with Barbie Latza Nadeau. She is an American journalist based in Rome. For the past decade Barbie has been reporting for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, and CNN, covering the European Union, crime, the refugee crisis, and women's issues. She joins us today for a discussion of her recent book, entitled Roadmap to Hell: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast, in which she focuses on the migrant crisis in Italy, zeroing in on the multitude of Nigerian women who are coming into Italy and are forced to become sex slaves, drug mules, or weapons smugglers.

Welcome to this podcast, Barbie.

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: Thanks for having me.

JOANNE MYERS: When the general public hears about the refugee crisis, there is often a tendency to group migrants and refugees together and to speak of them as one and the same, and yet the migrant crisis is very different than the crisis that involves Syrian refugees in the rest of Europe. Could you spend a few minutes talking about the two groups and explain their differences?

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: Absolutely, there is an enormous difference between migrants and refugees, especially in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis. What we have seen here in Europe over the course of the last five or six years is a huge number of Syrian refugees who are coming into Europe to reach safety, essentially. Most of those refugees are actually coming through Greece and not through Italy.

When we talk about the migration crisis that is affecting Italy, that is something that started more than 20 years ago with economic migrants who came to Europe, working in the agriculture sector who found work here and who risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea from the coast of North Africa to reach the European islands of either Lampedusa or Sicily.

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 details behind trafficked migrants forced into sexual slavery, but how do you distinguish between these migrants who are often smuggled and people who are trafficked?

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: There is a lot of confusion, I think. People often group together the victims of smuggling and the victims of trafficking, but there is a very basic difference.

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, instead, 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 movement.

But smuggling is really very much about the movement of people and trafficking, instead, is about the exploitation of people.

JOANNE MYERS: You mentioned that in 2016 about 11,000 Nigerian women, more than 80 percent, were trafficked, the single largest group of victims trafficked into Italy, for forced sex trade in a racket that everyone knows about but does not stop.

As this has been going on for some time, as you said earlier, for maybe five, seven, eight years, why hasn't it been widely reported and why has it taken so long to learn about this?

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: Well, there was in 2016 a 600 percent increase in the number of Nigerian women who came across the sea. Nigerian women have been trafficked into Italy for a very, very long time, but there was a real surge in sex trafficking. That is driven in part by the, let's say, supply and demand and the demand for prostitutes on the streets across Europe, not just in Italy. That demand has proven to be very lucrative to the traffickers.

It happens to be that the easiest group of women to traffick 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 it also has the highest poverty per capita of any of the African nations that are on the profit side in terms of their economy. Most Nigerians live on less than $2.50 a week. Their government is accused over and over again of corrupting the poorest of the poor and using the profits from the oil and other national resources for their own profits. Because of that you have a very high unemployment sector in Nigeria, and the women are very easy to exploit because they want a better life and they are not allowed to afford it.

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—which a lot of it comes from West Africa—because there's such a Nigerian presence here, you have Nigerians exploiting their own people.

Most of the madams, for example, who own the Nigerian women who are trafficked for sex came over here as legitimate prostitutes and then got involved in organized crime and starting buying women to sell to men who want Nigerian prostitutes.

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

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: It's generally always the same the same story, and I have talked to countless women. What happens is in Nigeria, often in a house of worship, they are pinpointed or picked out. A lot of the time they've moved from a village into Benin City or a larger metropolitan area. They are working in the black market, not legitimately working let's say, and someone picks them out, often in a church, and they say, "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, "Listen, 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." It always starts like that.

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. They say, "Okay, yes, I want a better life. I'm tired of this life I have in Nigeria. I know about Europe. I have heard about it. I want to try it."

The traffickers then in Nigeria will come up with a plan. They'll say, "First of all you, need to take the juju curse," which is a kind of witchcraft that ties them and binds them to the people who are going to help them. The girls make a promise, a vow, that they will pay back anyone who helps them along the way. They don't have to put any money up front—they are being trafficked, they're not choosing to smuggle themselves across.

What inevitably happens then is a group of these girls who are owned by traffickers in Nigeria will start the process. These girls will go across the desert, usually in pickup trucks, usually in the dark of night, a very dangerous journey—a lot of people die along that journey too—and they end up in Libya.

It used to be before 2017 that it was very quick to get trafficked women through Libya and onto a rubber dinghy or boat and get her across the sea into Italy. In 2017, thanks to collaboration between the Italian authorities and the Libyan Coast Guard, a lot of people get turned back and end up in detention centers in Libya, where they are exploited, raped, violence that is completely unthinkable.

Eventually, they make it onto a rubber raft or a wooden boat and they are set out at sea. They are almost always rescued by a non-governmental 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.

JOANNE MYERS: What happens to them when they actually arrive?

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: I have been on several of the rescue boats, and you can very easily pick out the girls that are being trafficked because they are traveling alone, they are very young, and there is often an older Nigerian woman who is sort of their guardian or their minder on these boats.

What happens when they get onto Italian soil is they get caught up in the rush of people. You have to consider that at any given time around 500 or 600 people are disembarked at the same time. That's about the usual number of people who are rescued at sea. The boats may have from 100 to 150 people on them, and the NGOs or the military or the Coast Guard will rescue more than one boat at a time. This usually coincides with good weather and calm seas when a lot of boats leave from Libya.

When they got onto the Italian shore, the first thing the authorities do is look for terrorists, national security threats, and they start the process of weeding out the number of 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, they will take those people out.

Then the next group of people that the Italian authorities concentrate on are the unaccompanied minors, of which are tens of thousands every year, young children whose families die in Libya or in the desert, who then they have to take care of those children.

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 camps. They're not detention centers, but they are migrant camps spread out across Sicily, or they are taken onto the mainland in Sicily. Inevitably, what happens is these young women who have been earmarked for the sex trade are easily taken out of those camps, are easily smuggled out or told they just have to go to this part of the camp or this street, sometimes that they don't have to stay inside the camp. They are told to go to a place, and that is when they are taken away to the streets and sold for the sex trade.

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

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: The NGOs have sort of a blind spot, with the Italian government and with many of the NGOs, who don't have people who are equipped to necessarily deal with identifying and protecting women who have been trafficked for sex.

What happens, though is if a girl—let's say she's rescued at sea, she is picked up by an NGO, she is taken to a detention center or a welcoming center in Sicily—by the time she is taken out of that center through the trafficking network, she finds herself on a street, or in what is called a connection house—which are sort of brothels, I guess you could call them—but most of the girls have to sell sex on the street. Once she's there, she is owned by another madam, owned by a woman who is inevitably Nigerian, and she is told at that moment that she owes between €30,000 and €60,000. That is for her safe passage, for the food that she has eaten, for the clothes that she is wearing, all these sorts of things. Then she recalls the vow she took when she was in Nigeria, that she promised with this witchcraft that she will pay back whoever helped her.

She gets stuck in that cycle because she is afraid, she has been through incredible trauma, and she doesn't have a document, 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. She ends up having what you might even call Stockholm syndrome, where she starts to identify with the relative safety of her madam, and she ends up on the street.

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, whose babies are then—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, let alone what it is that they have to do and what they have to sell. In many cases the Nigerian madams in Italy who own these women or who force them out into the street will use such tactics as gang rape to teach them that if they don't sell sex to the single truck driver or accountant who stops along the road, then their punishment will be gang rape. That is a way of brainwashing them into staying on the street.

JOANNE MYERS: You talk about Nigeria as being a very oil-rich country yet poverty exists, but why doesn't the government work to warn these women and stop the sex trafficking of their own people?

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: Nigeria does have an anti-trafficking organization, called the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). For years and years, this organization was very corrupt within the government. 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 trade.

Right now they have a new director who is a dynamic woman who is 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, that will punish the people in the churches or the 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. Stopping things in Nigeria is going to take a long time because of the exodus and the sheer number of people.

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 to chronicle. 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 to this. Many times if you ask the Nigerian authorities that are here in Italy or if you ask anyone in Nigeria why this happens, the first thing they will say is, "We can't be sure these girls are Nigerian, they don't have a document," which is a way of pushing the problem off to someone else.

But Nigeria is clearly part of the problem. And there have been Italian lawmakers who have gone to Nigeria to try to inform the young girls there. There have been a number of Catholic Church programs whose intent is to try to inform girls not to take the risk, not to believe the promise, not to do it, just try to stay. But again, unless you provide an alternative form of employment or you provide some other hope for these girls—who may be sold off into marriage within their own family communities and things like that if they stay in Nigeria—unless you provide something better, they are always going to take that risk, find it themselves.

JOANNE MYERS: You mentioned that Nigeria seems to be complicit in some ways, but is there anything that can be done to stop this criminal activity in Italy and in Europe?

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: The irregular migration crisis that is gripping Italy right now is something that has been very difficult for authorities here to get their heads around.

Last year, as I mentioned, the Italian government started collaborating with the Libyan Coast Guard, with boats and training them, to try to turn these migrant boats that are coming across the sea back to Libya. But, in reality, that is not really a solution because Libya right now is really nothing more than a failed state.

The people who end up going back into Libya are stuck in detention centers. They are tortured. They are resold from trafficker to trafficker and then smuggled across the sea again. I have met so many people who tried to make the journey across the sea and then were turned back by the Libyan authorities and then tried to make the journey again, once they were able to find more money or once their traffickers paid the smugglers, once again to get them across the sea.

It is a multifold problem. You should stop the problem in Nigeria. You should try to stop it across the desert. You should try to stop it in Libya. Once they get to Italy, it is really too late, because the Italian authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who are arriving. Last year 119,000 people crossed the sea by boats who were rescued and brought here. The year before that it was more than 150,000 people. When you consider each one of the people who cross the sea and make it to safety has the right to apply for political asylum, there are a lot of logistics involved in processing those applications.

So many times the trafficked girls are told never to apply for political asylum, and they are taken out of the centers by the traffickers and forced to live in incredibly difficult situations right here in Europe.

JOANNE MYERS: This is absolutely incredible. How long have you actually been reporting on this story?

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: I have lived in Italy since 1996. I have really been reporting on the migration issue since about 2011, when the Arab Spring violence, let's say, started sending a lot of people, mostly Tunisians at the time, across the sea. That is when I really got involved in covering migration. At that time, the boats weren't rescued by NGOs. There were no NGOs out there. They had to make it to Sicily or they had to make it to this tiny island of Lampedusa. In 2011 I recall meeting Nigerian women who had come on the boat full of Tunisian men, for example, who were escaping Arab Spring violence.

The number of Nigerian women over the course of these years has just increased every single year. When you look at statistics, it's just more and more of the number of women.

Also, on the streets all across Italy right now, you see these young girls selling sex on the sides of the roads. One of the biggest problems is there is nothing being done right now to try to stop those who buy sex. Prostitution is legal in Italy. As a result of that, it is very easy for authorities here to turn a blind eye. They see a woman selling sex on the street—even if she is 15, even if they know that she is a trafficked woman—it is very easy to turn the other way because it is difficult logistically to save these girls. There aren't enough beds, there aren't enough shelters, there aren't enough places to keep them. That is an incredible problem that isn't even on the agenda, let alone high on the list of priorities.

JOANNE MYERS: It must be very frustrating for you.

Before we conclude, I was going to ask you if there was anything that surprised you while writing this book, and I can only think that everything must have surprised you.

I want to thank you for calling our attention to this terrible human misery and for providing a human face to this growing industry. Thank you so much. You are really doing a wonderful service for these young women.

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU: Thank you. As you say, it is frustrating, but if we keep talking about it, then fewer people will be able to turn away from it. The theory is that information is always going to help. It is not going to ever do harm if people know about this.

JOANNE MYERS: Right. I thank you very much for joining us.

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