Finding Shelter: In Sicily, Nigerian Women Build Lives After Sex Trafficking
Every year, thousands of Nigerian girls are trafficked from Africa to Europe with false promises. A group of women in Sicily is fighting back.
On a breezy spring day in 2016, Sonia* grabbed her crocheted shopping bag and kissed her mother goodbye on her way out the door to go to the market. In many ways, it was a typical morning. She walked through the open-air market of her village in Edo State, a mostly Christian region in southern Nigeria. When a tall, unassuming man approached her, she didn’t think much of it at first.
The way she recalls it, they chatted for a few minutes about the soaring food prices, but then his questions became more personal when he started asking her about her finances. “Like many girls in my village, I didn’t have a job to support my family,” she says. “So, he made me an offer.”
The man ticked off a list of decent jobs she could land in Europe if she let him help her. Intrigued by the possibility of a new life in the West, as well as the chance to help her family make ends meet, she agreed to meet the people who would eventually organize her journey.
Among those people was a woman, who, Sonia noticed, constantly scanned her body. The woman complimented Sonia on her curves, for instance, and the softness of her lips. At the time, Sonia didn’t think much about these comments, instead discounting them as the kind of compliments from a sweet grandmother might dole out.
Once Sonia made up her mind, everything moved at a fast clip. It only took her a few weeks to agree to make the trek across Western Africa and the Saharan desert to Libya, where they’d board a boat with the hopes of reaching Italy. “I wasn’t completely aware of what was happening to me,” Sonia explains. “I was constantly drugged since that sweet old lady kept me in a house with other girls who agreed to embark on that same journey,” she continues. “The night before the trip began, they made us take an oath, but none of us were sure what we were doing.” And by then, it was too late to change her mind or attempt an escape.
It took Sonia about three months to reach Italy from the night she made that vow. For more than a month they traveled across the Saharan desert aboard a cramped minivan with three more girls also in their early twenties, as well as other people she had never met before, until they finally reached Libya.
In Libya, Sonia waited for a few days, or weeks, perhaps—she had no way to check the date—inside what looked like an abandoned building. Many women who reach Libya are often beaten and raped even before they’re forced aboard Italy-bound boats.
Then one morning, hours before dawn, she was dragged to the port and forced aboard a dinghy crowded with dozens of other African migrants. “I was terrified and half unconscious,” she recounts:
Like Sonia, who is now twenty-nine years old, thousands of other girls have undertaken these same dangerous routes to embark on what they hope is a new life full of opportunity, but which mostly ends in sex slavery and other forms of exploitation.
The industry built on trafficking women from Nigeria to Europe isn’t new. As far back as the early 1980s, human rights groups had already sounded the alarm on the issue. But numbers only began to truly soar, from as little as 2,000 people per year to north of 10,000, with the so-called refugee crisis in 2015. By 2016, the International Organization for Migration said that of the 11,000 Nigerian women registered as landing in Sicily, at least 80 percent were trafficked for sex work.
Due to its geographical location, Italy serves as a pitstop and a final destination for human trafficking, with many surviving the ordeal only to eventually end up exploited in other E.U. countries, like France, Belgium, and Austria.
For most women, the journey begins in Benin City, the capital of Nigeria’s Edo State. According to some estimates, nearly nine out of every ten trafficked women from Nigeria come from Edo State alone. “Nigerian women victims of sex trafficking who emigrate do not escape from wars or from particularly repressive regimes such as that of Eritrea,” explains Oriana Cannavò, the head of Associazione Penelope, a Sicily-based organization advocating for women’s rights with a special emphasis on victims of cross-border trafficking.
What these women escape, she explains, is “poverty and the lack of a future in a very populous country where only a tiny elite controls wealth and power. In most cases, they leave with the promise of a new life and a job that will allow them to repay the journey they have undertaken.”
From the moment their journey starts, their human rights further deteriorate. ”There is a lot of fear,” explains Cannavò. “It is a far from simple path, which has to do with psychologically giving up a kind of life that the girls had envisioned, a migration project that turned out to be a deception.”
In fact, explains Cannavò, the women and girls are often lured to embark on such journeys with the promise of good jobs in Europe as caregivers, cleaning ladies or factory workers. They are then forced through violent journeys across Western Africa towards Libya, where they’re usually piled on dinghies that cross the Mediterranean Sea headed toward Sicily.
Many of those who survive the journey have the scars to prove it. “When we visit them, we can recognize evident signs of torture, typical of Libyan [prisons], as well as rape and childbirth marks,” explains Aldo Virgilio, a doctor at the Garibaldi Hospital in eastern Sicily’s Catania. Virgilio has spent years treating victims of trafficking through the Associazione Penelope.
Once the women arrive in Italy, they must start paying down their debts to their traffickers—an amount often as steep as $40,000—through forced sex work, which immediately locks them in a grim cycle of debt bondage.
This is what happened to Osas Egbon, who was trafficked two decades ago from her home in Edo State. When she was in her early twenties, in a village not far from Benin City, an acquaintance convinced her to embark on a journey to Europe, where she promised work as a caregiver in Sicily for elderly people. Egbon’s family was struggling, not unlike most families in her village, and life was very simple.
Because Egbon didn’t want to burden her family, she accepted the offer. She didn’t know that upon reaching Europe, she would be pushed into a life of sex work. Despite this, and thanks to various associations of Italian volunteers, she found a few side jobs that helped her repay the debt she owed to her traffickers. “It took me much longer, but eventually I really began working as a caregiver in Italy, as I had envisioned before leaving Nigeria,” she says.
Today, Egbon is a free woman. She’s managed to raise her own family in Palermo, the city to which she was originally trafficked. During the day she works as a caregiver and at night she works as a volunteer counselor for women who, like herself, have escaped the trafficking ring.
In 2015, in Sicily’s capital city, Palermo, and Nigeria’s biggest mafia headquarters outside of that country, she established Women of Benin City, a drop-in center supporting victims of human trafficking.
Through the NGO, she offers advice and, more importantly, emotional support to both young and old women who have survived trafficking and hope to escape the clutches of their traffickers and madams. Her work has been especially necessary during the refugee crisis that swelled between 2015 and 2018, when Italy—and Europe at large—clamped down on migration as far-right parties stormed into the halls of power. Her work often helps fill the gap other organizations and institutions have left, such as providing long-term psychological support.
Throughout the past decade, Egbon has become a key figure in the battle to help rescue trafficked Nigerian women in Italy from a life of forced sex work. Yet, in January 2020, Egbon decided her work wasn’t enough. She expanded the scope of her mission. She opened a shelter for women transitioning into a free life after being trafficked, sexually assaulted, and exploited on the journey from Nigeria to Europe.
The shelter sits perched atop the mountains of San Giuseppe Jato, a small village just a few miles from the bustling sound of life in Palermo. Here, Sonia and a small group of women and girls found a safe hiding place from those looking to exploit them, as well as a refuge from the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the world throughout the past two years. Between nineteen to twenty-nine years old, the women share one crucial experience: They all arrived here after having survived being violently trafficked from Africa to Italy.
In a small but cozy living room overlooking Sicily’s golden hills, Egbon looks on with motherly care as the women sitting around her braid each other’s hair. They do this every night before sleeping as a bonding ritual. In the mornings, they take language courses, run errands, and learn new skills, but they spend evenings together.
“For me they’re my sisters, my daughters, my nieces,” Egbon says, a warm smile sketched across her face. The smell of dinner—goat broth and vegetables, a Nigerian recipe—fills the room. “But above all, they’re my mission in this life.”
Over dinner, Egbon listens closely as the women speak in a mix of English, Bini, and Italian. They speak about the violence they’ve experienced, the dreams they have for a better future, and their hopes that one day more survivors will join them in the limestone villa.
A few months into working on the streets of Sicily, Sonia began hearing rumors about Egbon’s work. But before she could reach out to her, she was bundled into a van and trafficked to a connection house—a temporary residence where women are sorted and sent to their final destinations—in Trento, on the Italian-Austrian border. There, she was again forced into sex work for five months.
Then, in 2017, she broke her leg and spent time in the hospital. “I was useless to them,” she explains. “I took that chance to ask to be sent back to Sicily, where Osas [Egbon] would be able to help me.”
Sonia kept Egbon’s phone number at hand throughout her time in Trento, communicating with her through WhatsApp. It took her several weeks to convince her “mama”—a key figure in the network of traffickers who collect the money and control the everyday lives of the women—but eventually she managed to get sent back to Sicily. From there, with Egbon’s help, it became easier to escape her traffickers.
In 2018, as soon as she returned to Sicily, where her European journey originally began, Sonia found comfort and support within Egbon’s association. She says Egbon provided the kind of cultural and psychological support that Italian organizations couldn’t offer. “The first step was trying to convince me that those vows I pronounced back in Nigeria before leaving had no right to bind me to this kind of life,” Sonia says.
In order to strike fear into the women and control them during their journey, traffickers exploit their religious beliefs. The traffickers take the women to black magic priests who cast Juju spells on them—a ritual ceremony whereby the women are forced to promise that they’ll never report their traffickers, always obey their madams, and fully repay their debts.
“The women are then too afraid to speak up, fearing that if they do so their loved ones back home will be in danger,” explains Cannavò. “These oaths have always been the biggest obstacle to convincing women to leave trafficking gangs and a life of exploitation.”
For Sonia, it was because of these same oaths and the constant threat of harm to her family back home that she pressed forward on the journey to Italy. But once Sonia arrived safely at Egbon’s shelter run, away from the dangers of the streets and with food always readily available. Egbon was also finally able to convince her that she and her family were safe from the threat of these Juju oaths.
“Many girls would like to quit, but in Palermo there are very few places to take them,” Egbon says. “Their first concerns after thinking of leaving that life are where to eat and sleep, you know, just basic needs.”
Sicily is home to some eighty-three shelters for trafficking victims, nearly a third of which are in Palermo alone. They’re usually full, however, and the only alternatives are charity dormitories they must leave by six each morning. “That’s not life for someone trying to quit slavery,” Egbon adds.
In 2018, soon after Sonia negotiated her release, life started slowly changing for the better. The Oba of Benin City, an influential Nigerian religious leader, placed a curse on the traffickers and the priests who continue to aid them. He also removed the curse placed on the victims, urging them to come forward to reveal the identities of their traffickers, who, he said, would experience the “wrath of our ancestors.”
Since then, more and more survivors reach out to Women of Benin City for help. “The edict really helped because it changed the girls’ mindset and motivated them to no longer pay debts,” Egbon explains.
What the Oba did has been far more effective than any other intervention—such as the creation of aid organizations, or volunteers who try to convince the girls to leave the streets—that has been promoted in recent years by the international anti-trafficking community, Cannavò adds. But there’s still a long road ahead in trusting Italian institutions and aid workers.
In Italy, civil society and NGOs have played a crucial role in supporting human-trafficking survivors and have worked for years developing adequate policies to tackle the problem.
According to Egbon, many locals have tried to help her and other Nigerian girls in Palermo, particularly once the women gain entry to reception centers. But amid spiking anti-migrant sentiment, some locals also oppose her work.
In 2018, then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a member of the ultra-rightwing Lega party, introduced a security decree that abolished any humanitarian protection for those who didn’t qualify as refugees, among other hardline measures. This October, Giorgia Meloni, who heads the far-right Brothers of Italy party, rode a tide of populist anger into the prime minister’s office. During her inaugural speech, she vowed to make good on campaign promises to crack down on migration to the country. She’s called for a naval blockade on North Africa and for further restrictions on humanitarian rescue ships that often nod out to sea to save passengers on sinking boats.
According to the Italian Ministry of Interior’s data, some 40,000 Nigerian women live in Italy, most of whom do not qualify for humanitarian protection, making it harder for aid workers and activists to continue helping them.
Conditions for migrants and asylum seekers have only continued to worsen. The most recent display of anti-migrant sentiment hit in November 2022, when Italy’s new government refused to let 900 migrants disembark in the Sicilian port of Catania.
Silvana Campagnuolo, a marine biologist, decided to volunteer with Women of Benin City in 2019, despite rising anti-migrant sentiment and the fact that many of her close friends and relatives advised her not to. “‘It’s a lost cause, leave them to sort their own problems’ they used to tell me,” Campagnuolo says.
Originally from Palermo, the fifty-four-year-old wasn’t aware that trafficking brought tens of thousands of Nigerian women to Italy for sex work each year despite living in a city deeply affected by the issue. “My tasks when I began volunteering included accompanying [the girls] to the police station to report their traffickers, or going with them to doctors’ appointments,” she says. ”Many of them thought they were not entitled to medical assistance.”
When Campagnuolo drove girls as young as thirteen to gynecologist or police appointments, she often fell into tears. She made it her goal to help them understand that they could free themselves and that local institutions were there to protect them and give them legal residency permits if they reported their madams and traffickers.
But that wasn’t always enough, explains Campagnuolo, because the girls find it hard to trust Italians and those who haven’t gone through the same experiences as them. During her first few months as a volunteer, she grew frustrated because the girls would lie to her about their age. They would say they were eighteen or nineteen years old, although they were much younger. “I used to get annoyed by that,” Campagnuolo explains. “I was thinking, ‘Come on, I’m trying to help here, and they lie to me, always changing the version of their story.’ I didn’t understand at the time how entitled of me it was to think that.”
Then one day, one of the girls explained to her that fear fueled the behavior. She helped her understand how most survivors are alive simply by chance, and that an Italian volunteer doesn’t necessarily immediately inspire trust, because they can’t fully grasp the depth of their trauma:
Over the past several months, in Egbon’s shelter in the Sicilian mountains, the girls got together for dinner every night, dreaming of one day being able to leave the place as strong, independent women like Egbon. They plan to partner up, perhaps, and even open an African beauty salon together in Palermo in the future.
Campagnuolo and other volunteers, including Egbon, worked hard to rebuild and furnish the shelter before its inauguration, to give it the semblance of a warm and cozy home, far from the girls’ memories of drugs, trafficking, and connection houses. “We needed a safe, isolated space to protect these vulnerable girls because once they decide to escape the trafficking ring, they become homeless and often have no choice but to go back to the connection house,” Egbon explains.
It took Egbon almost eight years to pay off her debts to her traffickers. She saved every penny she could working side gigs, and with the help of local NGOs—but mostly by her own strength—she managed to break free. Still, during her rehabilitation period, she lacked someone who believed in her and who could give her the opportunity to rebuild her life. Experiencing this gap in services firsthand led her to contemplate how best to help others in the same situation.
At the shelter, Egbon says, she wants to empower the women by giving them access to educational opportunities, such as Italian language classes to help them integrate into local society, and basic vocational training that will help them get jobs. She allows the women to stay there however long it takes them to recover from their traumatic experiences and to take some concrete steps in planning their futures. But she insists on a condition: They also must learn how to manage themselves and be independent. To that end, she now encourages them to go to hospital and legal appointments by themselves, without volunteers’ help.
“I felt I could completely trust Osas [Egbon], not just because she’s been doing this for years, but because she truly is one of us,” explains Sonia. “She went through our same struggles and look how she succeeded today. She makes us believe we can get there, too.”
Trust is key to the work that Egbon does with these women. She knows firsthand how these women have been manipulated, lied to, and coerced all along the way, starting with the religious leaders they visit before they ever leave Nigeria:
For Egbon, who now sees herself both as the girls’ counselor as well as their adopted mother, this shelter is a dream turned real. But the real challenge will be in keeping it up and running in an environment of increasing hostility towards migrants and refugees. After all, she mainly relies on donations and volunteer workers.
“This is our collective effort to make a different kind of migrant reception, to propose our concrete solution to put an end to trafficking and show that we can overcome our own problems,” Egbon says. “We are not a burden to Italian institutions.”
*Names have been changed for safety reasons.
Reporting for this story was made possible thanks to a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Kim Wall Memorial Fund.