1 June 2017

Africa: Italy Refugee Crisis - Gangs Running Child Prostitution Rings

Photo: Unicef
Unicef collaborates with Government of Italy on refugee and migrant children.

Syracuse, Italy - We've been on Sicily for a week now.

My team and I first came to cover the G7 talks, in which US President Donald Trump successfully fended off an Italian proposal for all the countries at the table to treat the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea as a humanitarian emergency.

But we then stayed on to have a look at the crisis now.

As it turns out, things are going from bad to worse, with the Libyan coastguard, such as it is, involving itself in rescues by boarding dinghies full of refugees and then firing into the air and robbing them, at least according to the victims and NGOs.

To add insult to injury, the rescuers themselves are now increasingly being blamed for making the crisis worse by being too good at saving people.

Some bloggers in Italy started unfounded rumours that impeccable organisations like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were being paid by the smugglers.

Italian society, tuned in to institutional corruption, has decided this sounds likely and also assumes the government is in on it as a way of importing cheap labour and undercutting the jobs market.

In the face of a tidal wave of utter cynicism, my team and I then went to visit a reception centre for young girls who are benefitting from a new Italian law, which gives child care specialists more power to look after them when they arrive.

The law may have other effects as well. For as it turns out, the teenagers you often see on footage being rescued or getting off the ships in Sicily have very possibly become victims of forced prostitution.

We conducted a series of interviews at the reception centre with teenagers who explained how female traffickers persuaded them to leave their homes in countries like Nigeria on the promise of a job.

Once out of the country, they were threatened and forced into prostitution to pay off a debt, the figure invented by the traffickers.

It isn't hard to imagine the fear a 15 or 16-year-old must face when the reality of this dawns on them. One tried to get out of Mali, but spoke no French and got dragged back to her locked room.

The experts at the centre said almost every girl getting off the boat from Nigeria will have been trafficked.

The truth worsens: It appears the trafficking gangs have worked out that with thousands of people making the journey across the sea, it is ideal cover to run a child prostitution racket.

So girls who are forced to lawless Libya are either gang-raped there, or just as likely spared and put in a dinghy with a phone number on a piece of paper and told to call it on arrival. This way, they go into the hands of the gang members in Europe, and then disappear in Italy or further north.

So, to be clear: Gangs are running child prostitution under cover of the refugee crisis.

It seems to me several things follow from this. Firstly, those who say people from Nigeria should be sent back might want to consider the damage already done to children who are legally entitled to protection under international law.

Secondly, Italy has made a brave move ring-fencing children's rights by guaranteeing the same care to refugee kids as Italian ones. Other EU countries could do the same if they want to close down trafficking gangs, because once girls are in the care of reception centres, the criminals can no longer reach them. And the girls hand over details of the traffickers to their carers.

Think also about the US government, concerned at the G7 talks purely about migration as it affects security, rather than human rights.

But mostly, think about the European Union working with Libya to keep refugees out. And imagine a young girl, terrified and abused, hoping Europe will look after her.

The EU keeps saying it believes in the rule of law. Now is the time to show it.

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