Geopolitics

Behind The Changing Face Of Italy's Sex Trade

Thousands of Romanian girls are tricked and coerced into working the Italian streets, which are controlled by brutal Albanian mafia clans.

'Terrorized silence'
"Terrorized silence"
Flavia Amabile

MILAN — Corinna was 16 years old when she was sold by her mother. She'd lived in a small town, in a Romania that had just recently been admitted into the European Union, a time and place of both hope and misery. But Corinna's family didn't believe in hope.

The mother pocketed 300 euros and let her daughter, the eldest of three, go into the hands of a "lover boy": a companion-master, feinting infatuation, a professional illusionist. Such men manage a large part of the sexual trafficking of Romanian girls in Italy. They're now trying to do the same with young Italian girls.

Corinna crossed the Italian border with a power of attorney signed by her mother, authorizing her journey into hell. She, of course, had no way of knowing. At her side was a man swearing he was hopelessly in love with her, that he wanted a family and a life with her. How could she have imagined she was headed straight for horror?

To live, though, you have to at least pay for rent, food, clothes. Her companion asked her to go with other men for money. The correct expression to use in this case is "to prostitute herself." Her companion called it "love," and so in her mind, unfortunately, it was also love. It became her life, and the man her jailer.

Corinna lost weight, dropping down to 42 kilos (92 pounds). Every day he told her, "You're ugly, you're worth nothing. If you don't stay with me no one else will take you." Corinna believed him, and accepted staying with him, and with all the men who approached her on the street. Even after an abortion, even with a broken arm after he beat her. Coming home every night she would put the money on the table, keeping little or none of it for herself.

Corinna has two sisters, both of whom were also sold to the highest bidder. Same script, same ending: standing on some Italian street to be bought, then immediately handing over the cash earned — without ever fully understanding even that they were forced to do so.

"Having daughters is like gold for Romanians," explains Nicole Muru. It is she who tells the story of Corinna and the two sisters, three lives sold for less than 1,000 euros to Romanian "lover boys' by their mother. Nicole talks about them because she wants to save them, like she's trying to save herself. A lover boy also crossed her path, but no one sold her to him or forced her to go: she fell in the trap all by herself.

"I got married at 20 in Romania," she begins. "Ours was a beautiful love story."

"A first child was born, then a second. Then he started throwing all our money away on poker machines. I had to find a job, and they offered me a waitressing position in bar in Monza just outside Milan," she recalls. "I left the kids to my parents and came to Italy. I found myself with no job, and with a person by my side who seemed very sweet. He asked me to prostitute myself for a few months as a way to go back to Romania with some money. Back home they needed the money, there were so many problems and I felt like it was my duty to resolve them. I did what he wanted and ended up in a pretty deep hole. I was convinced I would never be able to get out again."

But Nicole did manage to free herself. She understood the trap, unmasked the jailer dressed as lover. On Jan. 3 of this year she returned to Romania, got to hug her children again, and now she lives with them. She works as she can, but she is master of her own life.

"I don't ask for more," she concludes.

Sold by their mothers or simply victims of a vile deception, every year thousands of Romanian girls end up in the lover boy's trap. The numbers are climbing steadily, and it's no longer just Romanians.

The girls who have the strength to free themselves are just a drop compared to the sea of those who remain.

There are also Italian girls, courtesy of a recruitment and exploitation system that evades law enforcement controls.

In the eyes of the law and the statisticians, they are simply prostitutes, and those who use them risk, at most, a conviction for exploitation of prostitution, or two years of jail, which becomes 16 months under the sentence reduction provisions in the Italian penal code.

For those seeking to stymie the growth of this phenomenon, the challenge is to make it understood that these girls are trafficking victims — slaves like the Nigerian prostitutes. They are forced and blackmailed. They're prisoners. The people who control them are thus guilty of a far more serious crime, one that's punishable by between six and 12 years behind bars.

The prisoners of these lover boys are right under the noses of whoever passes through the streets of prostitution, and yet they are invisible. According to data from the Department of Equal Opportunity, the number of trafficking victims who have gained entry to assistance programs from social services, and who are minors of Romanian origin, stands at just 23. They represent 2.8% of the total, a blip of a statistic, irrelevant, and above all unreal.

The girls who have the strength to free themselves from their traffickers are just a drop compared to the sea of those who remain.

This is true for Nigerian women: just 660 show up in data as having entered official assistance programs, and of these, eight out of 10 have succeeding in breaking with their past. But it's even more true for Romanian women. In a single evening, the nonprofit Save the Children came into contact with 729 Romanian underage trafficking victims on the streets of five Italian regions, according to the 2019 report titled Small Invisible Slaves.

"All you have to do is know how to count," says Michelangela Barba, president of the Ebano organization, which provides assistance to victims of violence, prostitution, and trafficking, especially minors. "There are 20 regions. That would mean there are an average of 2,800 such women all over Italy, and that's just at night."

"You then have to take into consideration the minors that work the streets during the day, and all the others we don't come into contact with," Barba adds. "That quickly brings the number to 7,000. If you include in the count the Romanians working out of apartments, and the minors that are even more hidden, you get to about 12,000 minors."

"We know that minors represent a third of the total," the rights advocate explains. "That would mean there are 40,000 Romanian women and girls prostituting themselves at all ages. And that's an optimistic estimate — probably there are many more."

Ninety million a month

That figure more or less corresponds with the estimate calculated by The Pope John XXIII Community Association.

"The streets of our cities are "the property" of the Albanian mafia which then, at a high price, leases them out for use by other national clans," says Father Aldo Buonaiuto, who works in the anti-trafficking service of the association founded by Father Oreste Benzi. "It's an inhuman market of violence and abuse: thousands of women forced to sell their bodies nonstop to keep up this bloody racket."

"Forced prostitution is a crime against humanity and the third-largest illegal business, after drugs and arms dealing," Buonaiuto adds.

There are 120,000 women who prostitute themselves on the streets and indoors. That's 3.5 million clients, and a business that grosses 90 million euros a month. After Nigerian girls, Romanians are the largest nationality present in street prostitution in Italy. On this, all the observers are in agreement.

According to Paolo Botti, founder of the nonprofit Friends of Lazarus, "It's the young age and the inexperience of Romanian minors that make them so vulnerable to manipulation by their exploiters: We are up against people who work alone or are affiliated with organizations that are always working on perfecting their methods of recruitment and control."

"The constant surveillance of the victims is carried out by male figures who monitor the area of exploitation," he adds. "But there is another component added to that of male control: eyes on the street, in the form of a girl or older woman whose job it is to report to the exploiter any absences or other failings of the girls on the street."

How to get out? Barba Michelangela thinks the answer lies in updating the definition of trafficking.

"We need to make life more difficult for the traffickers," she says. "We've presented proposed amendments to the law. We should no longer make entry into assistance programs conditional on the women's testifying and having to prove that they were forced into prostitution."

"Those who are dependent on drugs and seek help are never asked why it is they are dependent," Barba adds. "In the same way, we have to free women from the burden of proving their forced prostitution, otherwise the number who have the courage to come forward and accept help will be too few."

This, after all, is what the crime clans count on: terrorized silence.

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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