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Women Seeking Refuge: a Crisis Within a Crisis

Posted on Sep 23, 2016

By Janice Raymond

  Silla Zelia, a 23-year-old asylum seeker from Ivory Coast, at an immigration center in Mineo, Sicily, in 2015. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

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With Mount Etna looming in the distance, Catania boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in Italy. In summer, the city draws crowds of tourists, most of whom are unaware that in this season, 2,000 refugees are landing daily on nearby shores. Sixty percent of those arriving in Europe during the first five months of 2016 were women and children, many fleeing physical and sexual violence in their countries—only to encounter worse on their journeys.

In June, I was part of a refugee mission to Catania that included members of the Society of Black Lawyers (UK), the Association of Muslim Lawyers (UK), the international Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and Association IROKO (Italy). Several of us made the trip to investigate the specific situation of women in the migration/refugee* [see footnote] process. We were keenly aware of how violence against women is subsumed in the generic crimes of this humanitarian crisis, and we were also aware of the invisibility of female refugees in the media.

Well known for its earthquakes, Catania is facing a different kind of upheaval, receiving two-thirds of all migrants arriving in Italy. The city has established the largest refugee camp in Europe in the nearby town of Mineo. Depending on the month, Mineo houses 3,000 to 4,000 refugees in residential structures formerly used by the U.S. Army and designed to shelter only 2,000. At the time we visited Mineo, residents included a mix of Eritreans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Gambians, Moroccans and Bangladeshis. Twenty percent of the residents were female.

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Entry to the camp was not easy, and it took the intervention of the mayor’s office in Catania to receive authorization. As we drove the long and winding country route out of the city, the landscape signaled isolation until the Mineo camp rose from the fields. Our initial view from a distance was of a seemingly idyllic sanctuary of yellow and pink buildings. As we got closer, we saw a 10- or 12-foot fence topped with barbed wire. Armed soldiers carrying automatic weapons guarded the entrance and patrolled the perimeter.

We waited a long time before being allowed in. I thought of the months and years that refugees wait for their papers, with the average time lag for asylum petitions reported to be 18 months. When the camp director finally gave us an informational tour of the center and answered our questions, I asked about services in the camps. The director listed legal aid, medical care, psychological counseling, Italian language courses, computer classes and job training. After speaking with staff members, I felt they were doing an impressive job in very difficult and crowded circumstances.

Media articles, however, spoke of migrants feeling stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do as they wait, seemingly interminably, for their papers. Residents sleep in overcrowded rooms, sometimes with six to eight people and often lacking ventilation. Camp migrants who work in the local area’s lemon and orange groves report their earnings as 15 euros (about $17) a day.

In 2014, investigators uncovered a vast corruption scheme at Mineo. Organized crime groups had infiltrated the camp’s administration, and authorities arrested a local mafia leader. When I asked the director about reported occurrences of trafficking in the camps, he said that in the past there had been several cases that may have involved people from the camp but that camp management worked with police to prevent future incidents.

Near the camp, however, is a blatant prostitution arcade that lines the country roads leading to Mineo. Scantily clad African women stand or sit in expected postures that attract male prostitution users. Any astute observer who has visited Italy in the last 15 years has seen African women who are obviously in prostitution along rural, highway and trucking routes. I had witnessed this wretched scene each time I traveled to Italy in the past, but I had never beheld hundreds of women prostituting every quarter-mile, as if in a vast, sprawling brothel operating en plein air.

In Catania, I spoke with Efosa (a pseudonym), a male migrant from Nigeria, and asked if he had knowledge of Nigerian women being trafficked for prostitution into Italy. He told me:

Yes, they bring them here on the boats for prostitution. … They tell the girls, “I will carry you to Italy. Would you like to go? I will take care of everything. You will pay me back.” But these girls suffer. They take their money, they beat them, they abuse them. I see them every night on the streets near the railroad station. Men stop their cars and use them. Before bringing them, the traffickers make them swear oaths. They remove a piece of their hair. They tell them, “It’s secret. If you tell anyone, you will die.”

Efosa reinforced what Dr. Esohe Aghatise, director of Association IROKO, has revealed in her work with Nigerian prostituted women. She writes that 80 percent of these women and girls trafficked into Europe come from the Edo state and are held in a vise of psychological indenture. The traffickers subject the women to magic juju rituals in which they are compelled to take blood vows and promise to pay off their debts of passage by engaging in prostitution. Such rites generate a multitude of threats and fears, as well as “an exaggerated sense of obligation to their perceived benefactors,” who exact promises from them never to reveal the identity of their traffickers.

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