It all started with Susan, a young woman from Nigeria. Her story begins similarly to that of Joana, which was shared in our last blog entry. Back in her home village in Nigeria, Susan met a woman called Ivy, who offered her a well-paid job in Europe. Dreaming of a better future for herself, Susan seized the opportunity to start a new life. However, upon arrival in Italy she was immediately taken to a refugee center as she had no valid papers on her and was supposed to be deported back to Nigeria. With the help of a consultant from the NGO Be Free she had the chance to apply for asylum. In this article we will share what happened after that and how Susan successfully fought the cruel human trafficking system in court.
The beginning of a long story
Since 2015, approximately 21,000 Nigerian women have arrived at Italy's coasts. The UN International Organisation for Migration estimates that 80% of them are directly affected by or at risk from human trafficking and forced prostitution.
As Ivy was the only person Susan knew and trusted in Italy (or, so she thought), she was more than happy when Ivy contacted her. A few days later, Ivy picked her up from the refugee center and took her to an apartment near Florence. As it turned out four other Nigerian women were already living there. Susan’s luck turned, when one of those women came up to her with high heels and a mini skirt in hand and said, ‘Let's go. We have to work’. Susan was desperately hoping for it all to be a bad joke – but she found out quickly that Ivy was a madam (the female equivalent of a pimp).
From that day onwards, Susan had to go out onto the streets every day (regardless of whether she was on her period or sick). She was beaten up severely if she did not bring enough money back home. ‘The worst part was that I was stuck in this hopeless situation and couldn't even send money back home to my family.
Susan's initial despair gave way to determined anger, and she began to document everything. In a hidden diary she noted phone numbers, records of conversations and names. She even managed to take some pictures of Ivy. One day when the madam was out, Susan fled and set out for far away Rome. She then managed to get in touch with the social worker who had wanted to help her with her asylum application in the refugee camp at the time. Susan handed over her notebook to the Be Free team and was taken to a women's shelter, where the police came to take her statement. A month later Susan's mother was ambushed in Nigeria. The perpetrators were sending Susan a message: go back to your madam.
One of the major difficulties of prosecuting human trafficking crimes is the fact that many of the affected people cannot remember the places or names of traffickers and/or clients. Unfortunately, this sometimes makes them seem unbelievable (by law enforcement). Even if law enforcement believes them, the three elements of human trafficking must be proven: recruitment, transfer and exploitation. Organising the necessary international investigation is extremely difficult. The perpetrators often belong to human trafficking networks and work with other criminal organisations.
The Department for Organised Crime takes over the case
Public prosecutor Pietroiusti explains that ‘Human trafficking rings are just as complex as any other form of organised crime. Quite like the Mafia’. Thanks to Susan's detailed information, wiretapping of the perpetrators could take place. ‘The information we receive from the wiretapping is particularly important for the investigation. It gives us an insight into the horror these girls and women are exposed to every day. Rape, forced abortions - thousands of transcript pages of such nature.’ It took over a year to collect enough evidence for an arrest warrant and two more before a judge signed it. After thousands of investigative hours by the prosecutor, four madams were finally arrested for trafficking 17 young women from Nigeria. Sadly, only a fraction of the known perpetrators is convicted.
In human trafficking cases the witnesses need physical and mental support, such as a safe house and psychological assistance. Some survivors are so scared that they deny being forced into prostitution even when presented with evidence. In order to make the process less traumatic, Pietroiusti travels long ways to take the women’s statements in their shelters. ‘The fewer interviews there are, the better. Telling their stories is extremely difficult for the survivors. And no matter how many times you ask them to keep the interview to themselves, rumours arise and it becomes known that there is an investigation.
While surveying Susan’s former apartment in Florence, a Nigerian minor was identified. The police managed to pick her up on the street and take her to a youth shelter. But she was afraid of being alone and ran to the only person she knew in Italy: her madam. As many victims have no documents and do not trust the police, they are even more dependent on the traffickers. The police attempted to rescue the young girl again, but with no success: she ran back to her madam. The madam then had her brought to France where the police lost all trace of her. Pietroiusti still remembers it today: ‘These are the cases that keep me up at night.’
During the court hearing Susan testified along with nine other survivors. There was a great commotion in the waiting room when suddenly one of the women got a headache. ‘It's the juju oath! It's working and I'll die if I testify’, she yelled. Now the other women also took fright. Fortunately, the lawyer knew a lot about such traditions, and she was able to show the women a ceremony on her cell phone in which a priest freed them of the oath. The prosecutor had managed to de-escalate the situation.
The end OF a long investigation
The actual trial only began five months later. The four defendants were sentenced to a total of 45 years in prison and Susan was to receive € 80,000 in compensation. The chances of her ever receiving that money are very slim because the perpetrators usually send the profits abroad so that nothing is left in Europe. Sadly, not all human traffickers Susan encountered were convicted because some of them could not be identified. But to Susan, Ivy's conviction was more than she had dared hope for.
Four years after Susan escaped her human traffickers and filed a criminal charge against them, her future is still uncertain. She is yet waiting for a working permit and her asylum application to be processed. The organisation Be Free is supporting her with her struggle to stay in Italy and to build a new life for herself. As a key witness to the trial it would be far too dangerous for her to return to her home country.
Susan’s incredibly brave story was published in a Guardian article in August. Although she went to the police and collected a lot of evidence throughout her traumatic everyday life in the hands of human traffickers, it took over three years to get a conviction. Despite the long wait, she is still considered to be one of the lucky ones as many similar cases are rejected by the court. Often there is a lack of evidence or the convictions only relate to minor offences, so that no prison sentence is imposed. Unfortunately, the situation in Austria is not much better than in Italy. As in Italy, only a few human trafficking cases end in convictions.
The fight for freedom and self-determination is not over - but brave women like Susan exemplify why it is important to stand up for justice every day.