Immigration is an issue of frequent debate in the news but its dark underbelly -- the trafficking of people -- receives far less attention. Yet the scale of it is alarming: After the smuggling of drugs and weapons, trafficking of people is now the world's third largest crime, earning billions of dollars and, according to ILO estimates, the minimum number of persons in forced labor as a result of trafficking at any given time is 2.5 million.
A UNODC report released earlier this year highlights the fact that the number of female migrants is now growing in comparison with an earlier period when men dominated. One of its most shocking statistics states that up to 17,000 West African girls are being trafficked into sexual exploitation in Italy alone, earning the mafia an estimated $228 million per year.
This is the subject of a two-part Al Jazeera special investigation, "The Nigerian Connection," currently airing in the People & Power strand in which reporter Juliana Ruhfus exposes how the trafficking of women for the sex trade increasingly binds criminal networks in Nigeria and Italy.
The first film is set in the Italian seaside town of Castel Volturno, which shot to infamy in Roberto Saviano's multi-award winning movie Gomorra. A mere one hour's drive from Naples, much of Castel Volturno's businesses are run by the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. When 15,000 legal and illegal immigrants -- 40% of today's population -- started flooding into the region to work on mafia-run tomato farms, Nigerian criminals seized the opportunity to start trafficking drugs and people.
Ruhfus speaks to anti-mafia investigators who explain that the Nigerian mafia could not operate without paying the Italian mafia their cut. The most visible sign of organized crime are Nigerian prostitutes on the Domitiana road, which straddles Castel Volturno for 28 kilometers. Here Ruhfus manages to speak to trafficked Nigerian prostitutes and hears how -- prior to their departure from Africa -- they are subjected to secret Juju rite to entrap them in a bond of slavery with their mafia traffickers. The women now believe escape from this bond is impossible. If they try to break free they and their families could go mad and die. It is this oath which makes it harder to rescue the Nigerian women than any other nationality.
A 2010 UNICRI report shows the evolving nature of Nigerian women in the sex trade which the film hints at. Once the girls have paid off their debt to the traffickers, averaging around 60,000 Euros, they frequently become 'Madams' themselves, making a living of prostitution by importing yet more girls. UNICRI estimates an annual presence of Nigerian street workers in Italy "of 8,000 -- 10,000 units", a figure that puts the Nigerian group at the top of different groups in forced prostitution. Significantly, the report also states that around 25,000 minor and adult women have left the sexual exploitation circus between 2001 and 2009 throwing light on a rapid turn-over of women in the sex trade.
The Nigerian State of Edo is the primary source area for women and girls who are trafficked into the Italian as prostitutes. Figures from Nigeria are far harder to come by but investigators from Nigeria's anti-trafficking authority, NAPTIP, estimate that between 20,000 to 40,000 Nigerian girls are stuck in brothels in Mali, many of them en route to Europe, with male customers paying as little as $2.00.
Benin City in Edo State is where Ruhfus comes for the second part of her investigation to discover how extreme poverty leads women to fall for the false promise of a better life and work in Europe. She meets a former prostitute who has been deported from Italy who now makes a living with the help of an NGO. She then tracks down members of the gangs who entrap the women -- the film contains a covertly filmed interview with a 'madam' who offers practical help with trafficking a girl and even suggests she could send ritual juju items by DHL to Europe to keep a trafficked girl enslaved. Ruhfus and her team then manage to interview a juju priest who admits to having administered the juju oath to over 100 women to keep them enslaved.
As in Italy, the film makes much use of good access with anti-mafia and anti-trafficking authorities. NAPTIP officials present the crew with two suspects charged with trafficking offences who are brought from their prison cells for the interviews.
This is maybe where Ruhfus should have been more challenging with the Nigerian anti-trafficking officers. The 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report published by the US State Department paints NAPTIP in a less positive light. The report states that Nigeria fully complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but highlights that it did not demonstrate an increase in its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. "Although the government claimed to have increased its budget allocation to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and other Related Matters (NAPTIP) which was forecast to receive an estimated $7 million last year, the government did not disclose actual disbursements to NAPTIP."
Furthermore, the TIP report points out that NAPTIP initiated 262 new investigations but only achieved 12 convictions and that. In response to NAPTIP's investigations in Mali it also raises concern "that senior NAPTIP officials' regular travel abroad curing the year did not yield discernible results in terms of arrests." This comes as a disappointment given that the film demonstrates just how pervasive trafficking still is.
Overall, however, it's a stunning exposure of a subject which receives far too little attention.
The Nigerian Connection is directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, a Pear Productions/ Grain Media co-production. The films can be watched online.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. More writings here: http://www.azeemibrahim.com