I like to consider myself an honorary Italian, even though officially, I have no Italian heritage. I’m convinced my ability to consume extreme amounts of pasta must surely be attributed to an Italian gene somewhere. And if not biologically, spiritually, Italy won my heart as a teenager.
I was 16 when I was fortunate to travel to Mantova on a school exchange. My wonderful Italian teacher, Mr Ham (or Mr Prosciutto as we nicknamed him) schlepped halfway across the world with seven Aussie teenagers rather excited by the prospect of a white Christmas and loose laws around the legal drinking age.
My scambio was life changing. I lived with wonderful host parents who loved me as the daughter they’d never had. My host brother teased me like the sibling he’d always wanted. And the cuisine welcomed me like I was a local, generously adding 10 kilos to my waistline in a matter of weeks.
The pasta and so much more has lured me back to Italy more than a dozen times since. But returning as a reporter for SBS Dateline saw me confront a side of the country I’d never seen or heard of before.
It’s funny what you see…. and what you don’t. When I used to travel to Italy, I saw a country with a deep history, economic woes and an obsession with food and fashion.
But now, I notice much more. Now all I can see is the seedy underbelly of Italy’s shiny exterior.
We travelled to Asti in Northern Italy to document the women forced into sex slavery in this first world country. The seemingly idyllic tourist heartland I loved, is in fact a global sex trafficking hub.
Nigerian women from bitterly poor communities are trafficked to Libya and then by boat to Italy. They’re promised jobs as hairdressers and nannies, but on arrival, they’re sold into sex slavery. Their welcoming present? A pimp captor and a whopping $50,000 dollar debt.
During our Dateline shoot, I met dozens and dozens of human trafficking victims. I was shocked by how young they were….14, 15. And like young girls everywhere, they were obsessed with selfies, gossiping about who’s dating who and making sure they have enough phone credit to text their friends.
I hadn’t realised modern day slavery looks like Tessy - she’s hilarious, dreams of becoming a Hollywood actor and wants to meet someone who loves her just the way she is.
It looks like Beauty, who in another world could walk the catwalk for Prada or Gucci. She’s feisty and a loyal friend.
Slavery in Italy in 2018 looks like Regina (not her real name) - who’s quiet and shy. Barely 14 years old, I kept thinking how thin she was, almost skeletal. I found out later she was 6 months pregnant.
These women and girls are living and working in plain sight right across Italy. They endure rapes, beatings and years spent walking the streets for five Euro blow jobs or 20 Euro quickies. It’s a horrendous existence - I was in tears hearing their stories.
If you’re ever in Italy - look around. On the side of the roads and highways you’ll see women, girls, pacing back and forth, sometimes trying to wave you down.
Imagine the entire population of Ballina banished to Italy for sex slavery. That’s how many women are forced into slavery in Italy every 2 years. There’s been 16 000 more since 2016.
It’s a colossal problem and a profitable racket for the Italian and Nigerian mafia operating it.
One night during filming, around midnight odd things started happening. We noticed a few vans seemed to be tailing us no matter where we drove. Then we noticed another car just happened to pull over and stop anytime we did. I began writing down number plates to track if we were imagining things… we weren’t. The next day, locals said we were stupid and had put ourselves in danger. They told us the mafia is alive and well in these parts.
Human trafficking’s the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise. It creates $200 billion dollars (AUD) in illegal profits each year, so it’s hard to stop.
The Pope’s trying and apparently so are the police, although they say there’s little they can do. Prostitution is legal in Italy, despite the Catholic culture.
The enslaved women are told they’ll be cursed or their families back in Nigeria harmed if they dare run away. So, arrests and prosecutions are rare.
But some do build up the courage to leave, risking the wrath of the pimp or madam who ‘owns’ them. One who has escaped told me if she ever was found - it was simple: “they will kill me.”
Even though they’re living in safe houses now, protected, still to this day many we met aren’t allowed on Facebook or social media for safety reasons,
After everything they’d been through, I naively assumed they must hate Bella Italia and what it’s put them through. But no.
They feel indebted to Italy for providing a life away from the poverty of Nigeria and now, blessedly, the horror of Italy’s streets.
Italy - for all its travesties - has won their hearts too.
Watch the full report – Princess and the Sex Slaves on Dateline, Tuesday 10 April at 9.30pm on SBS.