Thousands of African women are trafficked to Italy and forced into sex work. How does a former sex slave who married one of her clients now rescue women from the clutches of human trafficking gangs?
Tuesday, April 10, 2018 - 21:30

In Italy, a seedy criminal enterprise is hiding in plain sight - with African women as young as 14 trafficked into the country and forced to sell themselves on the street.

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 story at the top of the page.


Meet the women forced into sex slavery in Italy
In Italy, a seedy criminal enterprise is hiding in plain sight - with African women as young as 14 trafficked into the country and forced to sell themselves on the street.
One woman's story of sex slavery in Italy
"They sex you and will not pay you, and will beat you up." Angelica is among tens of thousands of Nigerian sex workers in Italy, brought there by human traffickers and forced into debt bondage.
Europe wanted migrants stopped, now some are being sold as slaves
Migrants trying to reach Europe are being exposed to forced labour, kidnapping, extortion, rape, torture and indefinite extralegal detention.
Sexual exploitation in a war zone
It's all too easy to miss the point about sex work in areas hit by conflict and disaster. How about listening to the people who experience it?
How families play a role in Nigeria's sex trafficking rings
The world of sex trafficking is far more complex than you realise - and often families are involved in the trafficking of their loved ones.

External Links


Reporter: Meggie Palmer

Producer: Kylie Grey

Camera: Lee Ali

Associate Producers: Stephanie Stafford, Pema Dolkar

Fixer: Sabina Castelfranco

Editor: Simon Phegan


BEAUTY, FORMER SEX WORKER:  It's so exciting because I come to meet new people and sometimes it take away my pain.

A quaint village in Northern Italy, is an unlikely location for a Nigerian disco. Once trapped - these girls are now free.

PRINCESS, FORMER SEX WORKER: When you laugh, you dance, you're happy, you can never be old, you cannot be sick.

Theyre all here thanks to this princess - A former sex slave from Africa.

PRINCESS:  My name is Princess Inyang. I'm from Akwa Ibmon State in Nigeria. I came here to Italy about 18 years ago. I came as a slave but now I help the victims of trafficking.  Some girls down here, and there’s another place here.

REPORTER:  Oh, there’s a girl there.

PRINCESS: There’s girl there the left

REPORTER:  On the left

PRINCESS:  When we passed before she was not there.

Across Italy, roads like these hide a dark secret. You don’t have to look hard to see dozens and dozens of girls working.  Most are sex slaves, tricked and trafficked from Africa to Europe, sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

PRINCESS:   See? The girl is inside the car.

REPORTER:  She’s in the car?


REPORTER:  Oh, she is too.

Dotted all over ….chairs, a sign - a sex slave’s is on duty.  Princess once walked these streets and knows how brutal it is.

PRINCESS:   See another one here.

REPORTER: Another one here on the left.

PRINCESS:  Yeah, another one.

REPORTER:  This man is just zipping up his pants. Busy, it's rush hour around here. 


She’s now running a not for profit called PIAM. Her job is to check up on the girls and help those looking to escape their captors.

REPORTER:  How many clients would they normally have in a day?

PRINCESS:  Sometimes they have 5, some have 10, some have 15, it depends.

REPORTER:  Are there many minors working on the street? 

PRINCESS: Many, many now.

REPORTER:  What's the youngest? 

PRINCESS:  Fifteen years, fourteen years.

REPORTER:   Fifteen!

Most girls are from bitterly poor communities in Nigeria, they are promised well paid jobs and a safer life but are then forced into prostitution. Each of these girls represents a shattered dream.

REPORTER:  There they are, they are in the bushes.

Cioa, hi how are you?  Do you mind if I have a quick chat with you? What’s your name?

SARAH: I’m Sarah

REPORTER:   When you came here, how did you come here?

SARAH: I came here with a boat

REPORTER:   Did you. How long did it take you to get here?

SARAH: 2 months

I speak to some of the girls off camera, they tell me it isn’t safe to show their faces. So today I met a girl called Sarah who was walking up here on the roadside, this is her patch here and when I was chatting to her I realised that this is kind of where she hangs out when she is not waiting for clients up on the road.

So generally the clients will pull over in their cars and ask for some kind of sexual act, ask for a price, or a quote, and they will negotiate from here and what I realised is that this is where she and her colleagues hang out when they are not up there, so you can see that this is a fire that the y light at night to keep themselves warm, there is a bunch of rubbish and you can see there is a couple of lean twos they have created when they are trying to hide from the elements... it gets quite cold here because they are so close to the Alps.

The women work the streets here day and night….weekends and weekdays.  In the past 3 years, theres been a 600% jump in the number of sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy by sea. They’re part of the phenomenal wave of migration from Africa to Europe by boat … It’s now the most deadly migrant route in the world.

It’s only when they arrive they’re told they owe astronomical sums of money, to their horror, their ticket to freedom becomes a trap into slavery.

PRINCESS: All the girls have some debts to pay and the debts are much from 25,000 Euro up to 50,000 Euro before they are free.

At 5 euros per blow job and as little as 15 euros for sex, it’s almost impossible to pay off their debt. In the last two years around 16,000 Nigerian women were forced into prostitution in Italy. This was Princess's story. She arrived 20 years ago. But she will never forget the things that happened to her.

PRINCESS: So, after one week in the house two women came to buy girls… she bought me at the sum of 13,000 USD and then she told me I'll pay 50. So, it was terrible and dangerous work you know, because most of the time we met people that were bad people. That they will kill us, you know, they kill girls for fun.

The first night was a nightmare. Terrible and I was so afraid of entering people’s car I don't know and I was crying throughout the night.

And then Princess's life took another unexpected turn.

REPORTER:  Were there any clients that you saw regularly that you really liked?

PRINCESS:  Yeah, there were some like…

REPORTER: Were there any in particular?

PRINCESS:  Yeah, there was one from Iceland.

REPORTER (Translation):  Ciao, Alberto. Good evening.

ALBERTO MOSSIMO, HUSBAND (Translation):  Welcome.

PRINCESS:  The second one was Alberto which become my husband.

ALBERTO MOSSIMO (Translation):  I was alone and I saw this beautiful girl. I pulled over and asked her to come to the beach with me.  She got in the car, over two days together, we got to know each other and from then on we started seeing each other. 

REPORTER:  How long have you been married for? 

PRINCESS: 13 years now. 

ALBERTO MOSSIMO:  When I marry Princess. I did a big mistake, because it's the African culture. If you marry one, you don’t marry one, you marry all the Tribe. You have to provide for all the tribe.

REPORTER (Translation):  When did you know that you had fallen in love with Princess?

ALBERTO MOSSIMO(Translation): In love is a big word. I was certainly very interested in Princess, partly in her, but also in that whole world she represented. Africa, Nigeria, the world of prostitution. Then over time as we kept on seeing each other, I also fell in love. But when we started talking, I began to see that something was not right. She wasn’t only beautiful, reminding me as she did of Africa. Bit by bit, I came to see that she was beautiful but also a slave. 

Princess and Alberto began secretly dating, raising money to pay off her debts, freeing her from slavery.

PRINCESS: You want to taste this one?

REPORTER:  Who's the better cook, Alberto, you or Princess?

PRINCESS:  I'm a good cook.

Like so many sex slaves trapped here, Princess left her children behind in Nigeria. Her eldest son has now joined her in Italy. Princess and Alberto also have a young daughter together.

REPORTER:  How long was it in between seeing your children?  

PRINCESS: It was about ...say five years. Yeah it was very hard for them. They couldn't get good attention as a motherly attention or love. It was not the same.

ALBERTO MOSSIMO (Translation):  You take a bit of yam, dip it into the sauce and eat it. That’s Afro-Piedmontese.

REPORTER (Translation):  The two go together?

ALBERTO MOSSIMO (Translation): We tried it out o a chef here in Asti and now he is serving it.

REPORTER (Translation):  Really?

ALBERTO MOSSIMO (Translation):  It works well. This and that go together.

REPORTER (Translation):  A mix.

Instead of turning her back on her past, Princess is trying to help other girls who are caught in the same trap.

REPORTER (Translation):   Hi Beauty, it’s Meggie.  Hi, thanks.

BEAUTY(Translation):  Hi!

REPORTER (Translation):   Hi, I’m Meggie.

BEAUTY(Translation):  Hi!  Please come in.

REPORTER (Translation):  Thanks for having me. 

Princess and her team have rescued more than 250 girls. Beauty's one of them. Beauty or Beauty 1 as she's known, lives here with her friends, Beauty 2 and Tina.

BEAUTY(Translation):  That’s it, well done!

After two years in Italy, Beauty's made this her home.

REPORTER:  Are these yours?

BEAUTY:  Yeah, they are mine. I saw them in the market and I loved the colours, so I got them for Valentine. Okay, welcome to my bedroom.


BEAUTY:  This is my favourite one.

REPORTER:  What is it?

BEAUTY:  They call it lace. It’s for a very expensive occasion.

REPORTER:  How would you wear this in Nigeria?

BEAUTY:   You have to put it around your waist.

REPORTER:   You put it around my waist, okay. So what did you do in Nigeria before you came to Italy?

BEAUTY:  Hairdressing

REPORTER:  You did.

BEAUTY:  Yeah, yeah.


BEAUTY:  I’m from a polygamous home.

REPORTER:  You're from a polygamous home?

BEAUTY:  Yeah, my dad with 19 children.

REPORTER:  19 children.

BEAUTY:  And four wives, he is the only one I have left.

Beauty was trafficked from Nigeria to Italy by boat alone. She never saw her mother again.

BEAUTY:  Before she died, she told me. She told me, my child whatever you see in life, take it as a fate, don t give up, she told me, be very strong because I am as mother very strong. I never give up on you.

REPORTER: Can you explain for people who don't understand, who don't know that most of the girls on the streets are sex slaves, can you explain to them what that’s like for you living with that?

BEAUTY:  First of all the most terrible part of it was when I was on my period. I had to take a very thick piece of rag and put deep inside of me, sorry, so I can, so the men can penetrate me without seeing the blood. Just imagine the pain, your pushing that tissue inside your womb. It’s so painful, all because of…Sometimes you don’t even get 20 Euro you have to pay, they tell you 15 Euro and sometimes the money that they pay you, they still got to beat you before you collect the money, so much pain.

Beauty and the other girls I spoke to all said that they and their parents had no idea what would happen to them in Italy. But Alberto tells a very different story. He says the parents knowingly send their girls to a life of prostitution and slavery.

ALBERTO MOSSIMO (Translation):  By now almost all of them know. They know, they know…What they are not aware of, are the conditions. Many of these young girls think, “I’ll go and be a prostitute in Europe.”  They imagine themselves in grand hotels, or Casinos or Las Vegas where everyone is rich and the men hand out expensive gifts … a bit like a movie star. They do not realise that they will be on the streets selling themselves for five Euros and getting beaten up. The clients, pimps, traffickers, slavery, police raids, girls who escape. It is a very… a very complex world

Human trafficking is the world's fastest growing criminal enterprise, its illegal profits making an estimated $200 billion Australian globally every year.

ALBERTO MOSSIMO (Translation): These young women are the first step in this huge Nigerian Mafia ring because in this massive enterprise the Nigerian women are cash-flow.

When the Nigerian mafia work alongside the Italian mafia, it's an almost impenetrable criminal network.

ALBERTO MOSSIMO (Translation):  How they do it? Voodoo superstition is one method. The girls take part in a magic ritual in a sacred place where, during a pagan ceremony, they must swear to respect their trafficker and their Madam and if they break their oath, they will die or their family will suffer misfortune, pain and death.

With very few victims willing to testify against the Nigerian mafia, the slave trade looks set to continue despite the Vatican and the Pope declaring eliminating it a key priority in this Catholic heartland. Princess's work never stops. She's back patrolling the streets with her anti-trafficking team, trying to save others.

PRINCESS:  Hello…hello

GIRL:  Ciao, bella

PRINCESS:  Hello, baby girl.  Come, come, come near. But please use condom. Before you know you done you catch HIV. You don't know where...So you have to use condom always.

On a rain-soaked train platform in Asti, the latest rescue arrives. Queen has been walking the streets as a sex slave in central Italy for two years.

QUEEN, FORMER SEX SLAVE (Translation):  Hello, how are you? Fine!

FATIMA:  Okay Queen, you are welcome.

QUEEN (Translation):  Thank you.

We can't show her face because she fears her traffickers will recognise and possibly harm her. Accompanying Queen is Fatima, whose role is to help the transition to a new life.

FATIMA: In this house there are rules and regulations. One, we don’t fight. This is your room, this is your bed. This is where you are going to stay.  Hello girls.

Queen will be sharing this 2-bedroom unit with five other rescued girls.

FATIMA:  This is your room- mate, she is called Tessie and she is called Yvette.

QUEEN:  I swear to god I will never go back to the streets again.

Queen left behind her 7-year-old son, her mum and her sister died recently. This is her family now.

FATIMA:  Precious, are you ready.

PRECIOUS:  Yes, just a minute.

All the girls are given a safe house and money for food but there are strict conditions. They have to follow the rules and promise not to work on the streets. In fact, they can't work anywhere until their residency papers are finalised, so they hang out, they study Italian, and they go through job training. praying that their visas will come through to open up the next phase in their life. Princess did more than help Beauty get off the streets. She helped her rebuild her life and her skills.

BEAUTY:  Mummy.

PRINCESS:  Ciao Beauty.

BEAUTY:  I love them so much and these smiles on my face are because of her.

PRINCESS:  Do you work in the kitchen too?


PRINCESS:  Were you there when they make this?



BEAUTY:   She’s my boss and when I came here and met her and she told me, ‘ I like this one, I want her to work with me.’  And this is May she is my work colleague too.  I feel happy, encouraged that I could work here with white people which I've never dreamt of. So exciting.

REPORTER:  And how much money are you making here?

BEAUTY:  When compared to Nigeria money, it's high. It's high. Yeah. Better than what we use to see when we work in the streets.

A lot of the other girls haven't got jobs yet or still aren't allowed to work. They say Beauty's lucky or making her own luck.

REPORTER:  Are you proud of her to see her working here?

PRINCESS:  Of course yeah. We're so happy to see her now working. And at least other girls, seeing her working, might be encouraged, you know.

BEAUTY:  When I came here I never thought there was going to be an opportunity to work because the belief was like there is no hope for people like us here. We thought it was all going to be in the street, on the street, on the street. But when we met her, they had to make some change for us. Now I'm working. I'm a normal person here. All thanks to them.

REPORTER:  Everyone say…Princess.

ALL:  Princess.

BEAUTY:  How do I look?  A little different now?

TINA: Wow! You look beautiful. Fantastic and the rest of that.

BEAUTY:  Are you serious? I think I'm gonna get a new boyfriend today.

TINA:  Yeah.

These days, instead of getting dressed to work the streets, Beauty and her friends are getting ready to have fun.

BEAUTY:  Ah, let’s go, I can’t wait.

I came to Italy knowing I'd be meeting human trafficking victims. I thought I'd leave overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all but instead here I found a story of resilience and transformation. Beauty, Princess and the others don't want to be defined by their past.

BEAUTY:  I want to be a source of joy to people, I want to be like Princess.

They feel lucky to be rebuilding their lives and they're going to give this second chance everything they've got.

PRINCESS:  Oh, my dream if I wish we can make the trafficking in human beings stop and I can help all the victims in the streets to liberate them from their depression because I believe that most of them have things in their mind but they don’t have someone to talk to but I wish we can let them know that we are there to save them.



meggie palmer


story producer

kylie grey



lee ali


associate producers

stephanie stafford

pema dolkar


story editor

simon phegan



sabina castelfranco



domenico gentile


10th April 2018