Starting today March 13, 2017
Raped, beaten, exploited: the 21st-century slavery propping up Sicilian farming
Thousands of female Romanian farm workers are suffering horrendous abuse
The Guardian, March 12, 2017
(Nicoleta Bolos and her baby daughter in Ragusa province. Photograph: Francesca Commissari for the Observer )
Every night for almost three years, Nicoleta Bolos lay awake at night on a dirty mattress in an outhouse in Sicily’s Ragusa province, waiting for the sound of footsteps outside the door. As the hours passed, she braced herself for the door to creak open, for the metallic clunk of a gun being placed on the table by her head and the weight of her employer thudding down on the dirty grey mattress beside her.
The only thing that she feared more than the sound of the farmer’s step outside her door was the threat of losing her job. So she endured night after night of rape and beatings while her husband drank himself into a stupor outside.
“The first time, it was my husband who said I had to do this. That the owner of the greenhouse where we had been given work wanted to sleep with me and if we refused he wouldn’t pay us and would send us off his land,” she says.
“I thought he was crazy, but when I refused, he beat me. He said I had to do everything our boss told us to do – it was the only way we could keep our work. When my employer came, he threatened me with a gun. He told me that if I moved he would blow my head off. When he finished he just walked away.”
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The next morning Bolos was back at work, crouching beside her husband in a sweltering greenhouse, tending and harvesting the produce that has helped make Italy the biggest grower and exporter of fruit and vegetables in Europe. The province of Ragusa is the third-largest producer of vegetables in Europe.
During her time on the farm, Bolos says, workers were given scarcely habitable accommodation, fed cat food for their evening meal and were refused medical treatment. At night, Bolos and the other female Romanian workers became entertainment for the farmer and his friends, repeatedly raped and abused over many years.
“When I came here I thought I was coming to a hard but decent job in another European country, but we ended up as slaves,” she says.
Hidden among fields of flapping white plastic tents across Ragusa province, 5,000 Romanian women like Bolos are working as seasonal agricultural workers. Their treatment is a growing human rights scandal, being perpetrated with almost complete impunity.
A vulnerable female workforce
An Italian migrant rights organisation, the Proxyma Association, estimates that more than half of all Romanian women working in the greenhouses are forced into sexual relations with their employers. Almost all of them work in conditions of forced labour and severe exploitation.
Police say they believe that up to 7,500 women, the majority of whom are Romanian, are living in slavery on farms across the region. Guido Volpe, a commander in the carabinieri military police in Sicily, told the Observer that Ragusa was the centre of exploitation on the island.
“These women are working as slaves in the fields and we know they are blackmailed to have sex with the owners of the farms or greenhouses because of their psychological subjugation,” he says. “It is not easy to investigate or stop this from happening, as the women are mostly too afraid to speak out.”
Many of the Romanian women leave children and dependent families at home and feel forced into making the desperate choices that have carved deep lines of grief into Bolos’s face.
“Where I come from in Romanian Moldavia, nobody has a job,” says Bolos, as she nurses her five-month-old daughter in a dark warehouse that is now her home on another farm in Ragusa province. “The average salary there is €200 a month. Here you can make much more, even if you need to suffer.”
The Observer spoke to 10 Romanian women working on farms in Ragusa. All detailed routine sexual assault and exploitation, including working 12-hour days in extreme heat with no water, non-payment of wages and being forced to live in degrading and unsanitary conditions in isolated outbuildings. Their working days often include physical violence, being threatened with weapons and being blackmailed with threats to their children and family.
Professor Alessandra Sciurba from the University of Palermo co-wrote a report in 2015 that documented the abuse that Romanian women in Sicily were facing. She says conditions are worse now.
“The women are telling us they need to migrate to try to ensure their children are not living in complete poverty in Romania, but that they themselves are being forced to endure terrible conditions and abuse as a result,” she says. “There is no other work, the women told us, so in order to provice for their families they felt they had to accept this deal. It is a conscious choice they are having to make. What we witnessed is nothing less than forced labour and trafficking as defined by the United Nations International Labour Organisation.”
Prosecutor Valentina Botti is pursuing multiple charges of sexual assault and labour exploitation against farmers. She says that the abuse of Romanian women is a “huge phenomenon”.
“Kidnapping, sexual assault and keeping people in slavery are three major crimes we have detailed in our investigations to date,” she says.
“We are talking about potentially thousands of Romanian women as victims of serious abuse. Very few women are coming forward with their stories. Most accept the abuse as the personal sacrifice they must make if they want to keep their jobs. The implication of losing work for many of them is devastating.”
Eliza, a 45-year-old Romanian women, told the Observer that she felt she had no choice when her new employer pulled her into a shed on her first day at work.
“I tried to run away but he told me clearly that if I did not do this I would have to leave,” she says. “It had been months that I had been out of work. I realised that if I wanted to stay in Italy I had to accept this.”
The huge rise in the number of Romanian women seeking abortions in Sicily is also alarming medical professionals and human rights groups. According to Proxyma, while Romanian women make up only 4% of the female population of Ragusa province, they account for 20% of registered abortions.
“The numbers of abortions among Romanian women is very alarming,” says Ausilia Cosentini, coordinator of the Fari project, which provides assistance for Romanian women at a clinic. She says that many of the women coming to seek abortions were accompanied by their employers or other Italian men. “While you clearly can’t conclude that all these pregnancies are the result of sexual violence or fear of losing their work, the high number of abortions in relation to the few thousand Romanian women in the province has to be taken very seriously.”
Working conditions are in some cases highly dangerous. One young Romanian woman told us that she became sick when she was forced to handle and work with agricultural chemicals without protective clothing. “I had to handle foods covered in pesticides and it made me really sick. I was coughing and I couldn’t breathe,” she says.
“I was pregnant and I started to feel sick and then I gave birth to my baby when I was only five months’ pregnant. The doctors said she was premature because of the work and that she is probably going to have brain damage because of the chemicals.”
Those who did report their abuse to the authorities said they then often found themselves unable to find work elsewhere.
“I worked with my husband in the greenhouses and the owner wanted to sleep with me,” says Gloria, 48. “I refused and he fired me. I reported him to the police but since then I can’t find a job. The other farm owners know I went to the police and they don’t want me to work for them.”
Eventually, Nicoleta Bolos’s nightly ordeals proved too much. She fled the farm and her husband but was left without work and unable to send money home to her two young children in Romania. By the time her friends had raised enough money for her bus ticket home, she had lost legal custody of both children. They are now living with her ex-husband’s uncle and she has not been allowed any contact since. Yet despite the abuse, she returned to work in Ragusa, taking the 50-hour bus journey from Botosani, in Romania, back to Sicily and the greenhouses.
Local economy survives on migrant labour
Opportunities for casual farm work in Ragusa are abundant. In recent years, Italian exports of fresh fruit and vegetables have grown and are now worth some €366m a year. Much of this produce is grown in the 5,000 farms across Ragusa province.
Italian agriculture has for many years been heavily reliant on migrant labour. One farming group, Coldiretti, estimates that about 120,000 migrants are working in the sector in southern Italy.
After years of damaging allegations of exploitation and a resulting clampdown by the Italian government, Sicilian farmers who once filled their greenhouses with undocumented migrants and refugees arriving by boat have turned to migrant workers from within the EU.
The number of Romanian women travelling to work in Sicily has increased hugely over the past decade. According to official figures, only 36 Romanian women were working in Ragusa province in 2006, rising to more than 5,000 this year. Romanians overtook Tunisians this year as the largest group working in Ragusa’s fields.
“Greenhouse owners are now afraid of being prosecuted for facilitating illegal migration by hiring undocumented migrants,” says Giuseppe Scifo, a union leader for CGIL, Italy’s largest union. “So the new targets for exploitation are EU citizens, who are willing to accept low wages because of the desperate situation in their home countries.”
Gianfranco Cunsolo, president of Coldiretti in Ragusa, says he has no choice but to pay low wages.'
“The exploitation of workers in Ragusa is also the consequence of EU policies,” he says. “I don’t want to justify the actions of farmers and greenhouse owners who pay low wages to migrant workers, but these people often don’t feel they have any alternative if they are to compete with other European markets.
“When it comes to sexual abuse of women workers, there is obviously no excuse for that. The people doing this need to be arrested and jailed. Women are welcome to work here in Ragusa and must be treated equally. We completely condemn this.”
Under Italian law, farm owners must provide seasonal workers with official contracts and a daily wage of €56 for an eight-hour day. Yet Romanian women arriving in Sicily often find a more brutal reality.
“Romanian women are paid three times less than the wage required by law, and most of them don’t have legal contracts,” says Scifo. Many of the women interviewed by the Observer say they are rarely paid more than €20 a day.
Yet there is little political or economic incentive for the authorities to take action and end the abuse. Although the police say they have dozens of open cases and ongoing prosecutions, only one farmer has so far been charged and convicted of abusing Romanian women.
“The problem is the farmers are not rich men,” says Scifo. “If the owners paid their workers legal wages, they would lose too much money and the entire agricultural economy of the province would implode. This is why the authorities look the other way and why it is so hard to get anyone to take action to stop this.”
Attempts to raise the issue in the Italian parliament have floundered. In 2015, MP Marisa Nicchi launched a parliamentary inquiry into slavery among Romanian workers in Ragusa and asked the prime minister to launch an investigation.
“Two years on and the Italian government has yet to take any action,” she says from her parliamentary office in Rome. “But we will not give up. These crimes must stop.”
In Ragusa, local politicians say that they are trying to provide services to Romanian workers facing abuse. Giovanni Moscato, who last June became mayor of Vittoria, a town in the west of Ragusa province, said the exploitation was persisting because too many economic interests were being served at present, but that the city was opening a hostel to shelter Romanian women fleeing violent employers.
Since returning to Italy, Nicoleta Bolos has met a Romanian man and had two other children. She reported her previous employer to the police, and the man was charged with labour exploitation but his case has yet to come to trial.
Now, she says, she is sick of the abuse. She has decided to go public with her story in an attempt to get justice for herself and other Romanian women caught in a web of exploitation and impunity. Holding her baby and sitting on a cracked plastic chair, she gestures at their home. The walls are wet with damp and there is no heating or running water.
“Look at how we live. But this is our life here. I am not going to lose my children again. They are the reason that I have lived through this, why I’ve become a slave,” she says. “It was for them that I had to let that man into my bed every night. Now I want people to know that this is happening – and that it must stop.”
Trafficking of Nigerian women into prostitution in Europe 'at crisis level'
UN says 80% of the Nigerian women who came to Italy by boat in the first half of 2016 will be trafficked into prostitution
Freeing girls trafficked to Italy for sex: ‘You will not be a slave for ever’
Annie Kelly and Lorenzo Tondo
Monday 8 August 2016 07.00 BST
Last modified on Thursday 9 March 2017 12.30 GMT
The trafficking of Nigerian women from Libya to Italy by boat is reaching “crisis” levels, with traffickers using migrant reception centres as holding pens for women who are then collected and forced into prostitution across Europe, the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) warns.
About 3,600 Nigerian women arrived by boat into Italy in the first six months of this year, almost double the number who were registered in the same time period last year, according to the IOM.
More than 80% of these women will be trafficked into prostitution in Italy and across Europe, it says.
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“What we have seen this year is a crisis, it is absolutely unprecedented and is the most significant increase in the number of Nigerian women arriving in Italy for 10 years,” said Simona Moscarelli, anti-trafficking expert at the IOM.
“Our indicators are the majority of these women are being deliberately brought in for sexual exploitation purposes. There has been a big enhancement of criminal gangs and trafficking networks engaging in the sexual exploitation of younger and younger Nigerian girls.”
Although a thriving sex trafficking industry has been operating between Nigeria and Italy for over three decades, there has been a marked increase in the numbers of unaccompanied Nigerian women arriving in Italy on migrant boats from Libya. In 2014, about 1,500 Nigerian women arrived by sea. In 2015 this figure had increased to 5,633.
“Already we have seen nearly 4,000 women come in the first six months of this year,” said Moscarelli. “We are expecting the numbers to have increased again by the end of this year.”
She warned that the current policy of placing Nigerian women in reception centres along with thousands of other migrants was playing to the traffickers’ advantage, with women regularly going missing.
“There is little understanding of the dynamics and nature of this form of trafficking,” said Moscarelli.
“The reception centres are not good places for trafficked women. Just last week six girls went missing from a reception centre in Sicily, they were just picked up in a car and driven away.”
Nigerian women who are entering Italy among migrants on boats from Libya should be immediately identified and treated as trafficking victims. Instead of being processed in reception centres, they should be placed in specialist shelters where they can be given the advice and support needed to break the chain of sexual exploitation, she said.
“Most Nigerian women who arrive in Italy are already victims of trafficking, many have been subjected to serious sexual exploitation on their journey. Many are forced into prostitution in Libya,” said Moscarelli.
“The women we are seeing are increasingly young, many are unaccompanied minors when they arrive and the violence and exploitation they face when they are under the control of these gangs is getting worse. They are really treated like slaves.”
Salvatore Vella, the deputy chief prosecutor in Agrigento, Sicily, who led the first significant investigation of Nigerian trafficking rings in Italy in 2014, said that the reception centres are increasingly being used as pick-up points by those intending to exploit Nigerian women.
The Nigerian women are given a phone number when they leave Nigeria, which they use to inform a contact in Italy that they have arrived.
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“The mobsters just come to the camp and pick [women] up,” he says. “As easy as going to a grocery store. That’s what these women are treated like, objects to trade, buy, exploit and resell and the reception centres are acting as a sort of warehouse where these girls are temporarily stocked.
“They wait until the woman has her residence permit or refugee status document and then they just go and pick her up.”
Many Nigerian women arrive in Italy with debts of about £40,000 for their journey from Nigeria to Italy, which they are expected to pay back.
Nigerian trafficking gangs use a toxic mix of false promises of legitimate employment and traditional “juju” ceremonies to recruit and gain psychological control over their victims.
The women are led to believe that terrible things will happen to their families if they fail to honour their debts. They are then forced into prostitution on streets and brothels across Europe.
“Currently the shelters and services we have for those women we manage to identify are at breaking point,” said Moscarelli.
“We must give police prosecutors the financial resources to tackle the traffickers and improve access to legal services if we have any chance of reducing the numbers coming in.”
Maharashtra: Abducted and sold thrice as sex slave, 15-year-old girl escapes the clutches of captors
A woman was arrested for abducting a 15-year-old girl and selling her to traffickers almost six months after she was sold as sex slave to different men. The incident came to light after the minor girl, who was kidnapped last year and sold thrice, finally escaped from the clutches of the accused and returned to her hometown in Karjat.
After returning on March 11, the girl even filed a complaint with the Karjat police but they did not register it and instead assaulted her. After days of inaction in the matter, the Shiv Sena members today gheraoed the Karjat police station in protest. The Karjat police is now investigating the case after interference from the Child Welfare Commission.
The girl was kidnapped on September 9, 2016 when she had left home after an altercation with her mother over her marriage as a minor. A woman from the neighbourhood approached her and took her home in Raigarh district. She then tried getting the girl raped but after the minor resisted, she was sold to a woman trafficker in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
GIRL PARADED IN FRONT OF BUYERS
The trafficker tortured the girl, starved her and kept her blindfolded in a dark room. She was also paraded in front of several buyers who wanted to buy her as a sex slave. A 35-year-old man then bought her from the woman trafficker and took her to an undisclosed location in the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
The girl was forced to have sex but when she resisted she was burnt, tortured using electric current and starved after which she gave in to his demands. She was returned to the agent after a month who then sold the girl to another man. He repeated the episode until the minor gave in to his demands.
When she was served food, sedatives were added to her meals. But one night earlier this month, she did not eat the food served and managed to remain awake. Making the most of the opportunity, she screamed for help and neighbours came to her rescue.
She reached Karjat on March 11 but did not find her family at their residence. She then approached the police and recorded her statement. The cops listened to her ordeal but did not register a case claiming she was lying.
According to officials from the district Women and Child Development department, no investigation was done even after the minor complained about her neighbour. The girl then recited her ordeal to counsellors from Child Welfare Committee (CWC) following which child protection department and Women and Child Development were informed.
CHILDLINE, CWC INTERFERE AFTER INACTION
Officials from Childline recorded the girl's statement with district Child Protection officer and District Women and Child Development officer, which ordered the police to register an offence under POCSO and Child Trafficking Act.
CWC officials have written to Karjat police asking them to register a case against the accused involved in the sex racket under relevant sections of IPC, POCSO and Juvenile Justice Act.
"The victim was sent to the women shelter where counsellors from the Childline met her. She was sold thrice as sex slave. Despite the victim revealing details of her ordeal, the police did not register a case and in turn, assaulted her and sent her to the women shelter. The police initially didn't register the case despite our orders to follow the procedure according to the rules under the juvenile justice act," Mahendra Gaikwad, Woman Child Development Officer, Raigad district said.
"The victim's statement reveals that a sex racket involving minors is being run from Karjat and spreads across various states. Sex slaves within the age bracket 14-16 year old are being sold, which is a serious situation. We demand that the case be transferred from Karjat to some other jurisdiction where senior officers take immediate action against the accused involved," district Childline coordinator Raigad district, Ashok Jangle said.
"The girl came back on March 11 and recited her ordeal. We have started the investigation," Vijay Chawre, assistant police inspector posted at Karjat police station, said.
When asked if the victim was assaulted by the police as claimed by CWC officials and the victim, Chawre said, "This is false. We are already investigating the case under sections of POCSO Act and will add other relevant sections. We have also arrested the girl's neighbour who had abducted her and sold her to another woman involved in women trafficking in Gujarat with two of her accomplices.
Scores of Chibok girls released by Boko Haram
AFP, The Australian, May 7, 2017
Scores of Nigerian schoolgirls who were among more than 200 kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 have been released, multiple sources say, with unconfirmed reports that at least 80 have been freed.
“I can confirm they have been released,” said a senior government minister, who asked not to be identified, adding that an official statement would be released today.
A military and a civilian militia source in Banki, near the border with Cameroon, said “at least 80” girls were brought to the town late afternoon on Saturday.
“The girls are now lodged in the military barracks and will be flown to (the Borno state capital) Maiduguri tomorrow (Sunday),” said the military source.
The civilian militia member gave an identical account.
Enoch Mark, a Christian pastor whose two daughters were among those kidnapped, said he was told of the release by the Bring Back Our Girls pressure group and an official in Maiduguri.
He added: “This is good news to us. We have been waiting for this day. We hope the remaining girls will soon be released.”
Bring Back Our Girls said it was awaiting an official statement but added: “Our hopes and expectations are high as we look forward to this news being true and confirmed.” Boko Haram fighters stormed the Government Girls Secondary School in the remote town of Chibok on the evening of April 14, 2014 and kidnapped 276 girls.
Fifty-seven managed to escape in the hours that followed but the remaining 219 were held by the group.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed in a video message that they had converted to Islam.
The audacious kidnapping brought the insurgency to world attention, triggering global outrage that galvanised support from the former US first lady Michelle Obama and Hollywood stars.
Twenty-one girls were released in October last year after negotiations between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss government.
Three others were also found.
At the time of the release of the 21, President Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu said the government was hoping to secure the release of 83 others being held by a different Boko Haram faction.
Last month he said in a radio interview that there were ongoing negotiations involving “some foreign entities” to release the 195 girls believed still held.
He told BBC Hausa the ICRC and Swiss government “have not withdrawn their support in the negotiations”.
Other countries were also involved, he added, without elaborating.
The abducted Chibok schoolgirls: a timeline
Following is a timeline of events since the Boko Haram jihadist group abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in the remote town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria in 2014.
- Snatched from school -
On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram gunmen seize 276 girls from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state.
The girls are forced from their dormitories onto trucks and driven into the bush. Fifty-seven girls manage to flee.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claims responsibility in a video released on May 5, and vows to sell the girls as slave brides.
A week later, a second video shows about 100 of the missing girls. Boko Haram says they have converted to Islam and will not be released unless militant fighters held in custody are freed.
- Global response -
An international media campaign is launched, backed by US First Lady Michelle Obama and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls fires up a social media storm.
On May 17, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria vow to fight Boko Haram together, in what Cameroon President Paul Biya terms a “declaration of war”.
The UN Security Council says the kidnappings “may amount to crimes against humanity”, as Britain, China, France, Israel and the US offer help.
US military specialists deploy to neighbouring Chad but later move elsewhere after Nigeria stops requesting their services.
On May 26, Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff Alex Badeh says the girls have been located but warns a rescue operation would put their lives at risk.
- One year on -
On April 14, 2015, Nigeria’s president-elect Muhammadu Buhari warns he “cannot promise that we can find” the girls, as vigils are held in many countries to mark their first year in captivity.
Amnesty International says the girls may have been separated into three or four groups and are being held in camps, some of which might be in Cameroon or Chad.
Buhari says in late December he is willing to negotiate with any “credible” Boko Haram leadership, a week after claiming the country has “technically” won the war against Boko Haram.
- Other victims freed -
Throughout 2015, the Nigerian military announces the rescue of hundreds of people, most of them women and children, who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram.
But the missing schoolgirls are not among them, despite several unconfirmed sightings.
Suicide attacks using women and young girls increase against “soft” civilian targets such as mosques, markets and bus stations, fuelling fears that Boko Haram might be using its captives as human bombs.
In March 2016, it emerges that Boko Haram also seized 500 women and children from the north east town of Damasak in Borno state just months after the Chibok abduction. The kidnapping was denied at the time.
- ‘Proof of life’ -
On the eve of the abduction’s second anniversary, US news channel CNN reports that Boko Haram has sent a “proof of life” video which shows 15 of the girls -- the first concrete indication that at least some are still alive.
On May 18, 2016 the Nigerian army confirms the first of the schoolgirls has been found.
The 19-year-old, who later meets President Buhari, was discovered with a four-month-old baby and a man she described as her husband near Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest enclave.
- Prisoner exchange -
On October 13, 2016, Nigerian officials announce the release of 21 of the girls following talks between the government and Boko Haram brokered by Switzerland and the International Red Cross.
Local sources say four jihadist prisoners were freed as part of the deal to secure the girls’ release.
The Nigerian government raises the prospect that more releases could follow, with a senior official in the president’s office saying that “the negotiations will continue”.
- ‘At least 80’ more released -
At least 80 more girls have been released, security sources, a senior minister and Enoch Mark, the father of two of the girls, say.