MILAN — Corinna was 16 years old when she was sold by her mother. She'd lived in a small town, in a Romania that had just recently been admitted into the European Union, a time and place of both hope and misery. But Corinna's family didn't believe in hope.

The mother pocketed 300 euros and let her daughter, the eldest of three, go into the hands of a "lover boy": a companion-master, feinting infatuation, a professional illusionist. Such men manage a large part of the sexual trafficking of Romanian girls in Italy. They're now trying to do the same with young Italian girls.

Corinna crossed the Italian border with a power of attorney signed by her mother, authorizing her journey into hell. She, of course, had no way of knowing. At her side was a man swearing he was hopelessly in love with her, that he wanted a family and a life with her. How could she have imagined she was headed straight for horror?

To live, though, you have to at least pay for rent, food, clothes. Her companion asked her to go with other men for money. The correct expression to use in this case is "to prostitute herself." Her companion called it "love," and so in her mind, unfortunately, it was also love. It became her life, and the man her jailer.

Corinna lost weight, dropping down to 42 kilos (92 pounds). Every day he told her, "You're ugly, you're worth nothing. If you don't stay with me no one else will take you." Corinna believed him, and accepted staying with him, and with all the men who approached her on the street. Even after an abortion, even with a broken arm after he beat her. Coming home every night she would put the money on the table, keeping little or none of it for herself.

Corinna has two sisters, both of whom were also sold to the highest bidder. Same script, same ending: standing on some Italian street to be bought, then immediately handing over the cash earned — without ever fully understanding even that they were forced to do so.

"Having daughters is like gold for Romanians," explains Nicole Muru. It is she who tells the story of Corinna and the two sisters, three lives sold for less than 1,000 euros to Romanian "lover boys" by their mother. Nicole talks about them because she wants to save them, like she's trying to save herself. A lover boy also crossed her path, but no one sold her to him or forced her to go: she fell in the trap all by herself.

"I got married at 20 in Romania," she begins. "Ours was a beautiful love story."

"A first child was born, then a second. Then he started throwing all our money away on poker machines. I had to find a job, and they offered me a waitressing position in bar in Monza [just outside Milan]," she recalls. "I left the kids to my parents and came to Italy. I found myself with no job, and with a person by my side who seemed very sweet. He asked me to prostitute myself for a few months as a way to go back to Romania with some money. Back home they needed the money, there were so many problems and I felt like it was my duty to resolve them. I did what he wanted and ended up in a pretty deep hole. I was convinced I would never be able to get out again."

But Nicole did manage to free herself. She understood the trap, unmasked the jailer dressed as lover. On Jan. 3 of this year she returned to Romania, got to hug her children again, and now she lives with them. She works as she can, but she is master of her own life.

"I don't ask for more," she concludes.

Sold by their mothers or simply victims of a vile deception, every year thousands of Romanian girls end up in the lover boy's trap. The numbers are climbing steadily, and it's no longer just Romanians.

The girls who have the strength to free themselves are just a drop compared to the sea of those who remain.

There are also Italian girls, courtesy of a recruitment and exploitation system that evades law enforcement controls.

In the eyes of the law and the statisticians, they are simply prostitutes, and those who use them risk, at most, a conviction for exploitation of prostitution, or two years of jail, which becomes 16 months under the sentence reduction provisions in the Italian penal code.

For those seeking to stymie the growth of this phenomenon, the challenge is to make it understood that these girls are trafficking victims — slaves like the Nigerian prostitutes. They are forced and blackmailed. They're prisoners. The people who control them are thus guilty of a far more serious crime, one that's punishable by between six and 12 years behind bars.

The prisoners of these lover boys are right under the noses of whoever passes through the streets of prostitution, and yet they are invisible. According to data from the Department of Equal Opportunity, the number of trafficking victims who have gained entry to assistance programs from social services, and who are minors of Romanian origin, stands at just 23. They represent 2.8% of the total, a blip of a statistic, irrelevant, and above all unreal.

The girls who have the strength to free themselves from their traffickers are just a drop compared to the sea of those who remain.

This is true for Nigerian women: just 660 show up in data as having entered official assistance programs, and of these, eight out of 10 have succeeding in breaking with their past. But it's even more true for Romanian women. In a single evening, the nonprofit Save the Children came into contact with 729 Romanian underage trafficking victims on the streets of five Italian regions, according to the 2019 report titled Small Invisible Slaves.

"All you have to do is know how to count," says Michelangela Barba, president of the Ebano organization, which provides assistance to victims of violence, prostitution, and trafficking, especially minors. "There are 20 regions. That would mean there are an average of 2,800 such women all over Italy, and that's just at night."

"You then have to take into consideration the minors that work the streets during the day, and all the others we don't come into contact with," Barba adds. "That quickly brings the number to 7,000. If you include in the count the Romanians working out of apartments, and the minors that are even more hidden, you get to about 12,000 minors."

"We know that minors represent a third of the total," the rights advocate explains. "That would mean there are 40,000 Romanian women and girls prostituting themselves at all ages. And that's an optimistic estimate — probably there are many more."

Ninety million a month

That figure more or less corresponds with the estimate calculated by The Pope John XXIII Community Association.

"The streets of our cities are 'the property' of the Albanian mafia which then, at a high price, leases them out for use by other national clans," says Father Aldo Buonaiuto, who works in the anti-trafficking service of the association founded by Father Oreste Benzi. "It's an inhuman market of violence and abuse: thousands of women forced to sell their bodies nonstop to keep up this bloody racket."

"Forced prostitution is a crime against humanity and the third-largest illegal business, after drugs and arms dealing," Buonaiuto adds.

There are 120,000 women who prostitute themselves on the streets and indoors. That's 3.5 million clients, and a business that grosses 90 million euros a month. After Nigerian girls, Romanians are the largest nationality present in street prostitution in Italy. On this, all the observers are in agreement.

According to Paolo Botti, founder of the nonprofit Friends of Lazarus, "It's the young age and the inexperience of Romanian minors that make them so vulnerable to manipulation by their exploiters: We are up against people who work alone or are affiliated with organizations that are always working on perfecting their methods of recruitment and control."

"The constant surveillance of the victims is carried out by male figures who monitor the area of exploitation," he adds. "But there is another component added to that of male control: eyes on the street, in the form of a girl or older woman whose job it is to report to the exploiter any absences or other failings of the girls on the street."

How to get out? Barba Michelangela thinks the answer lies in updating the definition of trafficking.

"We need to make life more difficult for the traffickers," she says. "We've presented proposed amendments to the law. We should no longer make entry into assistance programs conditional on the women's testifying and having to prove that they were forced into prostitution."

"Those who are dependent on drugs and seek help are never asked why it is they are dependent," Barba adds. "In the same way, we have to free women from the burden of proving their forced prostitution, otherwise the number who have the courage to come forward and accept help will be too few."

This, after all, is what the crime clans count on: terrorized silence.


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