Difficulties and Successful Practices in Facilitating a New Life for Persons Trafficked to Italy

Giovanni Paolo Ramonda, President of the Community of Pope John XXIII 

Paper presented at

The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences
Human Trafficking: Issues Beyond Criminalization

17 – 21 April, 2015
Casina Pio IV, Vatican City

1. Community of Pope John XXIII

Thank you very much for calling us to discuss this issue.

The Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII Association was founded by Father Oreste Benzi, a Catholic Priest, in Italy in the early 70s. On March 25th 2004, the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, the Pontifical Council for the Laity confirmed the recognition of the Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII Association as a private international association of the faithful according to pontifical law, with juridical personality. Its specific mission is to directly share life with the least and to remove the causes that generate injustice. We are known for our Family Home, residential and educational community, organised like a natural family. It is characterized by the stable presence of two parental figures – mother and father – who chose to share their life in a continuous and self-giving way with people in need. The deep intuition is simple: the family is the most important relational system. All people have the right to belong to a family. Then we give a family to those without one.

In 2006 the Association Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII was granted Special Consultative Status within the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations. Today the Association is present in 32 countries on five continents. In order to respond to the needs of the poorest of the poor, the Community of Pope John XXIII is continuously looking for new ways to directly share life. This is one of the reasons for the growth and spreading of the Community in the world.

Among the different activities of the Community, there is the constant work for the liberation of victims of trafficking and forced prostitution.

2. The commitment against trafficking in human beings

In 1989 Father Oreste Benzi met a prostitute at Rimini railway station: this meeting revealed to him the horror of prostitution and the state of oppression hidden behind it. During the night, the streets of the town were overcrowded with girls who prostituted themselves. The phenomenon was growing dramatically, without any kind of intervention, as it was considered just another tourist attraction.

When Father Oreste Benzi went on the streets to meet the girls, he would ask them: “Do you love Jesus? Yes! You are the temple of God!” In few words he saw their profound dignity. Thanks to these meetings, among prayer and tears, our unceasing work for the liberation of the slaves started up. In 25 years we have freed more than 7,000 persons from sexual slavery. Central and local government co-finance only about 10% of the amount we spend every year.

Italy is considered both a country of destination and transit. It is estimated that in Italy there are about 120,000 victims of forced prostitution. The majority of the phenomenon is on the road (65%), but indoor prostitution is also relevant (apartments, nightclubs or massage clubs). It is also estimated that 37% of the victims are children. Victims of trafficking mainly come from Nigeria, Romania, East European countries, South America and China.

3. The model of intervention

Our model of intervention operates in three steps:

  1. Emergency (street outreach)
  2. First welcoming
  3. Rehabilitation

First of all we try to free women who prostitute themselves. We operate through street outreach teams. These are small teams (3-4 persons, with at least one woman) who go on the streets, at night, in order to meet as many women forced into prostitution as possible and to propose to them to exit from the oppression they are living. At the moment we have 21 teams, with about one hundred volunteers, going on the road, every week, throughout Italy, from South to North. Street teams usually operate once a week. The way we operate is very simple. We introduce ourselves and explain what we do in order to found a good relationship with the girls. We try to share their sufferings so that they can have their dignity back. Dignity comes from relationship. This is the reason why we stop to simply talk with them face to face, a person and a person. We stay with them on trafficked streets full of people watching them or on dark dangerous roads at the margin of the cities. Then we explain to them that they have the chance to change their situation of slavery. The aim is always to offer them our help for a path of liberation. We leave a phone number (free line) in order to remain in touch. Through street outreach teams we also monitor the overall situation of this social phenomenon. We try to keep a relationship with the people previously contacted. The victims rarely decide to escape from slavery when first contacted. More frequently they decide to leave the road only after the establishment of a relationship of trust with our volunteers. I will say this again: our aim is to free the victims. It has nothing to do with harm reduction: condom delivery, medical check-up, abortion. Unfortunately we observe that many organizations in emergency work only try to alleviate the state of oppression of the victims. But they do not work to eliminate it.

Secondly, women who decide to exit from prostitution are welcomed in our family homes. We have about 300 family homes and 5 shelters, spread throughout Italy. Therefore it is simple to welcome victims of sexual slavery far from their place of prostitution for safety reasons. In fact, pimps strictly control their victims. During our street outreach work women's mobiles often ring. When a victim is welcomed in our protection program, her pimp starts to look for her. We try to meet their primary needs (medical, psychological, legal assistance, etc.). We also work in order to obtain a special humanitarian residence permit (through art. 18, Italian Law 286/1998).

We always ensure a family context. Family homes welcome children, disabled people, the elderly and other marginalized people. The family is the most important relational system. It responds to our natural need for relationship. Through this relationship we restore confidence. Through this confidence we restore self-esteem. Then, in a family context we give back dignity to victims of human trafficking. The dignity that was stolen.

We provide educational and training opportunities too, so that they can become independent and start a new life. When the person has achieved a good degree of economic empowerment, she is ready to start a new life. We do not abandon them at this point, but we keep in touch with them (follow-up). This is crucial: victims of trafficking are vulnerable. For this reason they need a support network even after they have started a new life. Our family homes network often represents this kind of help. A rehabilitation program lasts 12-18 months.

Finally, we must say that sometimes we meet women who have suffered so much abuse and trauma that re-starting a new life is not possible. This happens when psychological or physical traumas are permanent. In these cases we guarantee them a lifelong welcome in our families.

4. Achievements

In 2014 we had 21 outreach teams all over Italy with almost a hundred volunteers. We had around 10,000 contacts with 3,500 victims of human trafficking. We offered each one the chance of instant freedom and the possibility to report their exploiters. We welcomed 200 survivors and 25 children with them. The majority of the victims are women, some were underage; men make up 25% of the total and we welcomed some transsexual persons too. During last year we completed 63 social reintegration programs and four repatriations. In 25 years the Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII has assisted around 7,000 survivors of human trafficking.

5. Difficulties

Some years ago there were high risks because of reprisals of the pimps. Fr. Oreste received several death threats for his commitment. Today, thanks to police forces too, these risks have been reduced. However, freeing women from a state of slavery is still a hard task.

For example, with Nigerian women, we face considerable difficulties in obtaining their documents, which is the first step to build a new autonomous life in Italy. In fact, when Nigerian women arrive in Europe, they usually have fake documents, so the Nigerian Embassy rejects the request for a new passport. Without a passport you cannot obtain a residence permit. Without a residence permit you cannot have a future in Italy. Moreover, unfortunately, within this community there is a widespread belief in voodoo. The threat of voodoo practices is an effective deterrent for any woman who thinks of escaping prostitution.

Eastern European pimps have changed their attitude towards women. Their previously violent attitude has now become a slyer kind of exploitation. Pimps give a share of their earnings to the girls, so that they are induced to think that they take part in the game, that it is a good job. In this way identifying the victims is more challenging. But they are always victims. We have to remember that many Eastern European countries, such as Romania, come from communist regimes. Here we find widespread poverty and high rates of intra-familial violence. Poverty and violence make women vulnerable. A lot of women have children in their home country, and they are the only breadwinners of the family. Furthermore, they do not need residence permits because they are European citizens. They often decide to stop prostituting themselves only when they are exhausted after many years on the street. We observed an upturn in victims coming from Albania, who can easily move to Italy because of the candidate status granted by the European Union.

We estimate that indoor prostitution in Italy is around 35% of the total. In this case the women mainly come from South America and the Far East. The women we have met in many cases have suffered child abuse. The Chinese racket is well organised: the girls do not have a direct contact with their clients, but there is a middle man (or a middle woman), and the Chinese women, who often work in shady wellness centres, do not speak any language except Chinese, so contacting them is quite hard work. Bringing indoor prostitution to the surface presents different problems: we need to examine sexual ads and pretend to be clients in order to contact the women. It involves a greater risk, especially for volunteers. However, if the clients can reach them, so can we.

These are the common elements that we have noticed in all the different kinds of forced prostitution mentioned above:

– The girls are younger and younger: average age is 18-20 and often they are underage. 
This fact meets a specific request of the clients who look for teenage girls, and then trespass into paedophilia. There is an increasing number of cases in the news about child prostitution, also involving high ranking personalities. 

– The high turnover of people in prostitution. This has a double aim: it impedes the relationship of trust with volunteers/social workers mentioned above and so prevents the women from escaping. Often the girls just disappear after a few contacts with our volunteers. The second aim is to meet the clients’ requests for new “stuff”.

– An increase in the clients’ sexual deviance. In addition to the request for teenage girls 
we have observed another one: the request for pregnant women. A client is ready to pay four times as much. In general terms the client has a relationship of supremacy. 

– The traumas and sorrow suffered by the women. Many women make a decision to leave prostitution only when they can’t go on anymore. These people have suffered enormous traumas that we try to face in our family homes, also with the help of specialised psychologists. However some of them are so hurt that they will never totally 

– Lost dignity. These women have been offended, beaten, raped. They are ashamed of what they have done. Sure, everybody knows that. But we have observed a particular side to it: they often feel worthless, so they give up thinking they can be free. It’s a loss of hope. Their hope has been stolen. 

6. Advocacy work

We are aware that our commitment is a drop in the bucket. That’s why we strive to uproot the causes that produce this injustice. The world’s oldest injustice. Since the 90s Fr. Oreste knew that to stop the phenomenon we had to hit the exploiters and that there are two types of exploiters: the pimps and the clients. So the fight against criminals isn’t enough, we must tackle the demand. In 2003 our Association filed at the Chamber of Deputies a draft law of popular initiative which aimed at suppressing the demand through the legal punishment of the customer. In a few months our Association collected 110,000 signatures. That bill was never discussed by the Chamber. In October 2014 we held a conference at the Chamber of Deputies to endorse a new bill proposing the prohibition of prostitution through the punishment of the customer, which is now called the Nordic-Swedish model. This proposal recognizes the responsibility of the client in the enslavement of trafficking victims. Basically, if there were no clients, there would be no people forced into prostitution. We are aware that this is one of the key points for combating human trafficking, as already indicated since 2000 by the Palermo Protocols: “States Parties shall adopt (...) measures to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons that leads to trafficking” (art. 9, p. 5). Even Directive 2011/36/EU of the European Parliament recalls the above-mentioned sentence and states that “Member States shall consider taking measures to establish as a criminal offense the use of services which are the objects of exploitation”.

In Italy, public debate addresses prostitution mainly as a question of public order. Unfortunately, in the Italian Parliament there are too many law proposals that envisage the legal regulation of prostitution. Some biased parliamentarians believe that first of all they must protect women's self-determination: women's “free choicein prostituting themselves. In their idea, human trafficking is only a question of criminal prosecution of organized crime. Moreover, the idea of gaining in tax revenues from prostitution is enticing, especially in times of economic crisis. We see a mix of ignorance and hypocrisy. We are often called to bring our field-based experience. We always point out that legalized prostitution:

a) Fosters demand

b) Makes the identification of human trafficking victims more difficult

c) Does not facilitate prosecution of the pimps

d) Does not increase tax revenue

e) Does not reduce violence against women

f) Does not improve health safety

g) Increases social costs.

This is why we are trying to promote a public opinion movement to urge our leaders to adopt legislation based on the Swedish model. We know that the loud, clear support of the Italian Church is crucial to achieve this.

“The poor can’t wait” as Fr. Oreste Benzi used to say. He fought strongly for these girls’ freedom. We are confident that he continues to support the cause of these women and that their cry for freedom will finally be heard.

Thank you.


Human Trafficking: Issues Beyond Criminalization

Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences Plenary Session 17-21 April 2015 – There are two... Read more