A child is a child


A child is a child


© UNICEF/Gilbertson

Mary, 18, from Benin City in Nigeria, cries on a dormitory bed in the safe house where she now lives, on the outskirts of Taormina in Sicily.

Her name is Mary*. She’s from Benin City in Nigeria. When she was seventeen, Mary tried to escape a life with no prospects to work in a restaurant in Italy. Instead, she was set up to be trafficked into the sex industry.

Her story is a story that UNICEF has heard again and again.

It is a byproduct of a huge industry that has grown up in the shadows of stricter immigration rules and border closure throughout the world – people smuggling.

Today, millions of children find few opportunities to move safely. Yet barriers to legal migration do not stop children, they only push them underground. That’s why today tens of thousands of mostly unaccompanied children, like Mary, embark on dangerous and often life threatening travels, with many being trafficked and exploited.

This is what happened to her.


© UNICEF/Gilbertson

A room used by Nigerian prostitutes in the Ballaro district of Palermo, Sicily, Italy.

“A woman said she would help me and send me to Europe. She introduced me to a man, his name is Ben, who she said could help me. Ben said he knew people who had restaurants to put me to work in. For the moment, he said he would pay my expenses.

“The next day, he called me to his house. There were lots of boys and girls there. He said to all of us, if we made it to Europe, we each had to pay €25,000. Some people said no, but I said that was okay.

“Then he took us to a place where they do juju.” (Juju is an ancient Nigerian belief of the occult.)

“We had to swear to an old woman – a sorcerer – that we wouldn’t run. Then I left for Libya. That place is very, very bad. They treated us so bad. Everything Ben said, that we would be treated well and that we would be safe, it was all wrong. It was a lie.

“We were trapped first in Gharyan. For three months we were there, and a lot of the girls were raped. That man, Ben, took two of us girls one night. He gave the other girl to another man, and he said to me if I didn’t sleep with him he would not bring me to Europe. He raped me.

“From there we were taken to Sabratha, though everyone calls it “Seaside” because that’s where they push the girls off to Italy. The Libyan men, they come and if they see a boy, they make him work for them. If they see a girl, they rape her. I wanted to get away but I couldn’t – I had no money, no phone. I didn’t even know where I was to escape to.

“We went to sea and we were rescued by the Italian coast guard. I was friends with a girl who was making the journey for a second time.

She told me we were going to be used as prostitutes, and that I should not talk to the madams and that I had to stay inside the camp the Italians would put us in. I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to work with my body, I don’t want to sell it.’

“When we arrived on shore, a white woman, Gilda, who was a lawyer, talked to me. I told her I owed a man named Ben money. I was taken from the camp and put into a safe house.

“Now the people who paid for my trip are saying to my mother it’s time for money. Two weeks ago, they came to my mother’s place and handcuffed her. They took her to a house and threatened her. They said they would do something very bad to her if I don’t send money. Now when she calls me I don’t know what to say, so I have to shut my phone off. I’m so sad, under so much pressure, and I’m so tired. I don’t know what to do.

“I’m waiting for my documents, and then I can work and everyone says I have to be patient. And my mother has to be patient, but it’s hard.”

© UNICEF/Gilbertson

A chair used by prostitutes, predominantly from Nigeria, stands next to a state road, south of Catania, Italy. Criminal gangs and traffickers use areas like these to sell human beings.


© UNICEF/Gilbertson

A mattress used by prostitutes, predominantly from Nigeria, on a state road, south of Catania, Sicily, Italy.

According to an IOM survey, three-quarters of all unaccompanied children who arrive in Italy report they have suffered some form of trafficking. UNICEF and UN surveys in Libya and Somalia also report that families at home are subject to huge ransom demands for their children.

Today, Mary is living in a safe house for victims of sex trafficking run by the Penelope Association on the outskirts of Taormina, Sicily, Italy, not far from where leaders of the G7 are meeting.

On Thursday, UNICEF is releasing a major report that presents a global snapshot of the risks that refugee and migrant children face along their journeys.

It calls on the G7 countries meeting in Sicily to come up with plans to protect children on the move. It should be based on six principles.

  1. Protect child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence.
  2. End the detention of children seeking refugee status or migrating by finding practical alternatives.
  3. Keep families together as the best way to protect children and give children legal status.
  4. Keep all refugee and migrant children learning and give them access to health and other quality services.
  5. Press for action on the underlying causes of large-scale movements of refugees and migrants.
  6. Promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination, and marginalization in countries of transit and destination

* Not her real name

Justin Forsyth is the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF