CASTEL VOLTURNO, Italy, Oct 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - O nce a holiday dream for middle-class Italians, Castel Volturno is now a dilapidated seaside nightmare where Nigerians open their homes to migrants wanting cold beer and quick sex.
Called “connection houses”, the rundown coastal homes serve as bedroom, bar and brothel to a migrant population with nowhere better to go.
“I do what my fellow girls do here,” said Grace, a 26-year-old Nigerian who did not want to give her real name.
“I don’t like it, but it’s what to do. I have no choice. No job, and nobody to talk to or run to for help.” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside a house where she sells sex.
A seafront sprawl 30 miles (48 km) north of Naples, the ramshackle town began life in the Etruscan age - before the Roman empire - and was a popular summer playground for Neapolitans during the 1970s.
In 1980, its fortunes fell when it became an emergency shelter after an earthquake left 250,000 locals homeless and the government commandeered local accommodation to fill the gap.
As tourists deserted, the economy crumbled, along with the impressive villas and commanding apartment blocks that now play home to African migrants and those without many better choices.
“We have about 30,000 rooms that were built illegally and are now abandoned,” local mayor Dimitri Russo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, explaining how irregular construction ramped up in the 1970s to cover the 27 km of coast with new housing.
Russo said many homes lacked the most basic infrastructures, such as sewage, and were not fit for human habitation.
That has not deterred its newest residents, many of them migrants who washed up on Italy’s shores after fleeing conflict, poverty or hunger in Africa, hoping for a fresh start in Europe.
In the dark, unpaved road that crosses the main Antonio Gramsci street, a tiny light highlighted a woman smoking under the porch of a low house. Squeezed into a radiant, green dress, Lovette welcomed all comers - she is the landlady here.
Inside, a group of six African men sat round a table strewn with empty bottles. One man gently braided a young Nigerian woman’s hair with white filaments. On the side of the dining room, a huge Dumbo stuffed toy lay on an empty bed.
Some of the men just wanted a drink, a gossip and a smoke; others stopped by to pay women like Grace 15-20 ($20) for sex.
While her hair was combed rhythmically through, Grace sat riveted before a TV series broadcast by a Nigerian channel, ROK.
Her new life in Europe was not meant to be like this.
A native of oil-rich farming Delta State in Nigeria, Grace landed in Italy a year ago, dreaming of a proper education.
After staying in an immigration centre in Turin and then in Rome, she lost her identity card. Along with many undocumented and unemployed migrants, Grace ended up in Castel Volturno.
“All the girls owe money to the criminal organisation that brought them here,” said Andrea Morniroli, who works for the non-profit Dedalus, a Naples-based organisation trying to combat human trafficking in the region.
Connection houses - common along human trafficking routes in Africa, though new to Italy - have made his task harder.
“Nigerian prostitution is moving indoor(s) because the road has become too dangerous for them,” Morniroli told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “And this represents a hurdle for us, as intercepting the girls becomes harder.”
In 2016, 11,000 Nigerian women arrived on Italian shores. The number halved in 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration, estimating that eight in 10 of the women might be victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
The first real wave of Africans came in the 1980s. Working in local tomato fields, they found huge, cheap houses to rent.
Over the years, the city attracted a population of migrants who found themselves up against a wall: those who were denied papers, had lost their jobs, or could find no stable occupation.
Castel Volturno also drew impoverished Italians, unable to make ends meet in the outskirts of the nearby cities.
According to the civil registry, some 26,300 dwellers are registered in Castel Volturno, of whom 4,300 are not Italian.
The town is home to a pan-African population of 2,595 residents and, to a smaller Eastern European community composed mostly of Ukrainians, Poles and Romanians.
But mayor Russo said the real population stands at almost twice that, among them 15,000 unregistered migrants.
Some have just docked after a dangerous sea voyage, others have lived in Italy for years, he said.
For many, it is a comforting taste of Africa for those far from home, where the food, talk and feel are all familiar.
But Nigerian criminal gangs have taken root, too.
“The consistent presence of a migrant population, both regular as well as irregular, together with the weakness of the rule of law and the central state, turned Castel Volturno into a hub for women trafficking,” said Morniroli.
“I was on those streets for almost two years,” said Promise, a 34-year-old who did not want her real name used.
Now a married mother of two, Promise said she was lured to Italy by a Nigerian woman who went to her village in Edo state promising a job in her tailor shop.
Promise said she managed to escape and sought help in Casa Rut, a shelter run by nuns for trafficked victims in Caserta, just inland from Naples.
It took Promise two years to get over the ordeal; she said her recovery began the day she left Castel Volturno.
“If you want a different life, you cannot stay among them,” she said. “My fellow countrymen and women have always tried to persuade me that I should endure without rebelling.”
One of the nuns who runs the Caserta centre said the fact that Castel Volturno had become a community of exiles, withdrawn from regular life, meant it was easier to exploit its women.
“We bring them out of that environment, and prompt the dialogue with other cultures,” sister Rita Giaretta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Otherwise, their only way out of prostitution is either to find a husband or to become a torturer themselves.
Nor is the trend encouraging, with ever more connection houses opening up, offering sex along with beers and company.
When Promise arrived on the street, there were few such connection houses. “But today, they are everywhere,” she said.
And their function has become integral to the wider community, said Morniroli, of the Naples NGO.
“They are becoming popular because they mix prostitution with food, drinks, and dancing,” said Morniroli, “and they hide the problem too, so they don’t annoy the public moral.”
The mayor disagreed, saying some alleged connection houses were just informal restaurants and bars set up at home by African women to make ends meet.
Rose said hers was a case in point.
As men chilled in the breeze washing over her balcony, the 27-year-old hostess carried out bowls of traditional Nigerian Okoro soup and bottles of ice-cold beer.
“Back in Benin I used to help my mother cooking, so I decided to set up a bar,” Rose said of her Nigerian homelife.
She said a madame had trafficked her to France four years ago, but she had quit prostitution when she opened up her house.
“My future is business,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Over the terrace, a young girl flirted with a newcomer. But Rose insisted that nobody sold sex in her place.
“It’s only me. And I don’t need it.” ($1 = 0.8698 euros) (Reporting by Michele Bertelli, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)