In Naples, with its precariousness and its hardships, immigrants can go almost unnoticed
Catherine Cornet - 22/06/2007
Catherine Cornet: How did the Dedalus social collective come to start the Gatta project?
Nunzia Cipolla: The project was born and financed after Italy’s adoption of Article 18, which deals with immigration and, in particular, with immigrants who are victims of exploitation, slavery and trafficking. The project specifically targets women from outside the European Union, but in the field you find they aren’t the only ones who have been trafficked. Today, and particularly since the enlargement of the EU, many of these women are European. I’m thinking of Romanians, for example.
Where do the prostitutes that you approach come from?
We have 300 female users in the city of Naples. Half of them are Nigerians, followed by women from the East: Albania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine. But we also work with male prostitutes, young men who are minors or just past legal age, and who generally come from Bulgaria, Poland, Romania (particularly the Roma), and some boys from North Africa.
What are the various kinds of migrant experiences? Have the women been here long? Is prostitution their primary activity?
In fact the migrant experience is very heterogeneous. Some came through trafficking and were brought here by force or deception. Ten years ago, it was more probable that they were deceived; that was the case for 90 percent of women. Today we find this ingenuousness among women who come from villages or rural areas and who really think they’re going to come be office workers or cleaning women. The routes are all very different.
What is the link between prostitution and the procurers? How do they maintain their hold on the women?
Nigerian women, to pay for their journey, contract huge debts that are paid partly by the family by selling a piece of land or a house. The debt is usually around 25,000 or 30,000 Euros. The women are held responsible for repaying that debt, which they owe to the organization that brought them here (and takes care of absolutely everything), through a sort of notarized deed supported by a voodoo pact with the ‘Madam.’ They believe very strongly in voodoo and think that if they don’t respect this agreement, something terrible will happen to their families and loved ones.
The women from the East have very different migrant experiences. They are often deceived by their fiancés or by their own families. And in this case they suffer horrific physical and psychological violence. They’re beaten and raped until they’ve lost any sense of self-worth. It also happens that they’re aware of what they’re coming to do in Italy, but they’re convinced they’ll be able to do it according to their own rules. . . . Then they’re contacted by the gangs and all their hopes of independence are crushed.
Are there women who work autonomously?
Yes, some North African women are more autonomous and independent. They are, in general, much older than the others. We also meet young boys who prostitute themselves to survive because they’re discriminated against, like the Roma, for example, who in Italy are always considered “ugly, wicked and thieving.” The young North Africans prostitute themselves to buy things, like mobile phones.
Chinese immigration is still predominant in Naples. What contacts have you established there?
Chinese women are very difficult to contact and approach because they don’t prostitute themselves in the street but in apartments, like many South American women and transsexuals. For the moment, we’ve only succeeded in contacting them by phone, and not in making visits. It’s a world that’s difficult to gain access to.
How do the foreign prostitution rings interact with Neapolitan crime?
It doesn’t seem that the Camorra in Naples directly controls prostitution. But they do control the territory: the foreign gangs pay them a kind of rent for the activities that take place on their territory.
Is the goal of these women to stay in Italy after they have finished?
There too, the situation is very different for each woman. The North Africans, for example, are often adulteresses or widows, who had a very difficult situation in their own country. They can return for holidays but don’t feel as though they’re going home. The girls from the East, in contrast, want to earn enough money to go back home, and maybe start a business. In any case, yes, you can say that the dream of going home exists, even if in fact it’s not easy to achieve. When there isn’t a conflict in their home country it’s naturally easier, and it becomes imperative if they have children waiting for them at home.
Is Neapolitan immigration different compared to the rest of Italy?
You stay in Naples to get your papers in order. In Naples, with its precariousness and its difficulties, immigrants can go almost unnoticed. They blend in with the population because they face more or less the same difficulties as Neapolitans. In Naples, it’s certainly easier to survive than in more regulated cities like Turin or Milan. If you want to wander around the Piazza Garibaldi, for example, you’ll find Italian and Senegalese hawkers working side by side.
We often visit the morning markets where prostitutes are working. It’s interesting to see that in the midst of the market, among people selling vegetables or appliances, prostitutes are blending into these activities. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s real acceptance, but there’s definitely a certain tolerance linked to the fact that everyone works in the street. The solidarity is based on the principle that ‘we’re all from the street.’ The huge difficulties faced by people living on the margins create these ‘links of the street,’ this ‘street family,’ which is sustained day-to-day. If the police arrive, the prostitute tells the street vendor, and vice versa—the street vendor warns her if he sees something.
Are there many instances of racism in the city?
The Roma suffer much more racism than the other migrants. But we don’t work with racist incidents per se.
Is it possible to speak of cases where integration has worked?
It’s interesting to see that at the linguistic level, there is an extremely local integration. The migrants adopt the dialect of the neighborhood they live in. Sometimes they speak neither Italian nor even Neapolitan, but the dialect of Secondigliano or Capodimonte! But the transitory type of immigration that exists today doesn’t allow us to speak of real integration.