Once 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.
MY HOME IS MY BROTHEL
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 (R300) 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.