Barba: “The laws against trafficking have been the same since slavery in America”

The president of the Associazione Ebano di Milano highlights the limits of Italian legislation against prostitution. Yet, she explains, it would take very little to solve the problem once and for all.


“The situation for victims of trafficking is tragic. To finance my project, I had to use my own money. At this moment, we are taking care of 19 people including women and children who, if it had been left to the State, would have been living under a bridge.” Educator Michelangela Barba is the president of the Associazione Ebano di Milano, which supports former female prostitutes as they come off the streets.  The association was initially part of the anti-trafficking platform but, according to Barba, because of its limited scope to help the victims of prostitution Ebano were encouraged to invent a unique and independent assistance service.

Why did you choose to leave the anti-trafficking?

“Because in Italy there is a big discrepancy between the legal protection offered to women recognized as victims of trafficking and all other victims. If you are recognized as a victim of trafficking, the perpetrators will have much harsher sentences and you will also have a right to compensation, as well as receiving social assistance. Whereas if you are considered a voluntary prostitute, then you are only entitled to free tests for sexually transmitted diseases.”

And how does the law identify voluntary prostitutes?

“The law does not identify voluntary prostitutes, but enslavement. So, a woman must prove that the trafficker has taken away her ability to move freely, to use a phone, documents, house keys. If she can prove it, then she is granted aid. For example, it is easier for Nigerian women to be recognised as victims of trafficking than Romanian women, as they are EU citizens and have freedom of residence.”

What other criteria must a survivor of trafficking meet to be recognized as such?

‘The case must fall within those defined in Articles 600 et seq. of the Criminal Code: the first relates to enslavement. If the victim cannot prove enslavement, then there is no crime. Unless he can prove that the trafficker forced them into prostitution or that he managed their money. In that case, it is considered a crime under Article 3 of the Merlin Law.”

What’s the Merlin Law?

“The Merlin Law punishes the exploitation of prostitution, as a crime against morality. If the trafficker used violence but didn’t restrict their movements, then it is considered to be aggravated exploitation of prostitution. As this is a less serious crime than trafficking, it means that it has a shorter statute of limitations, the victim does not have unrestricted access to legal aid. In addition, access to benefits for those found guilty of this crime is also limited and there is no limitation of political asylum for an overseas perpetrator, and so on. If you want to have greater protection, you have to prove enslavement, but if you had the keys to the house then you can say goodbye to the protections of Article 600.”

Why does the Criminal Code not provide for this?

“Because the legislator created these regulations only by reformulating some pre-existing laws in the Rocco code, which referred to the slave trade from Africa to America.”

Are you telling us that the laws we use against trafficking go back two centuries?

Yes, those laws were designed for the slave trade of the 1800s. They were taken from there, and let’s say that until the beginning of this century they were enough, because the first methods of exploitation of prostitution were very violent methods, like those we read about in the newspapers, such as the famous case of Adelina, kidnapped in Albania and raped and beaten in the street. The problem is that we have never recognized how the techniques of trafficking have changed. Because since Romania joined the European Union and free movement has become easier, the most used technique is the lover boy technique.”

What is it?

It’s a psychological technique that I call the perfect crime because there are no consequences for those who use it. All the trafficker has to do is to identify a rather fragile underage girl, preferably an orphan, pretend to be in love with her, create a bond, take her to a foreign country and force her into prostitution, first with emotional blackmail and then also with physical force.”

And in this case, are there no penalties?

You can do a maximum of 10 months in prison, a penalty that can be served under house arrest. The phenomenon of trafficking is also expanding to the detriment of Italian women because Italian men have also begun to exploit this loophole. They discovered that there’s a better way than selling drugs to earn a lot of money, immediately and without risk.”

And at European level, has nothing been done?

A 2016 European recommendation called on member states to respond to the issue of the lover boy. From an evidential point of view, it is extremely difficult to understand how to prove someone is a victim of “lover boy” and the jurisprudence, alas, hasn’t arrived yet. For this reason alone, as Associazione Ebano di Milano, we deal with these unrecognized victims and we are very much in favour of the approval in our country of the Nordic or abolitionist model.”

The Nordic model that says the customer should be fined or arrested.

And that’s not all. What interests us most is the help given to all women to escape from prostitution without discerning how they got there, because this is sacrosanct and it solves the problem at the root. So, women will no longer have to prove that they have suffered violence or exploitation (a bit like women who reported rape) to receive help. Just because they are in this situation, they have the right to get out of it, period.”

A bit like what happens in the SERD, the Regional Services for Addiction.

That’s right. Because no one asks an addict who wants to stop for details about how he started his addiction, no one asks him to pass a suitability test to access help. It’s automatic. We simply ask that the same mechanism be applied to former female prostitutes without raising a series of distinctions that achieve nothing except torture the victims.”

Was it easy for your association to receive funds or the attention of public institutions?

No, not at all. For years I went back and forth with public administrations, trying to find someone to talk to, to discuss the lover boy problem because no one knew about it. At one point, together with an Ebano volunteer, the criminal lawyer Rita Riccardelli, we wrote a statement on the issue of the non-application of the Merlin law and took it to the Italian office at the European Parliament. After four months, we were contacted by the Senate of the Republic and I went to speak in various committees as a technical member.”

In the Senate, what decisions have been made?

We contributed to a commission headed by Senator Maiorino in the aftermath of the constitutional court ruling that confirmed the constitutionality of the Merlin Law. This committee voted for and approved a report in favour of the Nordic model and mentioned for the first time the lover boy technique. And this result was possible thanks to every single piece brought by diverse parties: we went to the commission, feminist resistance went there, Adelina went there and we all brought home the result. We made our mark in the state papers.”

Translated by Adam Clark

Photo: Flickr