05/17/2017 04:43 EDT | Updated 05/17/2017 04:43 EDT

A Child Is A Child: One Girl's Perilous Journey To Safety


Her name is Mary (name changed). 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 we have 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 tens of thousands of mostly unaccompanied children are deliberately tricked and trafficked into slavery by people smugglers.

On Friday UNICEF is releasing a major report linking trafficking to smuggling and calling on the G7 countries meeting in Sicily to come up with plans to protect migrant children from the people predators.

Mary's story reveals how the smugglers exploit children and their families.

"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 Italian's 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."

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.

The plight of children, like Mary, can't being ignored any longer. Children on the move are children first and foremost. UNICEF is asking Governments to forge global agreement on how to protect children, particularly unaccompanied children against exploitation and violence as they move, no matter where they are. 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

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