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Passport Giveaway for Nigeria Women

September 13, 2000

ROME (AP) _ Baby-faced Nigerian women as young as their teens thronged their country’s visiting first lady for a one-time passport giveaway Tuesday, desperate for a legal new start after breaking from the sex-trafficking gangs that smuggled them into Europe.

``Now I can do anything!″ said Ufuoma Emesh, 23, kissing a green-bound passport fresh from the hands of Nigerian first lady Stella Obasanjo.

Several dozen women went away Tuesday with the documents, needed legally either to remain in Italy or to return home. That made them the lucky ones among tens of thousands of African and Eastern European illegal immigrants forced onto the streets of Italy alone _ part of what the United Nations estimates as a $3.5 billion human-trafficking trade yearly around the globe.

They also left with a scolding from Nigeria’s first lady, clearly embarrassed at the way the response to the passport giveaway highlighted Nigeria’s status as a leading exporter of prostitutes.

``It only takes a little effort to make a good living in Nigeria,″ the pompadoured first lady insisted at one stop.

It took ``cowardice and greed to leave for a position of quick profit″ abroad, Obasanjo said _ quickly adding that none of the neatly dressed young women before her had made that choice.

Her passport giveaway marked the state visit to Italy of her husband, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. She gave away passports at a Rome office of the Catholic charity Caritas and later at Nigeria’s embassy, where more than 100 women turned out.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country _ and for many of its 123 million people, poor beyond all hope of a way up, or out.

Agents of the pimp-rings in Nigeria offer girls as young as 14 escape in a job overseas _ girls like Rosemary Igbinadion, whose cheeks bear the ritual scars of her native Ado in Nigeria.

Rosemary ran away from a mother at home who beat her, only to fall into the hands of strangers who promised her a job mopping floors and washing clothes abroad. She wound up at one of Italy’s roadside prostitution stops instead.

``These girls dream of immigration. A good share of them really believe they’ll have jobs when they get here,″ said Pino Gulia of Caritas. ``Even for those who suspect, or who know, otherwise, they never dream of the violence involved.″

Nigeria’s first lady said she learned Tuesday of women crippled by being thrown from buildings when they balked at hitting the streets. Others were locked in cupboards; almost all were beaten.

``We try to look happy and smile while we wait, but inside we are dead people walking,″ said Faith Atamewan, an ex-prostitute who just turned 20.

Smugglers provide fake passports to get the women into Europe but immediately recover them to use for the next batch.

On Tuesday, clerics urged Nigeria to at least cut the standard passport processing fee of $500 to $65 and ease what can be years-long waits.

``They escaped from the criminals, who are trying to get them again, for punishment,″ said the Rev. Oreste Benzi, who brought more than 50 Nigerian women from the Adriatic resort town of Rimini for the giveaway.

``If they had passports they could get a nice job and send money to their families _ but they can’t,″ Benzi said. ``They escape from the street, and they are forced by the authorities, practically, to go back on the street.″

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