A hard-hitting photo series digs beneath the surface of sex trafficking in Europe to uncover the grim reality of daily life for hundreds of women caught in a vicious circle of prostitution and abuse.
Photographer Elena Perlino began documenting the plight of women who are trafficked between Nigeria and Italy in 2005, after noticing an increase of young African women working on the streets when she was commuting through the Italian city of Turin.
Nigeria is among the top eight countries with the highest human trafficking rates in the world, according to research by the United Nations.
ABOVE: Turin 2006. Waiting for a client in the countryside during the winter season. Photo: Elena Perlino/Rex Features
The majority of the women come from Benin City in south Nigeria.
Many of them travel to Italy hoping to make enough money to support their families back home, but often they get trapped or tricked by traffickers into working in the sex trade and are caught up in a nightmare of sexual exploitation, violence and desolation.
ABOVE: Turin 2012. A shelter for trafficked women who entered the Protection Program run by the Italian State. Photo: Elena Perlino/Rex Features
Traffickers demand on average more than 50,000 euros (£40,000) for travel expenses and accommodation, with the women having to work as prostitutes until their debts are paid off.
Elena's photos lay clear the reality of these women's lives as they wait on derelict streets for customers, mourn their friends who have been killed or are taken off in handcuffs to be held in detention centres while the authorities decide their fate.
ABOVE: Palermo 2012. Isoke Aikpitanyi cries on the spot where Favour Adekunle (21 years old) was working, before she was killed. Photo: Elena Perlino/Rex Features
"I was really interested to show the effects of a phenomenon that affects thousands of people in Italy and Europe every year," she said. "The Nigerian women I met showed me a strength that I didn't expect to see. Even though their lives are really tough, they still manage to see the beauty you can find in it.
"I wanted to show something that is just there, in front of our eyes, every day. I felt very close to the women I photographed: they were strong, passionate and scared. I was not there to judge their lives."
ABOVE: Turin 2012. A Nigerian woman, working as a prostitute in the countryside, is taken to a police station because she was found without a passport. Photo: Elena Perlino/Rex Features
The photographer has since worked extensively with women's organisations across Italy in a bid to help the trafficked women and rescue them from their awful plight.
She says that, above all, she wants to raise awareness of the issue of sex trafficking and the economic conditions behind it.
ABOVE: Turin 2006. A woman waiting for a client in the summer season. Photo: Elena Perlino/Rex Features
"I hope people discover the economic reasons that makes entire families in Nigeria send their women abroad in hope of a better future," she said.
ABOVE: Turin 2007. Nigerian women working as prostitutes in the North area of the city. Photo: Elena Perlino/Rex Features
"When I started to take pictures in 2005 I was interested in showing Nigerian women and their relationship with the natural environment they were in," she added.
"Then things changed and I decided it was important to enter their world, and show the different sides of their lives. The contradiction of the hard conditions they face, but also the fragments of normality for women that are only twenty years old."
Turin 2006: A Nigerian trafficked woman waiting for clients in the outskirt of Turin. Photo: Elena Perlino/Rex Features
As Claudio Magnabosco (journalist, communications expert and former official of the European Parliament) puts it:
"The women are still coming: they are younger than ever and arrive here with massive debts to pay off. They are forced into prostitution and are now increasingly reinventing themselves as madams or working for the traffickers, also trafficking men, children for adoptions and organs and drug dealing.
"These are the activities of the powerful Nigerian mafia, which is also involved in arms dealing. What has changed is that the madams are now less violent towards the girls, having understood that if they mistreat them the girls run away: the girls forced into the sex industry now get to keep a little of the money they earn and this makes their lives a little bit more tolerable. As they cannot find a real way out, they get used to life as prostitutes and prostitution becomes their only source of income."
The thought-provoking photo series, titled Pipeline, is to be featured in a new book. Find out more on Elena Perlino's website here.
Words: Anna Brech