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It's late at night in Naples, a southern Italian city known for its faded Renaissance beauty, its pizza, its clear-blue sea and its splendid views of nearby volcanos. But most of the young women who arrive here daily from Africa and Eastern Europe -- Nigeria, Albania, Romania, Russia, Libya and the ex-Yugoslavia -- see only a small stretch of its streets, and know Naples only as a seamy town of small-time criminals, racketeers and prostitutes.
Like them. I'm cruising the roads near the train station in a van with a group of social workers who stop to offer the girls working the streets a little warmth, some coffee, medical advice, condoms and a ready ear to listen to their problems.
When we slow down to approach the girls -- most in their early 20s -- some wave us away, fearfully. Others are glad to see us, grateful for a place to sit and have a cappuccino and a chat. Giusi Coppola, one of the social workers, explains that while some of the women we pass are working for themselves, to send money back home to their families and children, others are virtually slaves or indentured servants, trying to pay back a huge debt they owe for the dream of coming to Italy.
Most of the girls we talk to -- a group of Libyans, a dark-haired Romanian with a scarred face, a young mother from the Ukraine -- didn't come here to be prostitutes. They thought they were coming to Italy to make money working in a hair salon, a bar, or as an au pair. But the people who made those promises and smuggled them into the country took away their passports and forced them to work the streets instead.
The immigrants, most who barely speak Italian, usually work hour shifts, engaging in quick sexual encounters in clients' cars or behind bushes by the road. Most have pimps who monitor their every move by cellphone. Some are brought to their places on the streets blindfolded, so they won't know the route home in case they try to escape.