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The mafia and a Nigerian gang are targeting refugees in Sicily

They’ve fled violence, poverty, and terrorism – and made the often perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East. But for the more than 100,000 migrants who’ve arrived in Italy so far this year, the life that awaits them can be almost as dangerous as the one they left behind.

This is particularly true for economic migrants, who don’t have the same legal status as refugees, and aren’t given the same work permits or financial aid to help them survive. Barred from the legal workforce, and with few financial options, many are targeted by criminal gangs — supported by the Italian mafia — and thrust into a life of sex slavery and drug trafficking.


That’s what VICE News discovered after visiting Ballarò, a small market area, and traditional mafia stronghold near Palermo, Sicily, where the infamous Cosa Nostra mafia syndicate continues to wield power.

But the mob has started to share its territory with the Black Axe, a Nigerian criminal gang that slipped in amongst earlier waves of migrants, and established a lucrative drug smuggling and human trafficking network.

Far from wrestling for territorial control, the situation in Ballarò has become lucrative for the Mafia, who are in essence allowing the Black Axe to sell drugs here, providing they pay a pseudo-tax — known as a “pizzo” — to rent brothel space and sell drugs on their turf.

The situation has become so serious that Italian police have for the first time used powerful anti-Mafia laws against a non-traditional mafia organization — to speed up prosecutions of Black Axe members, and allow the courts to hand-down tougher prison sentences.

It’s an attempt to deter other gangs from pursuing similar means of exploitation in the country, while the Italian government continues to grapple with the influx of people to its shores. VICE News went to Sicily, to hear from migrants who’ve been caught in the crosshairs.

This segment originally aired Oct. 12, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.