ROME — The soup kitchen and homeless squat in the back corner of Rome’s Termini station is probably the last place most people would consider when looking for a potential spouse, especially during the hot summer months when the smell of diesel fuel from the trains is a welcome respite from the heavy stench of sweat and urine.
But those running an enterprising new trafficking ring have devised a way to couple the desperation of two groups of people: Italians living in dire conditions in their own country and those trying to get to Italy to escape equally dismal conditions in theirs.
That lack of hope is exactly what the new so-called “marriage traffickers” are cashing in on. In a scam that was uncovered by Rome’s anti-terrorism forces and first reported by ANSA news agency last weekend, an Egyptian-based group has apparently been combing Roman homeless shelters for desperate and single Italians who are willing to marry for money.
The brides-(and some grooms)-to-be are paid up to €4,000 ($4,500) to exchange vows with would-be migrants who can’t enter the country legally—sometimes because of past criminal records or because they are on international terrorist lists.
The homeless shelters for downwardly mobile Italians are separate from those catering to incoming refugees and migrants, which are funded by non-governmental organizations like Save the Children and Caritas. But the biggest difference is that in the shelters, the refugees all generally still have hope while the impoverished Italians have often long given up. That separation effectively allows the traffickers to find easier targets among the destitute.
“These are people who really have nothing left to lose,” says volunteer Francesca Moretti, as she hands out cold pasta and water to a row of middle-aged Italian women trying to cool off on the concrete floors. “This is rock bottom, which makes them easy targets.”
Once the future spouses agree to marry, they are cleaned up and flown to Cairo where they take part in either Catholic or Coptic Orthodox Christian ceremonies that are recognized as legal marriages by the Italian state. Then, reportedly with the help of complicit bureaucrats on both the Italian and Egyptian contingents, they register the faux nuptials with the Italian embassy in Cairo, which paves the way for an Italian residency permit and, eventually, full Italian citizenship. Then, once the foreign spouses get to Italy, the unloving couples legally divorce—a process that often takes years in Italy but is far speedier in Egypt, where the marriages are also registered.
After the story broke, The Daily Beast searched out would-be-brides in the homeless haunts of Termini station to no avail, but several women told us they had been approached by traffickers who wanted to buy everything from their organs to their identities. “I’ve heard of women being sold into marriage in the Middle East,” Caterina, an aging homeless woman, told The Daily Beast. “But all they ever want from me is my identity card which they will buy for €500. I’m holding out until they pay me €1,000 because I need the [identification] card in case I get sick.”
When reached for comment, the Italian embassy in Cairo told The Daily Beast that they have no jurisdiction to do background checks on people applying to register their marriages, but assuredly, they say, to be granted full citizenship requires extensive checks so there is little long-term worry even if the marriages are registered legally. The Italian foreign ministry also pointed us to a website that clearly states that becoming Italian takes more than saying, “I do.”
Still, the ANSA report is backed by multiple interviews with local traffickers who say they’ve set up dozens of marriages between desperate Italians and undesirable would-be migrants who have then successfully entered the country legally. In at least two cases, the new husbands came by smuggler ship because they risked being caught on the border because their names were associated with radical Islam movements. There seems to be no cross-checking system in place once a document is issued in Cairo, nor is there a system in place that allows for cross-referencing those who have legal documents with those who should not.
ANSA also quoted several spouses including one identified as “S” who claims to be waiting for her third clandestine marriage. One of her marriages, according to ANSA, was to an African man in Egypt, for which she says she was paid a total of €9,000 to cover her travel expenses and her trouble. She met her would-be husband in Cairo, where she stayed for several weeks until the paperwork was finalized. She only saw the man she married on the day of the ceremony. They have since legally divorced. Now, she says, she has agreed to marry again but she will insist on what is now a standard €1,000 cash up front, which she says she needs to help pay for the expenses of her 2-year-old child.
Another of the spouses-for-hire interviewed by ANSA was a woman identified as “P” whose first faux vows for hire were to a Brazilian transsexual in Rome, and her second were to an African man who fathered her child, who she says she married “for free” so he could stay in Rome. Now, she told ANSA, she is waiting for €1,000 cash and a ticket to Cairo, where she will marry again, though this time she is using a new “broker” who married an Eritrean woman in Iran and who is apparently highly recommended, according to the ANSA investigation. “I do not work and do not feel a criminal, this is a secure job, it is not a crime, and if I get paid I do not see what's so bad,” she said. “Weddings are one thing, love is another. For me it does not matter either whether they are immigrants. I only care about getting by.”
The migrant marriage scandal is, of course, one of an untold number of scams on the periphery of Europe’s migrant crisis, especially apparent now against a backdrop of a worsening situation where at any given moment, thousands of people are crashing the borders of Italy, Greece, and now Macedonia and Serbia to try to get into Europe. In one day alone last week, 4,400 people were rescued at sea by Italian and other European rescue vessels just as thousands of migrants broke through the Greek-Macedonia border to move north. This week 50 refugees were found dead in the hull of a smuggler’s ship after suffocating on gas fumes and up to 50 more would-be refugees were found decaying in the back of a long-haul truck abandoned on an Austrian highway.
Every single one of the more than 304,000 migrants and refugees who have come to Europe since the beginning of 2015 most certainly paid a human trafficker to escape. And for every scam that preys on these desperate people that is uncovered, there are surely many more in the works to victimize the most vulnerable.