By Naomi O'Leary
ROME (Reuters) - Violent gangs are smuggling thousands of men, women and children into Italy, bypassing often inadequate border checks and other efforts to control the growing problem, the United Nations' trafficking expert said on Friday.
The number of people brought across Italy's long coasts and borders - many of them bound for work in the sex trade, sweatshops or farms - was much larger than the official records showed, U.N. Special Rapporteur on trafficking Joy Ngozi Ezeilo said.
She called on the government to revamp systems to identify trafficked people when they come in, try to persuade more men to stop using prostitutes and make sure the country's financial problems did not starve programs of funding.
Italy's interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Italy identified 2,400 victims of trafficking in 2010, a quarter of all found in the bloc, according to the most recent European Union figures. Ezeilo said she should would release new data in a full report next year.
"The phenomenon of trafficking persons in Italy is unfortunately expanding in scale and impact ... Traffickers are demonstrating a growing capacity for violence, exploitation and horrendous abuse of their victims," Ezeilo said as she presented her preliminary findings.
Many of the victims ended up in Italy, while others crossed the country into other parts of Europe, she added.
She cited one example of a 21-year-old Nigerian woman whose family had agreed to pay traffickers 60,000 euros ($81,100) to bring her to Europe. The victim was forced into prostitution to pay the debt, while her family continued to be threatened at home, Ezeilo said.
Italy's government needed to cut demand for prostitutes by raising awareness of the fact they were often victims of trafficking, many brought in from Nigeria and Eastern Europe, she told reporters.
Strict migration laws had exacerbated the problem by driving migrants to take more desperate measures, including paying huge amounts to traffickers.
Instead, Italy should improve coordination between its regions and with other countries, particularly in the way it identified trafficked persons on borders, which Ezeilo said were currently "manifestly inadequate".
Ezeilo urged the government to keep up funding for anti-trafficking programs, warning that efforts to stem the problem could be "eroded under the current economic climate".
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary)