By Robin Gericke, Executive Editor
The bodies of 26 Nigerian girls were found in the Mediterranean Sea on Nov. 3. According to the New York Times, the girls, all ages 14 to 18, were in rubber dinghies that left Libya and capsized in bad weather. Over 400 migrants have been rescued in the days surrounding the event.
“People at sea were trying to swim; most of them don’t know how to swim,” said Marco Rotunno, the communications officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy. “They have never done it.”
The Spanish Navy found 23 of the bodies and saved 64 people from the capsized boat. According to the International Organization for Migration, around 50 people are still missing. An Italian naval ship recovered the bodies of three women from an inflatable boat carrying over 130 migrants, and 11 people from that boat are still missing.
The bodies were taken to the port city of Salerno, Italy, and have yet to be identified or claimed by family members. According to The Washington Post, Italian officials are investigating the cause of death to see if they were tortured or sexually assaulted.
Salerno official Salvatore Malfi told the Agence France-Presse that authorities will “need to see whether there are suspects to concentrate on or whether the murder inquiry will proceed against persons unknown.” Malfi believes the girls may have been thrown off their rubber dinghy into the waters of the Mediterranean.
According to a UNICEF report, levels of sexual violence on the Central Mediterranean migration route makes it one of “the world’s deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women.”
Federico Soda, the director of the I.O.M. Coordination Office for the Mediterranean, believes that it is probable these girls were trafficked and sexually exploited. “The I.O.M. has estimated that 80 percent of Nigerian girls arriving in Italy by sea may be victims of trafficking,” he told the New York Times.
Rotunna agreed, saying, “For Nigerian girls, it is pretty standard, the issue of being trafficked,” he said. “It is a regional network, unfortunately. I have seen younger than 14, and they were alone and from Nigeria.”
The 26 girls add to the death toll of 2,925 deaths in the Mediterranean this year. However, this is low when compared to the death count of 4,305 during this same time last year. According to the I.O.M., about 151,000 migrants have survived the trip across the Mediterranean to Europe.