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Drownings of 26 Female Migrants Raise Suspicions in Sex Trafficking

On November 4th, 26 Nigerian girls were found dead in the Mediterranean Sea. All but three of the deceased were migrating from Libya to Europe on a rubber boat carrying 64 other women. Italian authorities have launched an investigation in order to rule out or confirm that sexual violence played a role in their deaths.

The bodies were recovered by the Spanish ship Cantabria, which is part of Operation Sophia, an EU anti-trafficking force. The scene that the ship’s crew witnessed when they found the half-sunken rubber dinghy near a Spanish Navy base was haunting. Survivors of the wreck hung desperately onto the boat’s remains, while the dead bodies of girls – some as young as 14 years old – floated nearby.

This rescue mission was one of four operations in the Mediterranean that weekend. A total of 400 people were migrating. Some are still missing.  

According to survivors, the boat capsized in bad weather, and since most of the migrants did not know how to swim, they drowned. However, many are worried that these women were being trafficked and the drowned victims may have been thrown off the boat before the weather came into play.

When groups of young women and girls are migrating alone, the probability that they are victims of sex trafficking is high, according to Marco Rotunno, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The IOM Office for the Mediterranean has estimated that 80 percent of Nigerian girls arriving in Italy by sea may be victims of sex trafficking. Full autopsies of the women are expected to be completed by the Salerno morgue to search for evidence of torture or sexual abuse.

“It is a tragedy for mankind,” said Salerno’s prefect Salvator Malfi. “I think prosecutors will start working soonest to evaluate whether it could be homicide.”

Malfi has expressed his doubts about the women being victims of trafficking due to knowing of different sex trafficking routes than what the girls took. It is also not typical for sex traffickers to load their “goods” all together on a boat for fear of losing them, but nothing will not be known for sure until the autopsies are completed.

Police have detained seven people for questioning in this case, including two men of Libyan and Egyptian descent who are believed to be the captains of the sunken vessel.

A total of 375 African migrants were brought to Salerno that weekend. This total consisted of 90 women, eight of whom were pregnant, and 54 children, including a week-old baby. This brings the total number of migrants this year up to 111,552, with the number of deaths close to 3,000.

No one has stepped forward to claim the deceased women as family, which is not shocking. Regardless of this, Malfi has asked the citizens of Salerno to host dignified burial services for the girls.

Featured Image by Patrick Nouhailler on Flickr

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