Italian authorities are investigating the deaths of 26 Nigerian teenagers recovered from the Mediterranean Sea over the weekend, according to the Agence France Presse, calling into question whether their deaths are a result of sex trafficking. The dead were among 34 recovered bodies and an estimated 50 more missing at sea in operations that saved over 2,650 migrants in a four-day time period.
It is believed the girls, mostly between the ages of 14 and 18, set off on dinghies to Europe from the near-failed state of Libya, likely because of the short distance to Italy’s island of Lampedusa and Libya’s power vacuum, which has allowed smugglers to operate with impunity.
“Salvatore Malfi, the police prefect of the southern town of Salerno, said the 26 women may have been thrown off their rubber dinghy into the waters of the Mediterranean,” NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reported from Rome. “The cause of death appears to be by drowning.”
As AFP reported, “[a] seemingly endless line of black plastic body bags were lowered by crane from a Spanish ship onto the portside in Salerno, southern Italy, where they were placed in coffins and loaded onto waiting hearses.”
The staff aboard the Spanish ship Cantabria — which operates as part of the European Union response to the migration crisis through Mediterranean Operation Sophia — recovered 23 teenagers’ bodies from a sunk inflatable dinghy, according to the International Organization for Migration. Three more bodies of women were found on an inflatable boat during another life-saving operation on the Italian Navy’s “Bergamini” ship and transferred to the Cantabria. The warship carried a total of 375 migrants, including 116 women. Nine of those women are “heavily pregnant,” AFP reported.
Italian authorities are questioning five migrants in Salerno, the BBC reported.
Investigators are looking into why all these bodies are female and will look for signs of violence against the women, AFP reported. Generally, crossings are more dangerous for women who are poorer swimmers and they may also die from drowning when attempting to save their children, migrant expert Sine Plambech, adjunct professor at Columbia University, told the publication. But Salerno authorities have also opened an investigation to understand their deaths and have not ruled out the possibility of homicide.
“This tragedy affects a group of people particularly at-risk.” Federico Soda, Director of the IOM Coordination Office for the Mediterranean, said in a statement. “It is very likely that these girls were, in fact, victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. A recent IOM report has estimated that 80 per cent of Nigerian girls arriving in Italy by sea may be victims of trafficking.”
The deaths are part of a notable increase in the number of Nigerian women and girls arriving in Europe since 2014. What’s been particularly disturbing is that they tend to be younger and “often under the age of 18,” Soda added. According to IOM, survivors include a girl who claimed she was raped and a mother who said she saw her three children die at sea.
So far, there have been 2,925 deaths on the Mediterranean Sea in 2017 as compared to 4,305 in the same time period last year. This decrease likely has to do with policies preventing people from leaving unstable environments in the first place, like the Libyan government in Tripoli’s decision earlier this year to work with militias involved in trafficking to keep people from crossing the sea.
Although it’s still under investigation, it’s likely that the women came from either Edo State or Delta State in Nigeria, where it takes about five days to get to Libya. As Hilary Matfess, author of “Women and the War on Boko Haram” explained to ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon, the 26 women could be part of a “broader trend” of young women who are coerced, sometimes under social and socioeconomic pressure, to go to Italy and work in the sex trade. Citing Stephen Ellis’ “This Present Darkness,” Matfess pointed out that of the 800 sex workers deported to Nigeria from Italy between 1999 and 2001, nearly 86 percent came from Edo State while another 7 percent came from Delta State.
ThinkProgress previously inferred that these women may be on the run from Boko Haram — a militant group that launched its insurgency in northeast Nigeria in 2009 that has indeed made life very difficult for women and girls. But “geographically and temporally,” it’s unlikely for the current set of female victims to be from that area, Matfess said. “Boko Haram [which is in the country’s northeast region in Borno state] makes life hard, but Delta state and Edo state are in the country’s south south.”
“Even though we are thinking of people as being very marginalized, this isn’t a process that can be undertaken lightly or generally as a result of Boko Haram,” Matfess said.
UPDATE: In a previous version of this post, this ThinkProgress reporter inferred that these victims may have fled Boko Haram. After speaking with Matfess, ThinkProgress has fixed the piece and included relevant links.