Italy launches probe into death of 26 teenage girls at sea

Rescue workers carrying a coffin containing the body of a migrant taken from the Spanish ship Cantabria in the harbour of Salerno, Italy, on Nov 5, 2017.
Rescue workers carrying a coffin containing the body of a migrant taken from the Spanish ship Cantabria in the harbour of Salerno, Italy, on Nov 5, 2017.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SALERNO (WASHINGTON POST) - The gruesome discovery on Sunday (Nov 5) of the bodies of more than two dozen migrant women in the Mediterranean Sea has left Italian officials wondering whether the women were purposely killed, and why all who died were female.

Lorena Ciccotti, police chief in the southern Italian port city of Salerno, told CNN that officials have launched an investigation into the women's cause of the death to see if they had been tortured or sexually assaulted. Officials believe the 26 women, who are all Nigerian and range from 14 to 18 years old, died attempting the dangerous journey from Libya to Europe over the weekend.

Libya is the biggest launchpad for African migrants hoping to build new lives in Europe. Since the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi's regime, the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya has soared.

Sub-Saharan Africans wishing to flee poverty or war have taken advantage of Libya's power vacuum, which has allowed smugglers to operate, for the most part, without restraint. Migrants' desire to reach Italy - a country in close proximity to Libya - has made the North African country a centre for human smuggling.

The trip across the Mediterranean is deadly - about 58 per cent of the refugees who have died this year during their cross-border migration have drowned in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The women's bodies were found in the Mediterranean by a Spanish vessel, which lowered a "seemingly endless line of black plastic body bags" onto a port in Salerno, according to AFP, which added that the bodies were placed in coffins. Twenty-three of the women were discovered near a rubber dinghy that officials believe sank on Friday, according to AFP.

A top Salerno official, Salvatore Malfi, called the discovery a tragedy and told AFP that authorities will "need to see whether there are suspects to concentrate on or whether the murder inquiry will proceed against persons unknown".

Malfi said the women may have been thrown off their rubber dinghy into the waters of the Mediterranean, according to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. "The cause of death appears to be by drowning."

Women are more likely to drown because they cannot swim as well as men or because they sit on the lower levels of the vessels carrying them, away from life jackets, according to a 2012 study published in SAGE. Women might also try to rescue their children from drowning, putting them at greater risk of death.

The Spanish ship managed Sunday to rescue 90 women and 52 minors, including a newborn, officials told CNN. The rescue was one of four that altogether saved about 400 people over the course of the weekend.

So far this year through Nov 1, about 151,000 migrants survived the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Almost 75 per cent of those migrants - about 111,500 people - landed in Italy, with the rest reaching the shores of Greece, Cyprus and Spain. More than 2,800 migrants have died attempting the journey.

Since 2014, more than 400,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. But the Italian government, facing an unending flow of people from Africa and an increase in anti-migrant sentiments from its people, wants to limit the thousands of refugees arriving on its shores each month. The government has therefore agreed to pay Libyan militias willing to clamp down on human smuggling as part of an unusual deal.

As a result, alternate routes have experienced an uptick of migrant flows, with traffic from Morocco to Spain on the rise and more people embarking on the dangerous Black Sea journey from Turkey to Romania.

The route from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya is also dangerous, especially for women.

Women might endure sexual assault and rape, and contract HIV as a result. One humanitarian worker told The Post about women she had met who were penetrated with objects such as guns. Perpetrators of sexual violence include security forces, smugglers and men aboard the rescue boats.

In February, Unicef reported that levels of sexual violence and abuse along the Central Mediterranean migration route made it one of "the world's deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women".

Malfi, the Salerno official, told AFP that investigators would look to see if the women had been assaulted.

"They were on a dinghy that was also carrying men," he told Italian reporters who asked whether the women were on a sex-trafficking boat.