Two men, one of them an Egyptian and the other Libyan, have been arrested and charged in Italy, as investigators look into the deaths of 26 Nigerian women and girls, who were suspected to have been murdered while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
The bodies of the women were brought to the southern Italian port of Salerno by the Spanish ship Cantabria on Sunday, and prosecutors opened an investigation over suspicions that the women, some as young as 14, were abused and killed.
The bodies were recovered by Cantabria, which works as part of the EU’s Sophia anti-trafficking operation, from two separate shipwrecks – 23 from one and three from the other. Fifty-three people are believed to be missing.
The men arrested have been named as Al Mabrouc Wisam Harar, from Libya and Egyptian Mohamed Ali Al Bouzid.
The pair are believed to have skippered one of the boats. They were identified by survivors who were among the 375 brought to Salerno by Cantabria.
An autopsy on the bodies should be completed by next week.
Salerno Prefect, Salvatore Malfi, told the Italian media that the women had been travelling alongside men and when the vessels sank, “unfortunately, the women suffered the worst of it.”
But, in response to concerns that the women were being trafficked for the sex trade, he added: “Sex trafficking routes are different, with different dynamics used. Loading women on to a boat is too risky for the traffickers, as they could risk losing all of their ‘goods’ – as they like to call them – in one fell swoop.”
Italy spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Marco Rotunno, said his colleagues were at the port in Salerno when the bodies were brought in.
“It was a very tough experience. One lady from Nigeria lost all her three children,” Salerno said.
He added that 90 percent of migrant women arrive with bruises and other signs of violence.
“It’s very rare to find a woman who hasn’t been abused, only in exceptional cases, maybe when they are travelling with their husband. But, also, women travelling alone with their children have been abused.”
Most of the survivors were either Nigerian or from other sub-Saharan countries including Ghana, Sudan and Senegal.
The survivors brought to Tripoli also included Nigerians and Senegalese.
Also, Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) has called for “a high level investigation by the United Nations (into) this incident and others before it along the Mediterranean region.
“We need to know the identities of the owners of the rickety boats that carry people along that axis as well as their owners, so they can be prosecuted,” NAPTIP said in a statement.
The central Mediterranean route from the coast of Libya to Italy is currently the favoured route of undocumented migrants, most of whom are Nigerians.
NAPTIP said human trafficking and irregular migration were criminal and needed to stop because of the high numbers of deaths.
The International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday that about 75 percent of the nearly 155,000 migrants and refugees who have reached Europe by sea this year arrived in Italy.
A total of 2,715 people died on the central Mediterranean route between January 1 and November 5, it added.
In July, the UN refugee agency said it would like sanctions against known traffickers and people smugglers, including travel bans and asset freezes.