Mourners placed white roses on the 26 coffins

Nigeria has set up a ministerial committee to examine the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 26 teenage migrant girls found drowned in the Mediterranean early November, writes Adwoa Korkoh.

The young women, all from Nigeria, perished trying to reach Italy from Libya. Their bodies were recovered on November 3 by Spanish rescue ships. Only two have been identified and prosecutors are working to contact relatives of the others, using phone numbers the women had hidden in their clothes.

Mourners placed white roses on the 26 coffins

Last week they were laid to rest at an interfaith funeral in Salerno, Italy, each wooden coffin bearing a white rose. Two also bore an additional blue rose to indicate that the victims had been pregnant.

Salerno Archbishop Luigi Moretti told mourners that the women “lost their lives as they were seeking freedom and a better life… we give the last farewell not only to the 26 girls, but also to two lives that these girls were carrying in their wombs.”
Imam Abderrhmane Es Sbaa offered a prayer before he and the archbishop blessed the coffins, with the archbishop sprinkling holy water on them.

No one from the Nigerian embassy or consulate was present but the following day a statement from the office of the presidency announced that an investigation into the tragedy had been launched, chaired by the attorney general and minister of justice,  Abubakar Malami.

The statement added:  “The ministry of foreign affairs has kept it sights on the issue and had briefed the presidency on a regular basis since the time the tragic incident came to limelight,”

It is not clear whether the 26 women were part of the huge human trafficking business that brings thousands of Nigerian women to Italy every year to work as prostitutes.
The past three years has seen a 600 per cent increase in potential sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy, most of them from Nigeria, according to the International Organisation for Migrants (IOM).

IOM statistics show 1,454 girls arrived from Nigeria in 2014 and the number soared to 11,009 last year. The figure for Nigerians overall has risen from 9,000 in 2014 to 37,550 in 2016.

Overloaded boats frequently capsize causing multiple deaths

Nigerians are among the largest group of people who manage to make it to Italy each year, usually via the tiny island of Lampedusa at its southern tip.

Closer to Africa than Europe, Lampedusa had been a target for migrants for some time. But following the Nato-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and Libya’s subsequent disintegration into anarchy, a seemingly unstoppable human tide began to brave the perilous 300k journey across the Med in rickety wooden boats.

Drownings are now so regular that they rarely make the news. Overall this year, around 3,000 out of nearly 168,000 migrants arriving in Italy have drowned, according to the UN, though the number is likely to be much higher, given the unknown number of capsized boats that are never reported.

A deal struck between Italy and the Libyan government has seen a 32 per cent decline in arrivals over last year, with many would-be migrants now thrown into Libya’s detention centres. “The suffering of migrants detained in Libya is an outrage to the conscience of humanity,” UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement issued last week.

He added: “The European Union’s policy of assisting the Libyan coastguard to intercept and return migrants in the Mediterranean [is] inhuman.”
Libya is today a lawless space in which there are two rival parliaments and three governments, one of them backed by the UN, and smuggling has become  a low-risk, high-value source of income for organised crime.

Competing armed militias finance themselves by doubling up people smugglers, charging anywhere from $750 to $3,500 apiece for a place on a boat to Italy. In most cases the vessels are unseaworthy and overloaded. The smugglers provide barely enough fuel to make it to international waters and then abandon the boats and their passengers to their fate.

Smugglers and militias also run migrant detention centres, where conditions violate human rights, the EU says. There have been frequent reports of the horrific abuses suffered by migrants, including routine beatings, rape and torture and in April the IOM reported that thousands of Africans were being sold in “slave markets”.

Marco Rotunno, the Italian spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said last week that 90 per cent of migrant and refugee women arrive in the country with bruises or other signs of violence.

At the funeral in Salerno Alessandra Galatro, who works to help young Nigerian women in Italy, was accompanied by a group of Nigerian girls, who stood at a distance during the ceremony, then shyly approached the coffins at the end, gently touching them one by one.
“It is not easy for them, because they have all made that crossing, that journey,” Galatro said. “The cruelty that [the drowned] women faced in Libya, they all experienced [too]. ”

The statement from the Nigerian presidency said the government committee is “expected to also examine the reports of incidents of the sale of Nigerian citizens through slavery and report to the Federal Executive Council within the week.”

Italy’s interior minister, Marco Minniti, defended its deal with Libya, saying: “The alternative cannot be to resign ourselves to the impossibility of managing migratory flows and hand human traffickers the keys to European democracies.

“We invite all those who are giving lessons to instead give more funds, more logistical support and more intervention in Libya to solve this issue.”