- Â FG confirms deaths, commiserates with victimsâ€™ families
Alex Enumah with agency report
Two men, one of them an Egyptian and the other a Libyan, have been arrested and charged in Italy as investigators look into the deaths of 26 Nigerian women and girls, who are 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, may have been abused and killed.
The bodies were recovered by Cantabria, which works as part of the EUâ€™s Sophia anti-trafficking operation, from two separate shipwrecks â€“ 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, reported the London-based Guardian Newspaper.
An autopsy on the bodies should be completed over the next week.
Salerno prefect Salvatore Malfi told the Italian press that the women had been travelling alongside men and when the vessels sank, â€œunfortunately, the women suffered the worst of itâ€.
But in response to concerns that the women were being trafficked for the sex trade, he added: â€œSex 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 â€˜goodsâ€™ â€“ as they like to call them â€“ in one fell swoop.â€
Marco Rotunno, an Italy spokesman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), said his colleagues were at the port in Salerno when the bodies were brought in.
â€œIt was a very tough experience,â€ he said. â€œOne lady from Nigeria lost all her three children.â€
He added that 90 per cent of migrant women arrive with bruises and other signs of violence.
â€œItâ€™s very rare to find a woman who hasnâ€™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.â€
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.
â€œI wanted to reach Italy. I donâ€™t know what to do now,â€ said Dora Omoruyi, a 23-year-old arts student from Benin, Edo State, known as a hub for human traffickers to smuggle women to Italy where they often end up as prostitutes.
â€œI see no future in Nigeria, there are no jobs,â€ she said, standing next to a group of weeping Nigerian survivors.
The survivors were among over 2,560 migrants saved over four days. People still continue to attempt the crossing despite a pact between Italy and Libya to stem the flow, which led to a drop in arrivals by almost 70 per cent since the summer, according to figures released last week by Italyâ€™s Interior Ministry.
But as the Italian authorities tried to unravel the circumstances that led to the deaths of the 26 Nigerian women and girls, the federal government Wednesday confirmed the deaths, saying they were Nigerian nationals.
The confirmation, which was contained in a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described the loss as monumental to the nation.
The ministry, in the statement signed by its spokesperson, Dr. Tope Elias-Fatile, extended its condolences to the families of the deceased.
The statement said: Further to this, we have received a reliable report from our mission in Rome that the dead bodies of 26 suspected Nigerians all of whom were female between the ages of fourteen and eighteen were discovered on Sunday 5th November, 2017 in the Mediterranean Sea.
â€œThe report indicates that a Spanish warship, Cantabria, brought the remains of the migrants to the southern Italian Port of Salerno. The Italian security officials who made this discovery are yet to confirm if they were purposely killed and why all who died were female.â€
The statement added that the Italian police chief in Salerno who stated that the victims may have been drowned, has launched an investigation into the cause of their deaths to ascertain if they were either tortured or sexually assaulted.
â€œIndeed, this is a monumental loss and a sad moment for our country. As more investigations are being conducted on the unfortunate incident, the federal government wishes to commiserate with the family members of the victims,â€ said the ministry.