The relevant authorities should unravel why the girls were murdered

With the burial in the southern city of Salerno, Italy of the 26 Nigerian female irregular migrants who were allegedly murdered on the Mediterranean Sea, our country has been exposed to the world as one that hardly cares for its citizens. It was bad enough that the authorities did not demand for their remains so they could be buried at home, but worse that there were no Nigerian representations at the burial conducted with dignity by the Italian authorities. Besides, there is as yet no information on the identities of those unfortunate women beyond the names of two.

The 26 bodies were retrieved early this month from the sea by a Spanish rescue ship, while some 64 people were unaccounted for and feared lost, bringing the total dead to around 90. With 26 wooden caskets, each of which was adorned with a single rose, a Roman Catholic Bishop and an Islamic Cleric said prayers at the simple but solemn funeral service. “It is very likely that these girls were victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation,” said Federico Soda, the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Director for the Mediterranean.

Not only is it unfortunate that the response from the Nigerian authorities to the tragedy has been both shoddy and incoherent, statements about an inquest into why our country was not represented at the burial are meaningless. But we call on the IOM to work with the Italian authorities to unravel how the girls were murdered. The report that they may have been sexually assaulted before their death points to some premeditation. Therefore, it should not be too difficult to identify the culprits who should be brought to book for this most heinous crime against humanity.

However, to the extent that the tragedy cannot be treated as an isolated incident, the Nigerian authorities must begin to take serious the issue of irregular migration and the reasons for it. Painting a grim picture of the situation, the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Mr Mohammed Babandede said recently that, “many deaths go unrecorded” while several thousands of the desperate irregular migrants “who cannot continue their journey are either stranded along the Agadez route, Niger Republic or in Libya. Majority of these stranded migrants are living in detention centres under deplorable conditions”.

What Babandede’s revelation confirms is what many other stakeholders have been saying: that irregular migrants trying to reach Europe may be dying in far greater numbers in the Sahara Desert than in the Mediterranean. “One thing we still don’t have is any estimate of number of deaths in the desert,” Richard Danziger, the IOM Director for West and Central Africa, recently said in Geneva.

Given the foregoing, we must reiterate our earlier call on the Nigerian authorities to put the recent tragedy in perspective. A combination of sustained negative economic growth and a demographic bulge has put the country in a very difficult and potentially explosive situation. Nigeria, the seventh most populous country in the world, has a fertility rate that far outstrips its economic growth. So, driven by economic desperation and sometimes by misinformation, hundreds of thousands of able bodied young men and women on a daily basis embark on perilous missions across the Mediterranean Sea.

However, only small numbers eventually reach their destinations where they face huge disappointment and frustrations. Many are forced into prostitution, used as mercenaries, deployed as household servants, factory workers, drug couriers and even as organ donors. Since many of the migrants who are unemployed or pushed by outright poverty are deceived by stories of jobs, businesses and prosperity by people smugglers, there is a need for a lot of sensitisation by the authorities on the pitfalls of irregular migration.