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A woman places flowers on coffins during the funeral service for 26 Nigerian women, at the Salerno cemetery, southern Italy, Nov.17, 2017. The women died last week while crossing the Mediterranean sea in an attempt to reach Italy.
Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Girls & Women

Italy Laid to Rest the Bodies of 26 Nigerian Girls Found Dead at Sea

On Friday, dozens of people in Salerno, Italy, lined up to pay respect to the 26 Nigerian girls who made international headlines last week when their lifeless bodies were discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. 

The recovery of the girls’ bodies initially raised concerns of sexual abuse and murder among Italian authorities, prompting an investigation into their cause of death, the Washington Post reported. However, the results of their autopsies have since confirmed that the girls likely drowned, according to the Guardian.

“There were no signs that they had been raped or physically abused,” a medic who worked on the postmortem examinations of the bodies said. “They most likely couldn’t swim.”

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The girls, originally from Nigeria, had attempted to make their way to Italy from Libya, which has become a hub for human trafficking. And Nigerian women are frequently trafficked in Italy.

“Most Nigerian women who arrive in Italy are already victims of trafficking, many have been subjected to serious sexual exploitation on their journey. Many are forced into prostitution in Libya,” said Simona Moscarelli, an expert with the International Organization for Migration, told the Guardian last year.

So the recovery of the 26 girls, all of whom were between the ages of 14 and 18, according to CNN, immediately raised red flags.

Read more: 26 Teenage Girls Were Found Dead in the Mediterranean Sea Prompting Investigation

Though the autopsies show no evidence of foul play in the cause of the girls’ deaths, the IOM’s director for the Mediterranean, Federico Soda, told Reuters that “It is very likely that these girls were victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

Italy-Migrants-Drowned-FF.jpgA woman places flowers on coffins during the funeral service for 26 Nigerian women, at the Salerno cemetery, southern Italy, Nov.17, 2017.
Image: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

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All but two of the girls found remain nameless. The two young women authorities were able to identify were pregnant, Reuters reported. Marian Shaka, was named by her husband, and Osato Osaro, and was identified by her brother who had been in the boat with her, according to CNN. The ship that recovered the girls’ bodies also saved 402 other migrants, like Osaro’s brother, who were attempting to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean during its four rescue operations that weekend.

Two of the men rescued are believed to have been in charge of the boats and were arrested and charged with human trafficking the day after the bodies were brought to Salerno, the Guardian reported.

2,715 migrants have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean and reach a better life in Italy this year, according to the IOM.

Read more: Italy Approaching Record Numbers for Migrants Arriving by Boat

Almost 114,000 migrants have made the dangerous journey since January, although Italy and Libya formed an agreement earlier in the year to help reduce the number of migrants crossing the sea, the Guardian reported.

At Friday’s mass funeral for the girls, students, refugees, and migrants who survived the trip that killed the women, laid white roses on their coffins, CNN reported, after both a Catholic bishop and a Muslim imam said prayers.

Like many of the migrants who have died at sea in recent year, the identities of most of these girls will remain unknown, but inside each of the girls coffins is her picture and a card with crucial information for family members, the Salerno coroner’s office told CNN, should they ever come looking.