Twenty-six women and girls were found dead off the coast of Italy on Sunday. It is likely they were abused and killed during their attempted journey to cross the Mediterranean sea. The bodies were found and bought to the Southern Italian town of Salerno by the Spanish ship ‘Cantabria’ which works with the European Union (EU), to execute the Sophia Anti Trafficking Operation. Tragically, 53 are believed to still be missing. The operation has resulted in the arrest and charging of two men Al Mabroud Wisam Harar (Libya) and Mohammed Ali Al Bouzid (Egypt) who are believed to be the skippers of the boats that were used to carry out the illegal movement of people across the Mediterranean. The men, according to Al Jazeera, have been accused of organizing and trafficking at least 150 people, who were among the 375 survivors that arrived in Salerno.
While the two men have been charged with trafficking, Rosa Maria Falasca, Chief of Staff at the Salerno prefecture, told the Italian Press that “the police have not yet been able to provide a direct link between the murders and the two men.” The Guardian however did report that the autopsies should be completed by the end of next week and a clearer picture of what occurred will be ascertained. What is clear, according to Salvatore Malfi (Prefect of Salerno) is that the women “had been travelling alongside men, but unfortunately they suffered the worst of it” with 90% of the women showing bruising and signs of violence. Marco Rotunno (Italian spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) noted that he and his team were in Salerno upon arrival of the Spanish ship containing the victims. He said “it was an incredibly difficult task, with some parents missing all of their children.” The Guardian reported that when Rotunno was asked whether the girls were being trafficked for the sex industry, he stated that it was not likely. The routes sex traffickers use are different as are the “dynamics.” He elaborated by saying “loading women on to boats is too risky for traffickers, they could stand to lose all of their ‘goods’ – as they like to call them – in one fell swoop.”
Italy has been placed in an incredibly difficult position, and this latest rescue mission highlights the scale and intensity of the migration issue. Italy is currently running a response operation when it should be focusing on treating the cause. Italy’s approach is ultimately deplorable and not conducive to peace. While its move to stem the influx of migrants arriving on its shores by forming a pact with Libya is proactive it is a short term fix to a long term problem. Italy requires not only great support from the European Union but also the wider international community to ensure a ground- up, human rights based solution to the causes for mass migration. It would be more beneficial if Italy and other countries used money currently allocated to preventing the arrival of migrants to build and support local institutions in the African states while their governmental systems are transitioning.
Most of the female victims came from Nigeria or other sub-Saharan countries like Ghana, Sudan, and Senegal, according to the Guardian. Although there are a potential 79 deaths, the survivors were some of the 2,560 migrants saved over a four-day period. People fleeing volatile situations are still attempting to cross the Mediterranean to seek sanctuary in Europe despite the pact between Italy and Libya which makes the journey far more difficult. The Guardian therefore noted that migrants often resort to paying ‘professional people smugglers’, whose aim and object is primarily monetary -not the migrants safe arrival . People smugglers “have exploited the chaos to increase the flow of illegal migrants to Italy just 300km away” from North Africa. The Local has reported that the pact between Italy and Libya was a response by Italy to help the state cope with the overwhelming number of migrants arriving from North Africa, which was particularly heightened with the collapse of the Gaddaffi regime in Libya in 2011. NGO boats had effectively been accused of people smuggling and the pact which requires that NGOs must sign a code of conduct essentially limits their movement . Italy provides, as set out in the pact, “technical and operational support to Libya’s Coastguard to boost its capacity to intercept boats and return migrants to Libya” which has at times breached the international law principle of non-refoulment under the Refugee Convention. According to The Local, NGO’s have argued that migrants “endure brutal conditions in Libya and risk dying at sea rather than staying within the hostile state.” The pact has not resolved the issue: it has merely resulted in asylum routes changing. Rather than discouraging migration there has, in fact , been a significant increase in numbers of people leaving from Tunisia instead.