26 teenage girls drown as they attempt to reach safety in Europe

Twenty-six teenage girls drowned over the weekend as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. Italian officials have since launched an investigation over suspicions that the girls, some as young as 14, may have been abused and murdered.

The girls’ bodies were recovered from two separate shipwrecks, during a rescue operation conducted by a Spanish ship this weekend. More than 400 people were rescued by that ship alone, including 90 women and 52 children. A week-old baby was among the survivors.

The investigation seeks to identify why all who died were female, whether the girls were purposely killed, and whether the girls had been tortured or sexually assaulted prior to their death.

In February, UNICEF reported that levels of sexual violence and abuse along the Central Mediterranean migration route made it one of “the world’s deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women.”

“It’s very rare to find a woman who hasn’t been abused [during the crossing],” said Marco Rotunna, a spokesman for UNHCR in Italy. He noted that 90% of women who make the crossing arrive with bruises and other signs of violence.

Last year, the risk of death for asylum seekers crossing the central Mediterranean was 1 in 49. The passage across the Mediterranean is even more deadly for women than men: for every five men who lose their lives trying to cross, six women also die. This has been linked to women’s poorer swimming skills and attempts to save their children.

A recent report highlighted the impact of European policies on those crossing the central Mediterranean. Since the closure of Italy’s commendable search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, the EU does not provide a service that prioritises rescue missions.

Instead, states have increased their collaboration with Libyan groups as they seek to prevent people from attempting the crossing. Governments have thus been accused of leaving vulnerable people exposed to a litany of rights abuses on land and contributing to “more drownings” at sea.

“European states have progressively turned their backs on a search and rescue strategy that was reducing mortality at sea in favour of one that has seen thousands drown,” said Amnesty International.

The girls’ deaths are added to the tragic toll of 2,839 people who have lost their lives while attempting to cross the Mediterranean – this year alone. An unknown number of people have also drowned, their bodied never recovered. This number will undoubtedly continue to rise, for as long as asylum seekers and migrants are denied access to safe and legal routes to Europe.

The girls’ deaths, and this larger toll, must not be reduced to a statistic: it represents the number of people, fleeing insecurity and persecution, who will never have the chance to begin the next chapter of their life in safety. It represents a tragic loss of potential and opportunity, of life that deserves to be lived.


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