Earlier this month, the bodies of 26 teenagers were found floating in the Mediterranean Sea. The corpses were sent to Salerno, Italy, where autopsies are being conducted to determine the details of their deaths. The girls were probably victims of sex trafficking, originally picked up in southern Nigeria, held in Libya and then sent to Italian shores in dinghies. Aid workers suspect that, like many African girls trafficked before them, they were tortured and raped.
“We will see if they have family members,” Marco Rotunno, the communications officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy, told me. “Most of the Nigerian girls travel alone, part of a huge trafficking network, and no one knows exactly who they are.”
We have read many terrible stories in the past few years about refugees from countries like Syria and Yemen found dead or near death at sea while making the perilous trip to Europe. Who can forget the photograph of the body of the 2-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on Turkish shores in September 2015? Within days we knew many details about this child: His name was Alan Kurdi. He was of Kurdish descent. His family was trying to reach Canada.
But we have read next to nothing about the African girls who have made similar journeys. More than a week after the bodies of these 26 girls were found, we know only that they were 14 to 18 years old — nothing about the lives they led. The horrible reality is that they will most likely remain nameless, never identified or claimed.
“When Syrian families arrive from Libya, they have been through a lot, but they haven’t faced the same kind of abuse these Nigerian girls have,” Mr. Rotunno said. When Syrians die at sea, he explained, they tend to be identified more quickly because they are with relatives or people who know them, unlike African women and girls, who typically travel alone.
Since the 1980s, tens of thousands of girls from the area around Benin City, in southern Nigeria, have been taken to Italy, where they are forced into prostitution. Over the past three years, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, Italy has seen a nearly 600 percent increase in the number of potential sex-trafficking victims arriving by sea. Last year, 1,100 Nigerian girls made the trip; some 80 percent of them are thought to be trafficking victims.
Because of its geographic centrality and proximity to Italy, Libya is a frequent way station for refugees and victims of trafficking traveling from the Middle East, sub-Saharan and East Africa to Europe. Since the country was plunged into chaos after the toppling of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, warring factions have taken to profiting off these vulnerable people.
Conditions are terrible for all refugees, who are typically held in detention centers under the authority of the Tripoli-based government. But they are by far the worst for those with black skin.
In Libyan cities, West African men and boys are bought and sold in broad daylight in modern-day slave markets. Migrants with certain skills, like tiling or painting, fetch a higher price. Women and girls are not sold in these markets because they are expected to arrive in Europe ready to work as prostitutes.
Africans with darker skin are taunted and derided as “burned” by Libyan smugglers. Men are beaten and forced to work in unbearable construction jobs for no pay. Aid workers told me that they often see sub-Saharan Africans who make it to Europe or who escape Libya and try to return to their home country with burns and cuts from the torture they’ve endured. Women sometimes arrive pregnant after being raped in Libya.
Those Africans who make it to Italy arrive in a country where name-calling and verbal attacks on even the most prominent black people, like politicians and athletes, is commonplace. Italians accuse Africans of stealing jobs and of all being thieves, rapists, prostitutes and drug dealers.
“Here in Italy, a lot of people think Africans are coming for work, not to escape horrible situations or because they have no choice,” Mr. Rotunno said.
Distinctions by policymakers between “economic migrants,” typically believed to be Africans, and “refugees,” like those fleeing Middle Eastern conflicts, don’t help. All people who flee their homes need help; the choice is no choice.
Tens of thousands of women who have been trafficked from Benin City have remained nameless and faceless to much of the world for decades. But back home, they are known: A 2003 United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute report concluded that “virtually every Benin family has one member or the other involved in trafficking either as a victim, sponsor, madam or trafficker.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation about what opportunities are in Europe,” Federico Soda, the Mediterranean director of the United Nations migrant agency, told me. “People know there’s something better, are seeking it and taking massive risks to try and achieve it, but nobody sets out with the worst possible scenario becoming reality.”
Italian politicians often blame smugglers for migrant deaths. But in the past year, they have enacted policies that have made it much more difficult for migrants to safely reach the country. Italy has struck deals with tribesmen who control Libya’s southern border; persuaded militias to keep boats from leaving Libya for Italy; promised local Libyan leaders money to replace profits from trafficking; and led a campaign to keep nongovernmental humanitarian agencies like Doctors Without Borders from saving people in the sea — all to ensure that fewer migrants get to Europe.
It’s working. Arrivals in Italy of migrants by sea have plunged from 181,000 last year to 114,000 this year. But at what cost? Policies enacted by the Italian government, many backed by the European Union, make the continent’s leaders as culpable as the traffickers who put the young women on the boats in the first place.
The rest of the world should be asking ourselves why the lives of African girls and women remain so cheap. Within days of the 26 bodies being found, Mr. Rotunno told me, 13 others were discovered in the Mediterranean, including that of a 3-year-old. That news didn’t make any headlines.
Tariro Mzezewa is a staff editor for the Opinion section.