Italian authorities launched a murder investigation into the deaths of 26 women whose bodies were recovered from the Mediterranean Sea Sunday during a rescue mission.
"Salvatore Malfi, the police prefect of the southern town of Salerno, said the 26 [victims] may have been thrown off their rubber dinghy into the waters of the Mediterranean," NPR reported from Rome. "The cause of death appears to be by drowning."
What's the story?
A Spanish warship, Cantabria, carrying 375 other migrants, brought the deceased women's bodies to the southern Italian town of Solerno, Agence France Presse reported. The dead women, mostly 14-18 years of age, are believed to be from Niger and Nigeria. Among the survivors, 90 are women and 52 children. Eight are pregnant.
It's not immediately clear why the women died.
Italian prosecutors are questioning five migrants to determine whether the deaths may be related to sex trafficking, according to BBC News. Authorities are also looking for signs of violence against the deceased women, according to the report.
"They [23 of the women] were on a dinghy that was also carrying men," Malfi told Italian media in response to fears the doomed vessel may have been a sex-trade boat carrying victims destined for prostitution. "Another three bodies had been discovered during other life-saving operations in the Mediterranean."
According to AFP reports, Italy is experiencing an uptick in young Nigerian women and girls trafficked into Italy and forced into prostitution.
However, it's less common for sex-traffickers to transport women across the sea, the AFP reported.
"Loading women onto a boat is too risky, the traffickers would not do it as they could lose all their 'goods' — as they describe them — in one fell swoop," Malfi said.
Women have poorer swimming skills and wear heavier clothing that can cause drowning. They are also likely to attempt to save their children from drowning, which can lead to their own death.
How many people try to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Italy annually?
Since January, at least 113,957 migrants arrived in Italy after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. More than 2,700 died trying to make the trip this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Last year, from January to November: 159,467 migrants arrived in Italy and 3,615 people died on the route.