Authorities are investigating after 26 teenage girls were found dead in the Mediterranean Sea.
The girls were all between the ages of 14 and 18, according to CNN. They are believed to have been migrants from Niger and Nigeria.
Authorities are investigating the deaths to determine whether the girls had been sexually assaulted or tortured. The teens are believed to have died while attempting to make a journey from Libya to Europe.
Rescuers found the teens’ bodies near a rubber dinghy that was close to sinking. Rescuers said survivors were found hanging onto the boat while the bodies of those who died were floating around them.
Two men have been arrested in connection with the deaths after investigators suspected that the girls were murdered, according to The Guardian.
The girls’ bodies were found by the Spanish vessel Cantabria, which is part of Europe’s anti-trafficking operation, Sophia, and taken to the Italian port city of Salerno. The bodies were reportedly from two shipwrecks. There were 23 bodies from one shipwreck and three from the other. There are still 53 people believed to be missing.
The two men arrested in connection with the finding have been identified as Libyan Al Mabrouc Wisam Harar and Egyptian Mohamed Ali Al Bouzid. The men are believed to have captained one of the boats.
The rescue was one of four rescue operations carried out in the Mediterranean in the same weekend. A total of 400 people were rescued on Cantabria and brought to Salerno. Of those rescued, 90 were women and 52 were minors, including one week-old baby.
Marco Rotunno, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said some of his colleagues were at the port when the girls’ bodies were brought in.
“It was a very tough experience,” Rotunno said. “One lady from Nigeria lost all her three children.”
Salerno prefect Salvatore Malfi said that women “suffered the worst” of all who were aboard the ships. He noted in response to concerns of sex trafficking, however, that, “Sex trafficking routes are different, with different dynamics used. Loading women on to a boat is too risky for the traffickers, as they could risk losing all their ‘goods’ — as they like to call them — in one fell swoop.”
Rotunno said that roughly 90 percent of migrant women arrive having suffered some kind of physical abuse.
“It’s very rare to find a woman who hasn’t been abused, only in exceptional cases, maybe when they are traveling with their husband,” he said. “But also women traveling alone with their children have been abused.”
The Guardian reported that the majority of the survivors in the rescue were either from Nigeria or other sub-Saharan countries such as Sudan, Ghana and Senegal.
According to CNN, 2,839 migrants have died on the Mediterranean route since the beginning of 2017.