SALERNO, Italy – More than two dozen young Nigerian women who drowned during a migrant crossing from Libya were honored Friday with an interfaith funeral, closing out a gruesome new chapter in the years-long tragedy of desperate migrants trying to reach Europe and dying along the way.
To date, only two of the 26 women whose bodies were recovered Nov. 3 by Spanish rescue ships have been identified: Marian Shaka, a Muslim, and Osato Osara, a Christian.
Prosecutors are working to contact relatives of the others, using phone numbers the women had hidden in their clothes before setting off from Libya's lawless shores. So far, investigators have reached family members of three of them. Relatives were able to provide general descriptions of their girls, and confirmed they hadn't heard from them.
Autopsies showed all but one drowned. The other had internal bleeding from a ruptured liver as a result of blunt trauma before falling in the water. None bore signs of recent physical or sexual abuse, prosecutors said in a statement Friday. Two of the women were pregnant.
Overall, 100 people were believed to have drowned in the crossing. The other bodies were lost at sea. They had all set off aboard a blue rubber raft. Sixty-four survived.
On Friday, 26 wooden coffins were laid out in a circle in the middle of Salerno's cemetery for the interfaith funeral ceremony. There was no indication the Nigerian Embassy or Consulate sent a representative.
Salerno Archbishop Luigi Moretti told the crowd that the women "lost their lives as they were seeking freedom and a better life."
"And we give the last farewell not only to the 26 girls but also to two lives that these girls were carrying in their wombs," he added.
Imam Abderrhmane Es Sbaa offered a prayer before he and Moretti blessed the coffins, with Moretti sprinkling holy water on them. The crowd silently passed by, placing white roses on each one.
Overall this year, nearly 168,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, a 32-percent decline over last year thanks to a deal Italy struck with the Libyan government and its militias to curb the exodus. The U.N. refugee agency estimates around 3,000 have died trying, though the number is likely much higher given the unknown number of shipwrecks that are never reported.
It's not clear whether the 26 women were part of the huge human trafficking business that brings thousands of Nigerian women to Italy every year to work as prostitutes.
The past three years has seen a 600-percent increase in potential sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy, most of them from Nigeria, according to the International Organization for Migrants. IOM statistics show 1,454 girls arrived from Nigeria in 2014 and the number soared to 11,009 in 2016.
Alessandra Galatro, who works to help young Nigerian women escape prostitution, came to the funeral with a group of Nigerian girls who stood at a distance during the ceremony then shyly approached the coffins at the end, gently touching them one by one.
"It is not easy for them because they have all made that crossing, that journey," Galatro said. "The cruelty that these women faced in Libya, they all experienced."