Dead bodies of 26 teenage girls have been found in the Mediterranean Sea as Italian authorities are working to establish the exact cause of their deaths. All the victims, believed to be from either Niger or Nigeria, are aged between 14 and 18 and were en route to Europe.

It is common practice for asylum seekers from conflict-torn African nations and other continents to attempt to make a perilous journey via the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe. Most of them end up on poorly-equipped vessels, risking their lives in the process.

The corpses of the victims were recovered by a Spanish military ship on Sunday, 5 November, and were found next to a rubber dinghy.

There are also suspicions that their deaths could be linked to sex trafficking.

“It’s a tragedy. The prosecutor’s office will begin looking into it immediately,” said the Prefect at the southern port of Salerno, Salvatore Malfi. “We will need to see whether there are suspects to concentrate on or whether the murder inquiry will proceed against persons unknown.”

The post-mortem will be conducted to ascertain whether the girls were raped by perpetrators before their deaths. Their bodies were kept inside the refrigerated section of the Spanish warship so as to retain evidence for medical examinations.

Officials have detained seven people, including an Egyptian-origin man and a Libyan, who were believed to be overseeing the perilous boat journey. It is not uncommon for human trafficking gangs to charge hefty amounts from those who want to travel to Europe to flee from the violence and hardships in their home countries. There have also been several reports in the past about torture, sexual abuse and violence on these voyages.

In addition to the bodies recovered, authorities have also rescued up to 400 people over the weekend operations.