Are sea rescue NGOs really a pull factor for migration?

Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo took to Facebook last month to defend the government’s decision to close Malta’s ports to private NGOs rescuing migrants. His tone was measured, perhaps in the knowledge of the kind of visceral reaction his Party’s supporters were about to unleash, but at the end, he went on to suggest that search and rescue (SAR) organisations in the Mediterranean were encouraging human traffickers.

This is an argument that has become so pervasive when discussing irregular migration flows, that despite studies refuting this theory, it keeps resurfacing to the point that many have stopped asking how and why this idea came about and whether there is any truth in these assumptions. How did NGOs become involved in SAR missions in the Mediterranean in the first place and why have they become so controversial?

More importantly, what does the data suggest?

How NGOs became involved: a very short history

It all started in 2014 when Italy’s naval operation Mare Nostrum was discontinued.

Mare Nostrum was a complex SAR operation launched by the Italian government in October 2013 that relied on the cooperation of several entities such as the Italian navy, air force and coast guard.

The ships patrolled a large area of the central Mediterranean and sailed as far as the Libyan coast.  However, despite having saved over 160,000 people, the mission did not last, primarily because the financial strain was simply too high for Italy to shoulder alone.

In November 2014, Mare Nostrum was replaced by Triton (currently Themis), this time operated by the European border agency Frontex but the manpower, range of its operations as well as the resources, were considerably lower and, unlike its predecessor, Triton’s primary objective was border control, not active search and rescue.

This considerable reduction in scale and scope led to many NGOs, who were mainly monitoring and documenting migration flows, to fear that many more individuals would die while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and, therefore, they took on a more proactive role.

One of the first private rescue missions was, in fact, launched from Malta by an Italo-American couple who set up the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) in August 2014.

In 2015, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) followed their lead, as did Save the Children in 2016.

Across Europe, citizens came together to create new organisations such as SOS Méditerranée, Sea Watch, Life Boat Project, Sea Eye, Jugend Rettet in Germany, Boat Refugee in the Netherlands, and Proactiva Open Arms in Spain.

In June 2015, the military operation EU Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med) ‘Sophia’ was set up to complement Triton and fight smuggling and human trafficking as well as training the Libyan coast guard while implementing the UN arms embargo off the coast of Libya.

It was also very much a humanitarian mission, which is why it became so fraught with problems and quarrels about the regulations governing disembarkation and asylum within the EU. Neville Gafa has said under oath that he was coordinating push backs to Libya on the government’s behalf.

By March 2019 the operation had withdrawn all its ships from the Mediterranean waters.

How did the idea of the “pull factor” come about?

This widespread and persistent idea that search and rescue missions act as pull factors was not directed exclusively at NGOs. This “concern” had already been voiced in 2014 with regards to the EU’s Mare Nostrum.

“We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” Britain’s Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay had cited as one of the reasons the UK ruled out help. “We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor,’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.

The argument specifically blaming NGOs for enabling migrants to reach Europe was originally limited to the discourse of small far right groups. That was until 2016 when The Financial Times published an article based on confidential reports by Frontex that accused the NGOs of “colluding” with smugglers.

The newspaper went on to issue a partial retraction and admitted that it had “overstated” its accusations, but Frontex reaffirmed its criticism of SAR NGOs in its annual Risk Analysis Report.

A few days after the release of Frontex’s report, Carmelo Zuccaro, Catania’s public prosecutor, announced that his office had launched an “exploratory inquiry” (not a formal investigation) to scrutinise the activities of SAR NGOs.

The opening of Zuccaro’s inquiry was followed by at least three other Italian Prosecutors’ Offices in Palermo, Cagliari and Trapani even though he found no evidence of any wrongdoing and neither did his fellow prosecutors.

This combination of Frontex reports and “exploratory” investigations led the Italian Senate to launch a series of public hearings to query these allegations and understand the unfolding situation in the central Mediterranean. It concluded that no evidence of collusion with smugglers had emerged, but it called for SAR NGOs to be put under greater scrutiny.

All of these ‘incidents’ simply amplified what were originally merely concerns, suspicions or anecdotal evidence. Once picked up by the mainstream media and by key political figures, SAR NGOs in the central Mediterranean became synonymous with the idea of the pull factor, or worse, collusion.

The systematic harassment and criminalisation of NGOs led to a shift in public opinion and scarcity of donors, which led to many organisations withdrawing their ships.

The research

To see whether there really was a correlation between the presence of NGOs in the Mediterranean and increased departures from Libya, two Italian researchers carried out a study based on the official data provided by the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as those of the Italian and Libyan coastguards. This was compared to the data of the NGOs on rescue at sea in SAR areas.

Matteo Villa, a researcher at ISPI, Institute for International Policy Studies, and Eugenio Cusumano, an assistant professor in International Relations and European Union studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, analysed the available monthly data between January 2014 to October 2018.

In 2015, when NGO rescues increased from 0.8% to 13%, there was a decrease in irregular departures from Libya.

In 2017, when NGO ships became the main source of rescues in the Mediterranean, the number of migrants leaving Libya fell dramatically. According to researchers, this last figure shows how the 2017 agreement between the Italian and Libyan governments had a much greater impact on the migration flows than attempts to limit NGO activities.

Even more data was available for 2019 since European military ships had disappeared and SAR area rescues were carried out exclusively by NGOs.

The researchers were able to look at daily available data and found that between 1 January and 27 October 2019, NGOs operated at sea for 85 days (and never more than two at a time), while for the remaining 225 days rescues were carried out only by the Libyan Coast Guard.

They found that in the 85 days when the NGOs were present in the SAR area, there were no more departures than in the 225 days covered by the Libyan patrol boats. The days that saw the most departures either coincided with good weather conditions or, in April, with deteriorating political conditions in Libya.

The researchers continue to gather data. It shows that between January 2019 and mid-February 2020, there still appears to be no correlation between increased departures and NGO SAR vessels.

This all shows how the “pull factor” narrative became a simplistic explanation for a complex phenomenon. In all the rhetoric, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any mention of “push factors” such as worsening humanitarian conditions, wars, extreme poverty and climate change, all of which will continue to force people to move irrespective of whether or not NGOs SAR vessels are patrolling the Mediterranean.

It’s time we lay this myth to rest.


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