1st Oct 2023

On board with SOS Méditerranée

The migration 'pull-factor' claim - debunked

  • NGOs' search-and-rescue missions are not a 'pull-factor' for possible migration, according to academic research based on empirical data (Photo: Proactiva Open Arms)

The seemingly-plausible suspicion that the presence of NGO rescue boats are a 'pull-factor' for migrants to cross the Mediterranean has been repeatedly debunked.

Last year, the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell himself rejected the idea.

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He said pull-factors were not supported by evidence, when the EU's operation Sophia was brought to an end over similar claims. "Every person interprets the world according to their own ideas. Me, I prefer to look at the figures," Borrell told reporters.

Despite it having saved some 45,000 people, he noted a dramatic decrease in the number of migrant Mediterranean crossings during Sophia's operational years, from 2015 to 2019.

But powerful figures remain convinced Sophia itself was a lure - including the European Commission's own Olivér Várhelyi.

Before he became commissioner, Várhelyi was Hungary's ambassador to the EU, under a government whose prime minister views migration as a national security threat.

Now Várhely represents the European Commission at EU foreign affairs councils, tasked to strengthen relations with countries neighbouring the EU.

Sophia's replacement Irini has since been mandated to crack down on Libyan weapons-trafficking.

It also currently patrols the eastern area of Libya, where migrant disembarkation are non-existent.

But the mission still includes a clause, pressed by Hungary, to suspend operations should its presence attract migrants.

Irini is still at sea today - suggesting no such phenomenon has ever taken place.

Academic studies have also demonstrated that NGOs operating search-and-rescues in the Mediterranean Sea do not create a pull factor either. They also found that when NGOs are not present at sea, the risk of lives lost actually increases.

Instead, weather and Libyan political instability are among the primary drivers for the departures.

Those were the conclusions of a joint study by Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies in Milan.

"Not only is the recovered effect of NGO's presence insignificant, but the sign of the effect is itself negative," they said, in a study published in September 2O20.

Saving lives, a crime

But the absence of state-led rescues at sea has since left the space open for humanitarian organisations to step into the breach.

Yet that space has also shrunk over the years, as governments squeeze out NGOs by criminalising their actions and by imposing heavy administrative burdens.

"It takes more time, today, to do the same [as] we did two, three years ago," Frédéric Penard, operations manager at SOS Méditerranée told the crew of the Ocean Viking rescue boat last week.

This was after the Italian cabinet led by Paolo Gentiloni imposed a restrictive code-of-conduct on NGO operations - while simultaneously negotiating a Libyan agreement to curb departures.

It was also after the far-right Matteo Salvini, as interior minister in mid-2018, declared Italian ports closed, which soon followed lengthy stand-offs and disembarkation delays.

Among the most striking was the case of Carola Rackete, a German ship captain for the German sea rescue organisation Sea-Watch.

A day after Rackete had rescued 53 people, a network of over 60 cities in Germany had all offered to take in the refugees.

But Italy's Salvini still refused to allow them to disembark, instigating a 17-day standoff. As frustrations grew, the crew starting organising suicide watches.

She then decided to enter the port of Lampedusa without permission, leading to criminal charges and a possible 15-year prison sentence.

"I was received as if I were driving a ship carrying the pest," she had told MEPs in 2019. Charges against her were later dropped.

When Salvini finally left the government and a new cabinet was formed in September 2019 under Giuseppe Conte, the average disembarkation time dropped from nine to just over four days.

Salvini was later charged with aggravated kidnapping, in a separate standoff involving the Italian Gregoretti coastguard ship and the Open Arms NGO vessel.

The threat against NGOs was not removed, however.

Eight new legal proceedings have been brought against NGOs in Italy over the past six months, bringing the total to 58 since 2016. These were launched in Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain.

EU states either seize vessels or they block them in harbours due to flag and technical issues. It means only seven out of the 19 NGO-deployed boats and planes for search and rescue are operational.

Among them is the Ocean Viking, which set sail from the French port of Marseille late Sunday evening (27 June).

Author bio

Nikolaj Nielsen, an EUobserver journalist, is embedded on the Ocean Viking for the coming weeks, reporting exclusively from the boat on the Mediterranean migration route.

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