15th Apr 2024

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Migrant rescue ship preparing for the worst

SOS Mediterranee's rescue coordinator Luisa Albera describes the events surrounding the tragic loss of 130 people in late April.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

EU talks migration over dinner, as NGO rescue-ship sets sail

Some 30 crew members boarded the Ocean Viking rescue ship in the port of Marseille on Wednesday, a full day ahead of an EU summit in Brussels where migration will be discussed over the afternoon and dinner.

Libyan detention centres must end, EU says

The EU has trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard. Those intercepted are then returned. Now Turkey has taken the lead, raising the stakes of possible leverage over the European Union as Ankara takes control of the route.

Austria and Hungary derail EU naval plan on Libya arms

An EU naval operation set for launch in April off the Libyan coast may be derailed following objections by Austria and Hungary. Both want the power to end the mission should migrants be lured into being rescued.


Migration: Let us put the 'pull factor' myth finally to rest

Factors such as the weather, and conditions in countries of departure, are much more key in explaining changing migration movements than talk of the 'pull' effect. But despite the many attempts to 'debunk' it, the pull theory is resilient.

People helping migrants 'increasingly persecuted in EU'

A new report has found a dramatic increase in the number of criminal and administrative cases against people who help migrants. The report comes as a number of sea-rescue activists face up to 25 years in prison in Greece.

EU 'ready' to support Cyprus on Lebanon migration

The EU is ready to offer extra support to Cyprus as the Mediterranean island faces a sharp increase in refugees arriving from Lebanon, a spokesperson for the EU executive told reporters on Thursday (4 April).

Latest News

  1. EU leaders condemn Iran, urge Israeli restraint
  2. UK-EU deal on Gibraltar only 'weeks away'
  3. Belgium declares war on MEPs who took Russian 'cash'
  4. Brussels Dispatches: Foreign interference in the spotlight
  5. Calling time on Amazon's monopolism and exploitation
  6. Resist backlash on deforestation law, green groups tell EU
  7. China's high-quality development brings opportunities to the world
  8. Ukraine tops aid list again, but EU spending slumps

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us