18th Mar 2018


How NGOs took over migrant rescues in the Mediterranean

  • Migrants rescued by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station in the Mediterranean sea. Some NGOs fear their objectives may become victims of their own success. (Photo: Florio)

The launch of Operation Triton in 2014 shifted the focus of EU efforts in the Southern Mediterranean from Search and Rescue (SAR) to border control. Several NGOs have since attempted to fill the gap left by the absence of large-scale humanitarian operations.

In late 2014, philanthropists Regina and Christopher Catrambone set up the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), equipping a former fishing vessel with two drones and staffing it with former Maltese Navy personnel.

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MOAS offered an example that has been imitated by other NGOs. In 2015, the Brussels and Barcelona branches of MSF developed their own SAR capabilities using their own vessels, the Bourbon Argos and Dignity I.

German NGO Sea-Watch also purchased a vessel to search for migrant boats in distress in 2015. In February 2016, SOS Mediterranee chartered a 77 metre ship to conduct operations in partnership with the Amsterdam branch of MSF.

The non-for-profit spin-off of the Spanish lifeguard company Pro-Activa and two other German NGOs – Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet – also started rescuing migrants in the Central Mediterranean a few months later. The Dutch charity Refugee Boat Foundation and Save the Children are set to start SAR operations soon.

All these organisations usually conduct rescues between 20km and 50km off the coast of Libya upon authorisation of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).

Two different operating models can be found. Organisations with larger vessels, such as MOAS, MSF, and SOS-Mediterranee, conduct fully fledged SAR operations, rescuing migrants and dropping them off in Italian ports.

Smaller NGOs such as Sea-Watch and Pro-Activa focus exclusively on rescuing, distributing life jackets and emergency medical care while awaiting for a larger ship to shuttle migrants into an Italian port.

Devoted to rescue

As the Central Mediterranean corridor is frequently crossed by merchant and military vessels alike – all obliged to conduct rescue missions based on the legal duty to assist people in distress at sea, enshrined in Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – one may consider the contribution of a few NGO vessels negligible.

Among all the assets presently deployed in the Mediterranean, however, only NGO vessels have SAR as their primary mission.

Triton only operates within 30 miles from the Italian coast, and has proven tragically ill-suited for SAR.

EUNAVFOR Med and Italian Navy Operation Mare Sicuro mandates focus on countering smuggling and other illegal activities.

Commercial shippers have financial disincentives to conduct SAR, and sometimes deliberately avoid migrants’ transit areas.

Even the Italian Coast Guard, which has conducted large numbers of SAR operations, is an organisation focused on policing Italian coasts, and its capacity to rescue migrants is reduced by the need to preserve its readiness for unexpected contingencies on national waters.

Hence, while the capabilities of NGOs are relatively small, the fact that their assets are exclusively dedicated to SAR makes their contribution to rescuing migrants invaluable.

Buffeted by politics

The non-governmental provision of SAR, however, is an endeavour fraught with challenges and trade-offs.

On 17 August, MSF Brussels’ Bourbon Argos suffered an armed attack from a Libyan speedboat. As a result, MSF Brussels and several other NGOs temporarily withdrew from the SAR zone.

While the attack calls into question the safety of non-governmental SAR, MSF and other NGOs alike have discarded the possibility of conducting their activities under a military escort, which could undermine the perceived impartiality, neutrality, and independence of their actions.

Moreover, most SAR organisations are small NGOs funded primarily through small donations. The combination of declining funding and a growing number of organisations involved may jeopardise the financial viability of non-governmental SAR in the future.

Also, the feasibility of non-governmental SAR in the Central Mediterranean is contingent on Italian government’s willingness to allow for the disembarkation of migrants rescued in the Maltese and Libyan SAR zones.

As SAR NGOs are firmly against disembarking migrants in Libya or Tunisia, an electoral victory of the Italian parties demanding a tougher stance of migrations may render their activities impossible, depriving NGOs of a place of safety to send migrants and exposing NGOs to the risk of prosecution for aiding illegal immigration.

Lastly, some NGOs fear their objectives may become victims of their own success.

Forcing the EU to act against the loss of life at sea is, for instance, one of Sea-Watch’s primarily objectives.

Several other NGOs, who campaign for migrants’ safe passage into Europe, fear being co-opted into a migration management system they regard as morally bankrupt. They suspect that their operations may allow European states to offload responsibility to conduct SAR on civil society, ultimately making the launching of a large scale, EU-led SAR mission based on the Mare Nostrum model more unlikely.

The recent decision to create a European Border and Coast Guard is likely to strengthen the EU's ability to respond to mass migrations.

Whether this force will be focused primarily on border management like Frontex or will embrace SAR as one of its core missions remain to be seen.

Until then, NGOs will remain crucial to mitigate the loss of life at sea. Without more successful efforts to stabilise the EU Southern Neighbourhood and a revision of EU migration management system, however, non-governmental SAR will be nothing but a sticking plaster, akin to emptying the Mediterranean with a spoon.

Eugenio Cusumano is an assistant professor in International Relations and EU Studies at Leiden University.

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