Sunday

20th Jan 2019

Opinion

The reality of NGO migrant rescues

  • Smugglers’ use of increasingly overloaded vessels cannot be attributed solely to the presence of NGOs, but depends instead on a complex combination of factors. (Photo: Brainbitch)

In 2016, more than 180,000 migrants left Libya to reach Italy. At least 5,000 died. So far this year, more than 1,000 fatalities have already been reported.

In response to this emergency, 10 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) deployed ships off the coast of Libya.

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NGOs have become the largest provider of search and rescue (SAR) around Libyan waters.

Based on data from the Italian Coast Guard, NGOs rescued a total of 46,795 migrants in 2016, many more than EU border control and anti-smuggling missions Triton and EUNAVFOR Med.

Still, non-governmental SAR faces mounting criticism as a pull factor for illegal migration, a facilitator of human smuggling, and an obstacle to the identification of smugglers and asylum seekers.

In April this year, a prosecutor in Catania, Italy, publicly accused some NGOs of colluding with smugglers.

Frontex (the EU's border and coast guard), the Italian ministers of justice and the interior, and the European Commission distanced themselves from the investigation by acknowledging the important role played by NGOs in saving lives.

However, opposition politicians have called for a crackdown on non-governmental rescues.

If NGOs were to be prosecuted for abetting illegal immigration or prevented from moving migrants to Italian ports, their rescue activities would become unfeasible.

Unintended consequences

According to critics, non-governmental maritime rescues may have unintended humanitarian consequences.

Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri reported to De Spiegel, the German newspaper, that the presence of European ships off the coast of Libya leads traffickers to force even more migrants onto unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years.

Following this line of argument, non-governmental SAR may unintentionally lead to a higher number of deaths at sea.

The estimated fatalities off Libya's shore – growing from 3,186 to 4,527 between 2015 and 2016 – ostensibly lend support to the argument.

Smugglers’ use of increasingly unseaworthy and overloaded rubber dinghies, however, cannot be attributed solely to the presence of NGOs, but depends on a much more complex combination of factors.

In the course of 2016, operation EUNAVFOR Sophia had disposed of 422 boats. According to a leaked report, the mission forced smugglers to resort to skiffs (small boats), towing overcrowded dinghies left adrift outside Libyan territorial waters.

Existing EU documents – quick to identify NGOs as a cause of smugglers using of increasingly unseaworthy vessels – remain silent on the potential human costs of EU anti-smuggling maritime operations.

Identifying SAR as a pull factor implies that reducing rescue capabilities off Libya would eventually result in a decrease in migrant departures.

Disputed pull factor

In late 2014, the Italian Navy maritime rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, was interrupted and followed by Frontex's Operation Triton, which would not patrol any further than 30 miles from the Italian coastline.

Despite this step down in rescue operations, there was no decrease in the number of migrants.

In fact, there was an increase in both arrivals and casualties, showing that criticising SAR as a pull factor is both simplistic and dangerous.

Indeed, research suggests that migrants – often forced to board dinghies at gunpoint – would not be deterred from crossing the Mediterranean even by much more dangerous journeys.

While smugglers may have to slightly readjust their business plans, the absence of NGOs off the coast of Libya would not stop the flow to Europe.

If anything, stopping NGOs would only offload the burden of SAR onto merchant vessels, often ill-equipped to undertake such tasks.

If taken in isolation, the ongoing efforts of the EU to make Libyan authorities capable of combating smugglers by training the local Coast Guard are unlikely to yield significant results. This is due to Libya’s fragile state and the importance of smuggling to the economy of Western Libya.

Effective policies against human smuggling require action on land, both in Libya and at the earlier stages of the Sub-Saharan African smuggling chain.

Maritime anti-smuggling operations alone may only increase the risks for migrants without achieving significant results in reducing illegal entries to Europe.

Different policies need be enacted to manage large-scale migrations. Letting people die at sea, however, is not one of them.

Stopping the activities of NGOs off the coast of Libya - in the hope of reducing migration - but without strengthening state-led rescue capabilities, would be both irresponsible and ineffective.

Eugenio Cusumano is a lecturer in International Relations and European Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

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