Friday

27th Nov 2020

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

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

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Most Libya migrants not headed to EU, aid group says

The International Organisation for Migration interviewed thousands of migrants in Libya last year. It found that 60 percent did not want to go to Europe, but had aimed to remain and find work in Libya.

EU stands aside as Hungary detains migrants

Commission is withholding action on Hungary's detention of asylum seekers, even as the Hungarian government tries to "stop Brussels" on immigration policy.

The under-reported power struggle at the top of the OSCE

An internal power struggle has undermined the world's leading international security body since the summer. The OSCE is due to finally get new leaders in December but the unprecedented power vacuum has hit at a crunch time for hotspots worldwide.

EU corporate due diligence: new rules, or businesses rule?

The Brussels rumour mill has it that the EU Commission is being pressured to put forward a weaker proposal than what civil society organisations, trade unions, and the European Economic and Social Committee say is needed.

China's supply chains and 're-shoring' under Covid-19?

Some in Europe are calling for re-shoring or near-shoring supply and industrial chains of such critical sectors as medicine and pharmaceuticals, to reduce dependence on China's supply chains and market. Minister Xia Xiang sets out the opposite case.

News in Brief

  1. Brexit talks pick up pace once more
  2. MEPs back US trade detente
  3. Iran diplomat to stand trial in Belgium over 'France bomb plot'
  4. Trump says he'll leave if Biden wins Electoral College vote
  5. EU Parliament: Polish abortion ban risks womens' lives
  6. UN experts warn against racial profiling
  7. EU auditors raise red flag over maritime protection
  8. Four students charged in France's beheading case

The human cost of whistleblowing

The fate of Jonathan Taylor, a British whistleblower stuck in legal limbo in Croatia, is a test of European laws designed to protect those who put themselves at risk for the common good.

EU vs US tech agenda under Biden

What will the new Joe Biden administration bring to the realm of digital policy, and how will it affect the relationship with the EU?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  2. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersUN Secretary General to meet with Nordic Council on COVID-19
  4. UNESDAWell-designed Deposit Return Schemes can help reach Single-Use Plastics Directive targets
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council meets Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to invest DKK 250 million in green digitalised business sector

Latest News

  1. Erdoğan jails hundreds for life, as EU weighs relations
  2. Italian energy giant director advising EU foreign policy chief
  3. Poland and Hungary say rule-of-law link needs treaty change
  4. Portuguese presidency to focus on social rights and India
  5. The under-reported power struggle at the top of the OSCE
  6. Poland hammered on women's rights in EU debate
  7. EU 'front-line' states want clearer migration rules
  8. Von der Leyen tells Poland and Hungary to go to court

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us