Friday

6th Dec 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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join 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.

Does EU have role in stopping backsliding in Georgia?

The EU's eastern neighbourhood is in flux. The collapse of the pro-reform government in Moldova and the stagnation of anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine was recently followed yet by another political crisis in Georgia.

EU investment bank 'wide open to abuse by fraudsters'

Fundamental reforms are needed if the EIB is to become more accountable, democratic and transparent. Establishing a firm grasp on corruption to ensure that public money no longer feeds corrupt systems is a vital first step.

European beekeeping in crisis

Europe's bee population is dying. The number of pollinator species threatened by extinction is increasing each year, and human activity is the main cause.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. Migrants paying to get detained in Libyan centres
  2. Searching for solidarity in EU asylum policy
  3. Will Michel lead on lobbying transparency at Council?
  4. Blood from stone: What did British PR firm do for Malta?
  5. EU Commission defends Eurobarometer methodology
  6. Timmermans warns on cost of inaction on climate
  7. Development to fuel change
  8. Does EU have role in stopping backsliding in Georgia?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us