Do rescue missions in the Med really encourage more migrants to make the dangerous crossing?

This argument has been made frequently since the refugee crisis but the evidence reveals a more complicated picture

July 05, 2019
A search and rescue mission in the Med. Photo:  Laurin Schmid/SOS MEDITERRANEE/DPA/PA Images
A search and rescue mission in the Med. Photo: Laurin Schmid/SOS MEDITERRANEE/DPA/PA Images

Last weekend, the captain of a humanitarian rescue ship was arrested after docking without permission in an Italian port, carrying around 40 migrants who had been saved from a drifting raft in the Mediterranean Sea. Carola Rackete and the crew of the Sea-Watch 3 had picked up the migrants two weeks earlier off the coast of Libya, but had then entered a stand-off with European authorities over where they could disembark.

International law prevents the return of asylum seekers to a state where their safety or freedom is threatened, ruling out a return to Libya. But other states are under no obligation to allow a ship to dock. Rackete eventually decided to defy a police blockade in order to reach a port. She faces a fine of up to €50,000 and 10 years in prison for doing so.

It is far from the first time a humanitarian, NGO ship has been left stranded. Search and rescue missions have come under increasing legal pressure from European governments, which accuse them of aiding human trafficking and say their presence in the Mediterranean encourages people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing when they otherwise would not.

The same logic is often applied to government rescue efforts. The Italian government closed down its own mission in 2014, just before the refugee crisis hit the headlines, to be replaced by a more limited EU-led operation focussed on border security. The UK government backed the move, with a Home Office spokesperson saying at the time that: "ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing."

But others say that desperate migrants and refugees, who have often already survived severe dangers and trauma just to reach the Libyan coast, will attempt the journey regardless. The United Nations has long argued that reducing search and rescue missions only leads to more deaths. With governments pulling back from the responsibility, NGOs have been forced to fill the gap.

So what do we know about the link between rescue missions and efforts to cross the sea?

There is anecdotal evidence that smugglers view the rescue ships as a back-up plan for dinghies in distress—or at least that's what they tell their passengers. A 2017 report from the EU border agency, Frontex, claimed that smugglers sometimes instructed migrants to call the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome to initiate rescues on the high seas.

The same year, Ross Kemp included an interview with a smuggler in his documentary Libya's Migrant Hell, in which the smuggler said he didn't expect the unseaworthy vessels he pushed migrants off in to make it all the way to European land. “The Italian security are only 13 miles off shore,” he explained.

But if smugglers are hoping rescue boats will pick up their stricken passengers, it is nothing more than that—a hope. Statistically speaking, there is no correlation between the likelihood of migrants attempting the crossing and the chance of them being rescued if they run into trouble.

A 2017 analysis by researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Freiburg found that, in comparable months, migration across the deadly central Mediterranean route was actually highest when search and rescue missions were at their lowest point—the period after Italy shut down its rescue mission but before NGOs started their own.

Meanwhile, the mortality rate—the proportion of those attempting the crossing who did not survive—was also at its highest during this time, leading the researchers to conclude that increased search and rescue operations have not encouraged more people to cross but have helped to save lives.

Italy's search and rescue operation began in 2013, after a series of tragedies off the coast of Lampedusa brought the issue to public attention. But thousands of people had already been attempting the journey for years, when such operations were almost non-existent. It is estimated that 10,000 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean between 1997 and 2007.

Many migration researchers say the “pull factor” theory displays a gross misunderstanding of the multiple motivations at play in the decision to move—and that “push” factors such as conflict, insecurity, poverty, a shortage of food, shifting political situations, and threats from smugglers and other criminal factions along the way, tend to be far more important than any “pull” of possible rescue.

Researchers Eugenio Cusumano of the University of Leiden and James Pattison of the University of Manchester make a good point in a 2018 paper about the “pull factor objection” to rescue missions. By making the crossing safer, the objection goes, it encourages more people to do it, which ultimately puts more lives at risk. The objection relies on there being insufficient operations to save everyone.

But, the researchers point out, “If rescue operations were able to rescue all migrants at risk of drowning... the only worry would then be that SAR operations render migrant crossings to Europe easier.”

In other words, if the concern is really about saving lives rather than limiting migration, the pull factor theory would support increasing search and rescue missions, rather than cancelling them.