Rescuers 'not to blame' for rise in migrant crossings and deaths, research finds

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Efforts by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to rescue migrants crossing the Mediterranean are not making these crossings more frequent or more dangerous, an investigation by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London has found.

Goldsmiths research shows that NGO search and rescue at sea has saved thousands of lives

On the contrary, NGOs have played a crucial life-saving role, stepping in to ensure search and rescue in the Mediterranean after the EU and its member states pulled out in late 2014.

The researchers examined allegations made by different actors – including Frontex – the European Border and Coast Guard Agency and leading European politicians – that search and rescue activities carried out by NGOs constitute a 'pull factor' leading to more migrant crossings and that NGOs are encouraging smugglers to use even more dangerous tactics, leading to more migrant deaths.

A report of the investigation, 'Blaming the Rescuers', was presented today (9 June 2017) at a press conference in Rome by a panel of experts including report authors Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, of Forensic Oceanography (part of the Forensic Architecture agency) at Goldsmiths.

The analysis suggests that search and rescue (SAR) efforts by NGOs were not the main driver of an increase in crossings in 2016. In fact, as Frontex recognised, the increase was consistent with previous year-on-year trends of increasing crossings by African migrants, which cannot be attributed to the presence of SAR NGOs, demonstrated by a 46% increase in crossings from Morocco between 2015-16 in the absence of any NGO SAR in the area.

Lorenzo Pezzani of Goldsmiths said: “The evidence simply does not support the idea that rescues by NGOs are to blame for an increase in migrants crossing. The argument against NGOs deliberately ignores the worsening economic and political crisis across several regions in Africa that has driven up the numbers of crossings in 2016. The violence against migrants in Libya is so extreme that they attempt the sea crossing with or without search and rescue being available.”

The report also examines accusations that by providing SAR cover NGOs are ‘unintentionally helping criminals’ and encouraging smugglers to use poorer quality boats and adopt more dangerous tactics, making crossings more dangerous.

The analysis found that NGO SAR was not the cause of the worsening crossing conditions. The smugglers’ tactics have continuously worsened since Libya’s descent into civil war. Meanwhile the EU’s anti-smuggling operation, EUNAVFOR MED, was demonstrated to have had a major impact on smugglers’ tactics as it intercepted and destroyed larger wooden vessels contributing to a shift towards the use of smaller, less stable, rubber boats. The Libyan Coast Guard’s use of violence when intercepting vessels also affected smugglers’ tactics and at times led to boats capsizing, endangering everyone on board.

Charles Heller of Goldsmiths said: “The rise of militia-led smuggling in Libya and the effects of the EU’s anti-smuggling operation, which has led to the destruction of many larger boats, are the main factors in crossings becoming more dangerous, not NGO rescues. Far from increasing the dangers NGOs have responded to a situation not of their making to save lives. Our analysis shows that the migrant mortality rate has consistently decreased in periods when NGO search and rescue is operating, then increased again in its absence. More NGOs at sea has meant a safer crossing for migrants.”

The researchers conclude that those blaming NGOs are choosing to ignore the role other actors, including EU agencies and national governments, have played in making migrant crossings more dangerous.

Lorenzo Pezzani of Goldsmiths said: “We believe the toxic narrative falsely claiming that NGO search and rescue is to blame for the migrant crossing situation is part of a worrying tendency to criminalise solidarity initiatives towards migrants. It is also a convenient distraction, as it diverts attention from the failures of the states involved to deal with the real issues. One has to ask: why is there such a gap in search and rescue activities in the first place that makes NGO rescues so essential?”

Charles Heller of Goldsmiths said: “If this campaign to discredit NGO search and rescue was successful in scaling down or even stopping their activities, there is a real risk that many more migrants crossing the Mediterranean would lose their lives – precisely what happened when attacks led to the ending of the Italian Mare Nostrum operation in 2014.”

Read the full report: 'Blaming the Rescuers'.