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Migrants crossing the Mediterranean driven by weather and instability, not chance of rescue

The Central Mediterranean remains the deadliest route for migrants attempting to reach Europe

Migrants and refugees are seen on an inflatable boat during a rescue operation by the Turkish Coast Guard on the Aegean sea between Turkish resort town of Bodrum and the Greek island of Kos last week. Getty Images
Migrants and refugees are seen on an inflatable boat during a rescue operation by the Turkish Coast Guard on the Aegean sea between Turkish resort town of Bodrum and the Greek island of Kos last week. Getty Images

Migrants attempting to reach European shores across the Mediterranean are not encouraged to make the dangerous crossing by rescue operations, a study has found.

Researchers at the European University Institute found no evidence which suggested a link between the presence of search and rescue ships operated by NGOs and the number of migrants attempting the crossing.

The findings directly contradict a widespread claim pushed by some European governments that the rescue operations are a pull factor for migrants, driving up the numbers of attempted crossings.

It states that “there is no evidence to suggest that departures increased when NGO ships were at sea”.

The report is the first detailed study of search and rescue activity between 2014 and 2019 and uses data from the International Organisation for Migration, the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the Italian coastguard.

Instead, the report’s authors, Eugenio Cusumano and Matteo Villa, found that other factors, including weather and political instability in Libya, were behind higher numbers of crossings.

The pull factor theory has underpinned the policies of several European states restricting the activity of search and rescue ships in the Mediterranean.

In Italy, the so-called Minniti Code, named after then interior minister Marco Minniti, to which NGOs involved in rescuing asylum seekers must subscribe, is made up of a number of restrictions and forbids NGO vessels from entering Libyan territorial waters.

Mr Minniti’s successor as interior minister, the hardliner Matteo Salvini, put the Italian government in a standoff with the operators of search and rescue vessels during late 2019, refusing ships the right to deliver rescued migrants to Italian shores and introducing a new law threatening heavy fines for NGOs and ship captains.

In Spain, similar legislation threatens heavy fines on organisations running rescue missions in the Mediterranean in order to dissuade them from carrying out rescue missions.

In July, the NGO Proactiva Open Arms was threatened with fines of up to €900,000 (Dh 3.6 million) for defying an order confining its ship to port in order to go back out to sea to continue rescue operations.

The organisation’s founder Oscar Camps said in a post on Twitter at the time: “We’re pulling up anchors and leaving. I’d rather be in prison than complicit.”

The report’s authors criticised policies designed to reduce the number of crossings, stating that European policies designed to limit rescue operations off the coast of Libya “may have indirectly magnified the deadliness of the crossing without significantly contributing to reducing regular departures”.

The research found that even though by 2017 NGOs had become by far the largest provider of search and rescue services in the region, the number of migrants attempting the crossing had plummeted as a result of a deal struck between the Italian government and Libyan militias to prevent migrants from leaving for Europe.

But the report criticises policies like these, arguing that “these externalisation policies are deeply problematic due to the horrific conditions suffered by migrants in Libya”.

The report’s authors are urging decision makers in Europe to restore missions which combine search and rescue and border security, arguing that this will save lives at sea and prevent undetected arrivals, while being “unlikely to significantly incentivise irregular migration”.

So far in 2019 alone, at least 1,098 people have died while attempting to reach Europe by the Mediterranean routes, UNHCR said.

On Tuesday almost 100 migrants were picked up off the Libyan coast by the rescue ship Ocean Viking, operated jointly by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee.

MSF said 94 people were rescued from a rubber boat. The survivors include four pregnant women and six young children.

Updated: November 19, 2019 05:46 PM



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