SAR operations by NGOs: new report inverts the relation of causality and clarifies role of NGOs

The organisation Associazione Stampa Estera presented the the report Blaming the Rescuers, from the project Forensic Oceanography, on the 9th of June in Rome.

During the last months the NGOs that conduct the Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean have been at the centre of a political and media storm. The SAR operations have saved more than 4000 victims in 2016. However, the NGOs have been accused of collusion with the smugglers by many institutional actors: the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG) also known as Frontex, the Italian vice-president of the lower chamber, several international media and a group of public prosecutors in Italy who started investigations into these NGOs. The report by Forensic Oceanography assesses that a toxic rhetoric has been created where the only victims are the NGOs, and most importantly no concrete evidence has been found in this “criminalization campaign”.  However, the report goes beyond this and addresses not only the accusation of collusion in smuggling per se, but rather it challenges the assumptions reinforcing this accusation. It uses as a reference the years 2015-2016 and relies on extensive interviews with state officials, SAR NGOs and migrants, as well as previous reports from EU agencies involved, journalists and researchers specialized on human trafficking.

The three assumptions examined are the accusations that these SAR NGOs are doing to following: (I) constituting a pull-factor for migrants, (II) by rescuing people from the sea,they influencing the smugglers’ strategies (who started providing poor quality boats, less fuel, etc.) and thereby, they help criminals (III) they render the route more dangerous.

Paradoxically, the first assumption seems to be contradicted by the same report which put the NGOs at the centre of this storm (Frontex Annual Risk Analysis report, 2017). In fact, the authors in that report come to the conclusion that the operations conducted by the NGOs cannot be indicated as a pull-factor since the increased number of African migrants arriving was consistent with the year-to-year increases, as well as the situations in the countries of origin. Two very important elements support these findings: the trend of year-on-year increases was present before the NGOs started to be the major actor in SAR operations in central Mediterranean route; secondly, the pull-factor assumption cannot be explained in the western Mediterranean route where the increase of crossings was 46% in 2016, however no SAR NGOs were present there.

In order to discuss the second assumption, which is that the NGO help is changing the smugglers’ strategies for the worse, the authors call into question the evolution of the EU-backed EUNAFOR MED operation SOPHIA. It was in fact this operation, which started back in June 2015 as security-oriented mission aimed at disrupting the smuggling business, that has heavily influenced the smugglers’ strategies,  according to the report. In October 2015 the operation shifted to phase two which entailed its expansion to the international waters. This made smugglers see that they could no longer operate in total impunity in the international waters. Specifically, this “territorial” shift prevented the smugglers from retrieving the vessels used for the crossings. In turn, this led the smuggling business to opt for cheaper options of transportation, since they could no longer recover and re-use these boats. Hence, already in 2015, EUNAVFOR MED already reported the worsening conditions of transportation along the central Mediterranean route. For the journey, smugglers provided less fuel, less food, less water and the more stable wooden boats were replaced by rubber dinghies, which grew to 70% of the means of transport used in 2016. These data must be seen in light of the fact that at the time there was only one SAR NGO present in these waters.  In addition, with regard to Libya, the authors point out that endogenous circumstances must be taken into account to complete the picture. The fall of the regime in 2011 meant the end of the state-controlled smuggling business and as a consequence a plurality of actors entered the market. Raising the competition, they started a downward spiral with regard to the quality and the conditions of the smuggling services.

Finally, it can be concluded that these factors combined increased the level of danger of these crossings. At the same time, it results that the relation of causality is inverted. In fact, according to the authors the presence of SAR NGOs did not cause a more dangerous route, but rather the route became more dangerous – due to the elements discussed above – which set off a proactive and stronger response from the NGOs.