Migrants from Libya not driven by hope of being rescued at sea – study

No link found between number of Mediterranean crossings and level of NGO rescue ship activity

No valid statistical link exists between the likelihood that migrants will be rescued at sea and the number of attempted Mediterranean crossings, a study has found. The findings challenge the widespread claim in Europe that NGO search and rescue activity has been a pull factor for migrants.

Fear that the NGOs’ missions attract immigrants has been the basis for measures restricting humanitarian ships including requiring them to sign up to codes of conduct or simply blocking them from leaving port.

It is the first detailed study of NGOs’ proactive search and rescue activity between 2014 and October 2019, but the findings focus most closely on the first nine months of this year, a period when Europe had withdrawn from all search and rescue activity leaving only NGOs or the Libyan guard. The research was undertaken by two Italian researchers, Eugenio Cusumano and Matteo Villa, from the European University Institute

Drawing on official statistics and examining three-day averages, the study showed the numbers rescued depend on the numbers leaving. It found a stronger link this year between the number of migrant crossings and either political stability in Libya or the weather, rather than NGO ships at sea.

The study found that in 2015, the total number of departures from Libya slightly decreased relative to 2014 even though migrants rescued by NGOs increased from 0.8 to 13% of the total number of people rescued at sea. After July 2017, the number of migrants departing from Libya plummeted even though NGOs had become far and away the largest provider of search and rescue by far.

It also found that in the 85 days in which the NGOs were present in the search and rescue mission there were no more departures than the 225 days in which there were Libyan patrol boats.

Instead, the study showed the big decline in crossings in 2017 was linked to the deal struck between the Italian government and various Libyan militia to keep migrants from attempting sea crossings.

The study looks at figures from the International Organisation for Migration, the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the Italian coastguard.

Over the five years the humanitarian ships have rescued a total of 115,000 migrants out of 650,000 with an average of 18%. In 2019 alone, at least 1,078 migrants have died or gone missing, according to the UN, while trying to reach safety in Europe.

While the EU recognises the Libyan coastguard and is also funding and training its work, there is no overall agreement about how asylum seekers should be dealt with in an equitable and EU-wide manner.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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