Do search and rescue operations encourage more people to cross the Mediterranean?

Standing on a tiny North African fishing boat – known as TO6411 – in London’s South Docks Marina a couple of years ago, I tried to imagine what it had been like for the 36 migrants who had travelled in it across the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only a few of us could stand on the deck before it started taking on water, and UK authorities decided it could only safely hold eight people. It wasn’t too hard to imagine the Mediterranean swallowing up this rickety vessel and all those onboard. That this hadn’t happened, and that artist Lucy Wood had subsequently sailed it all the way to London, was astonishing.

I thought about TO6411 when the Government announced last year that it would no longer support search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. They had created an “unintended ‘pull factor'”, one minister said, encouraging more migrants and refugees to risk their lives to get to Europe.

On the face of it, that made sense – 3,500 migrants died crossing the Med in 2014, compared to around 700 in 2013. James Brokenshire, the Immigration Minister, was right to point out that Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue teams – introduced after the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy that claimed 359 lives – were being called nearer and nearer to Libyan waters. Libya is the main point of departure for those fleeing conflict and persecution in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and, increasingly, Libya itself. This trend indicated that the introduction of the Mare Nostrum operation at the end of 2013 had encouraged more people to risk their lives.

There is significant uncertainty here, and the Government’s explanation – that the promise of likely rescue was incentivising behaviour we would want to discourage – sounded plausible. But it failed to account for the escalation of conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the increasingly precarious situation for the millions of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. So far no-one has been able to provide a conclusive causal delineation for Med migration, allowing this kind of explanation to take root. At best, the Government looked like it was groping around in the dark; at worst, that it was willing to allow migrants to drown to put others off.

Even with Mare Nostrum in place, thousands drowned last year. We can therefore reasonably assume those making the crossing are willing to risk their lives to get to Europe.

What’s happened since the withdrawal of Mare Nostrum sadly reflects this: in the first quarter of 2015, nearly 500 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean. This weekend alone, nearly 6,000 people were rescued. Since the Government stopped support for search and rescue, more migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean, and more have died doing so. 2015 is on course to see a record number of people drown in the Med.

In contrast to Mare Nostrum (which had one purpose – to prevent death), the EU’s new Triton border patrol has fewer vessels and only acts when there is immediate danger close to Europe’s coast. It’s becoming clear that many more of the 200,000 rescued last year would have drowned had it not been for Mare Nostrum. That’s why Médecins Sans Frontières have announced they are funding a new search and rescue mission to fill some of the gap that has been left.

Ultimately, politicians in the UK and EU alike are trying to solve a problem having ruled out the solution: the provision of safe and legal routes into Europe. The UK has offered resettlement to just 143 Syrians. Last month, the European Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, tried and failed to get agreement from EU ministers to establish centres in North Africa and the Middle East to apply for refugee status and resettlement in Europe from third countries.

With no end to the conflicts and violence in Syria and Iraq in sight, and instability increasing in other parts of the Middle East and Africa, the pursuit of policies to maintain ‘Fortress Europe’ by limiting resettlement opportunities and minimising rescue missions in the Mediterranean will only end one way.


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