Refugees flee across the Mediterranean in an iconic 2015 image from the UN Refugee Agency

The Tangled Politics of Search and Rescue Operations in the Mediterranean

Since the early 1990s, North Africa has served as a jumping point for migrants trying to reach Europe. Then, as now, these are mixed migration routes where refugees and asylum seekers travel side by side with migrants in search of better economic opportunities. But as the numbers increased, from thousands to tens of thousands a year, debates over EU responsibility to rescue and save these migrants from drowning have become more contentious.

At the center of the current debate are the humanitarian NGOs trying to fill the gap left by the EU’s increasingly draconian migration policies.

Politics of Search and Rescue

Following the tragic capsize of a boat off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013 that killed more than 300 migrants, Italy launched Operation Mare Nostrum in October 2013. Led by the Italian Navy, the operation had a specific search and rescue mandate and worked near the Libyan coast, enabling the ships to rescue thousands of refugees and migrants attempting the dangerous central Mediterranean crossing. But the cost of the operation – estimated at 9 million Euros a month – fell solely to Italy. Despite repeated requests for additional funding from other EU member states, no funding emerged and Italy shut down Mare Nostrum in October 2014, just a year after it launched.

As the number of refugees and migrants crossing into Europe spiked in 2015, this debate over search and rescue continued. The head of Frontex, the EU border agency, explicitly stated that saving migrant lives was not a priority for the agency even as the number of deaths soared. In fact, the Frontex-led Operation Triton that replaced Italy’s Mare Nostrum specifically placed its mandate with border security rather than search and rescue. Likewise, none of the other three major EU and NATO operations taking place in the Mediterranean have a specific search and rescue mandate. Instead the Italian-led Operation Mare Sicuro is focused on protecting energy assets, NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian is focused on counter-terrorism and the EU’s Operation Sophia is mandated with battling human trafficking by targeting smuggling assets like boats — and thus stopping migrants before they can cross.

Because maritime law requires ships to respond to any other ship in distress, it is more than possible that migrants will be saved by ships participating in these various operations, particularly with Operation Sophia. But in the end, search and rescue remains a secondary concern and that is by design.

For many politicians throughout the EU, search and rescue operations are seen as encouraging migrant numbers while a higher death toll, as unfortunate as it may be, could serve as an effective deterrent.

In this setting, several NGOs stepped up to provide search and rescue operations within the international waters of the Mediterranean. The first project came about with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) created by an Italian-American couple in 2014 who converted a fishing boat into a search and rescue boat operating off the Libyan coast. In the spring and summer of 2015 when the number of refugees crossing between Turkey and Greece spiked, several other NGOs followed the model, including the Belgian and Dutch chapters of Doctors Without Borders and Sea-Watch, a small German NGO. In 2016 as migrants increasingly opted for the more dangerous Central Mediterranean crossing over the Eastern route between Turkey and Greece, more European and international NGOs have joined in offering search and rescue services off the North African coast.

As a result, NGOs have saved tens of thousands of migrants who likely would have died, an estimated 41 per cent of those rescued according to UNHCR. Over Easter weekend this year alone, search and rescue boats saved more than 8,000 people from drowning. But even while alleviating the responsibility of governments to save migrants, the politics of search and rescue remain controversial and now those same NGOs find themselves in the crossfire.

Both European and Libyan officials have likened the NGO ship to “migrant taxis”, blaming the search and rescue operations for the continued crossings. Some Italian politicians and Frontex officials have gone as far as to accuse the NGOs as colluding with human traffickers even though a subsequent investigation found no evidence of this. In fact, a recent report warns that if NGOs are forced to stop search and rescue operations, a humanitarian catastrophe will most certainly result.

The Need for Real Solutions

In the midst of this political quarrel is still Italy. Despite no longer conducting its own widespread search and rescue operation as it did with Mare Nostrum, Italian ports are still the primary destination for migrants rescued by NGOs. That is because most other EU member states have closed their borders, both by land and by sea. In the case of those picked up by Frontex as part of Operation Triton, they are required to go to Italian ports as part of the protocol initially agreed upon in 2014. As a result, Italy is at the center of the entire rescue framework. According to the International Organization for Migration by mid-July more than 93,000 migrants arrived in Italy in 2017 out of 111,000 migrant arrivals in the entire Mediterranean. And much like Greece before, the strain on Italy’s government and social service system is unsustainable.

The disproportionate nature of this burden led to Italy threatening to close its ports to all rescue ships late last month. The lack of burden sharing throughout the EU has been a repeated issue since migrant numbers first spiked in 2015. But despite multiple conferences, meetings, policy proposals and legal agreements, countries on the Mediterranean such as Italy and Greece are left to cope with the crisis themselves. And so the focus of anger and frustration falls back onto the NGOs who are bringing these migrants into port after rescuing them at sea.

Earlier this month the European Commission released an action plan designed to “support Italy, reduce pressure along the Central Mediterranean Route and increase solidarity.” The central tenants of the plan include stepping up support for the Libyan government to police its borders, expanding the number of detention beds and length of detention for migrants in Italy, and improving efforts to deport migrants. However one of the more controversial parts of the proposal is the new plan requiring NGOs to sign and abide by a “code of conduct” drafted by Italy in order to gain access to its ports. Once the proposed code went public last week, several NGOs and human rights groups warned it would led to further casualties rather than an improvement of the situation.

That is because the new code appears to extends the civil-military approach favored by the EU to NGOs who clearly laid out their humanitarian approach in their own voluntary code of conduct released earlier this year. It also places new burdens on smaller NGOs which make up six of the thirteen NGO ships currently operating in the Mediterranean. Ships of these smaller NGOs lack the capacity for full-scale complex search and rescue operations, and instead coordinate with other vessels – both civilian and military – in the area. By forcing them to operate alone, the new proposal will likely eliminate them from the picture and thus cut available search and rescue services by almost half.

The proposal is also being condemned by the UN. UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Route Vincent Cochetel voiced his disapproval shortly after the proposal aired. “If we want to talk about a code of conduct, no problem – but let’s have a code of conduct for everybody,” he said. Referring to allegations that commercial vessels are increasingly turning off their own transponders to avoid their obligations to respond to ships in distress, Cochetel instead proposes that any code of conduct should apply to all civilian and military ships in the area rather than just targeting NGOs.

For now, it is unclear what will happen next regarding the NGOs and their search and rescue operations. The political debate over search and rescue is not new, and in the Mediterranean it even predates the Lampedusa disaster. Any real solution will require political will that has been noticeably lacking in Europe for years.

Instead, the EU seems destined to continue pursuing half measures such as this week’s odd proposal to limit the sale of rubber boats to countries that may then export them to Libya. With or without those rubber boats, migrants will continue to try and cross the Mediterranean. The only question is who, if anyone, will be there to save them when they fail.