Why NGOs Have Stopped Search and Rescue Operations

Since 2014, NGOs have been conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, saving the lives of those fleeing conflict and persecution. Currently, however, no more rescue ships operate in the Central Mediterranean. Why is that so?

Following the Lampedusa tragedy of October 2013, when two boats sank off the coast of the Italian island leaving more than 600 to die, the Italian Navy launched the operation Mare Nostrum, involving 900 military personnel, naval vessels, helicopters, aircrafts and submarines. One year later, after having rescued more than 100,000 people, the operation was terminated. The Italian government criticized the lack of solidarity of other EU member states and the cost of the operation (more than €9 million per month).

After Mare Nostrum came operation Triton, of the European border agency Frontex. However, unlike its predecessor, Triton’s primary objective was border control, not saving lives. In addition, the manpower, the range of its operations and the financial and material resources allocated were considerably lower. Although the budget of Triton was later tripled and its range expanded, its main purpose always remained to control the borders.

When the humanitarian crisis intensified, the EU launched operation Sophia and later, when the number of migrants coming from Turkey grew, Frontex launched operation Poseidon. However, the focus was on fighting smuggler networks and, more generally, maritime law enforcement, rather than search and rescue. So the EU started training and equipping the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard, who are under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for abuses against migrants. Last week, they intercepted 315 migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and sent them to detention centers, where they risk torture, extortion, forced labor, rape and death. More on the situation in Libya here.

NGOs fill the void

The termination of operation Mare Nostrum saw the birth of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), an NGO founded by a wealthy couple, Chris and Regina Catrambone, who purchased a fishing boat, the Phoenix, to launch their own rescue missions.

Other, larger, NGOs followed suit. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Sea-Watch, SOS-Méditerranée, Sea-Eye, Save the Children, Jugend Rettet, Pro-Active Open Arms, Mission Lifeline and others, each purchased boats and started deploying them off the shores of Libya, in the Aegean Sea and other parts of the Mediterranean. According to MSF, in 2016 alone, humanitarian NGOs rescued 46,806 men, women and children contributing to 26% of rescues in the Mediterranean, followed by the Italian Navy and Italian Coast Guard with 21% and 20% respectively.

Criminalisation of sea-rescue operations

However, these rescue operations did not last long. In its 2017 Annual Risk Analysis Report, Frontex accused NGOs of acting as "pull factor" for migrants and refugees and indirectly helping smuggler networks. NGOs, referred to as "migrant taxis", came under intense political pressure. Public opinion shifted and donors became scarce, forcing many to stop their operations due to financial limitations. Politicians from Italy’s populist political party 5 Star Movement accused NGOs, without any evidence, of cooperating with criminal networks.

Italian authorities impounded migrant rescue boats, such as the Iuventa, from German NGO Jugend Rettet, and Open Arms, from Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms. The staff members are being investigated. Activists who volunteered on search and rescue missions, such as Sarah Mardini, a hero among human rights activists, are detained and face baseless accusations.

Italy’s new government prevented rescue ships such as Lifeline and even their own coast guard ship Diciotti from disembarking in their harbors. The rescue ship Aquarius, of the humanitarian organizations MSF and SOS Mediterranée, was the last ship to save lives in the Central Mediterranean. Its flag was revoked by Panama in September, after “blatant economic and political pressure from the Italian government”, MSF reports. In August, the Aquarius had already been refused the right to dock in Marseille after its flag was revoked by Gibraltar.

On 5 October, 22 individuals stormed the headquarters of SOS Méditerranée, in Marseille. And while NGOs are being harassed and human rights activists detained, EU policies lead to an increase in people detained in centers in Libya and to a rise in death rates. Last week, 17 people were found dead off the Spanish coast, bringing the death toll to over 2,000 in 2018. The death rate for crossings on the Mediterranean has increased substantially this year. While the average for 2017 was one death for every 42 arrivals, in September 2018, it was one death for every eight arrivals, UNHCR reports.

Instead of smearing those that are saving lives, Europe should give them its support. Migrant rescue vessels should be released, charges against their staff members lifted and safe and legal pathways for migrants should be available.

The future for the rescue vessels of the NGOs looks bleak and uncertain. What is certain is that migrants will keep trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, to escape conflict and persecution.

Help Mission Lifeline and Sea-Eye save lives!

To end on a positive note: two German NGOs are currently planning new search and rescue operations and everyone can participate. First, the organisation Mission Lifeline launched a campaign called The Real Civil Fleet, where they find owners who provide their yacht, look for the appropriate crew and convert the yachts to mini-rescue vessels. If you don't have a yacht and you don't want to go on a mission on the Mediterranean, it's fine, you can also participate by helping them purchase equipment: Donate here!

And if you don't like this campaign, or you don't like the name Mission Lifeline, there is a second organisation you can support. The association Sea-Eye is currently raising funds to launch a new mission and you can contribute: Donate here!