This argument has been made frequently since the refugee crisis but the evidence reveals a more complicated pictureby Jessica Abrahams / July 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Last weekend, the captain of a humanitarian rescue ship was arrested after docking without permission in an Italian port, carrying around 40 migrants who had been saved from a drifting raft in the Mediterranean Sea. Carola Rackete and the crew of the Sea-Watch 3 had picked up the migrants two weeks earlier off the coast of Libya, but had then entered a stand-off with European authorities over where they could disembark.
International law prevents the return of asylum seekers to a state where their safety or freedom is threatened, ruling out a return to Libya. But other states are under no obligation to allow a ship to dock. Rackete eventually decided to defy a police blockade in order to reach a port. She faces a fine of up to €50,000 and 10 years in prison for doing so.
It is far from the first time a humanitarian, NGO ship has been left stranded. Search and rescue missions have come under increasing legal pressure from European governments, which accuse them of aiding human trafficking and say their presence in the Mediterranean encourages people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing when they otherwise would not.
The same logic is often applied to government rescue efforts. The Italian government closed down its own mission in 2014, just before the refugee crisis hit the headlines, to be replaced by a more limited EU-led operation focussed on border security. The UK government backed the move, with a Home Office spokesperson saying at the time that: “ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing.”
But others say that desperate migrants and refugees, who have often already survived severe dangers and trauma just to reach the Libyan coast, will attempt the journey regardless. The United Nations has long argued that reducing search and rescue missions only leads to more deaths. With governments pulling back from the responsibility, NGOs have been forced to fill the gap.
So what do we know about the link between rescue missions and efforts to cross…