NGOs on Refugee Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean


NGOs play a prominent role in refugee search and rescue (SAR) missions in the Mediterranean Sea.  They are involved in more than 40 percent of all rescue missions for refugees in the region. Despite saving thousands of lives, NGOs regularly deal with harsh criticism. The opponents of these NGO’s accuse them of acting as a facilitator of the increased amount of refugees in the region and collaborating alongside human smugglers.


The 2016 Turkey-EU refugee deal and the closure of the Balkan have increased the number of refugees embarking on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Often these vessels are not seaworthy. Smugglers exploit the desperate situation these refugees are facing. Records taken in 2016 show that this journey has caused more than 5,000 refugee deaths.  This statistic is the highest number of fatalities to occur to that date.


The Italian navy managed the rescue mission Mare Nostrum until October 2014. That this time it was replaced by the Frontex operation Triton. Opposed to the humanitarian efforts by the Italian Navy, Triton’s goal is mainly to secure EU borders. Triton’s budget was significantly smaller than the Mare Nostrum budget but expects to increase its spending due to an event which killed 1,150 people in April 2015.


In 2014 and 2015, NGOs from several different countries began refugee searches and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea. Currently, about ten NGOs are active in the region. Equipped with large ships, these NGO’s can save refugees and transport them into ports. Some NGO’s that are involved include MSF, Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS which is a private Organization based in Malta), and the European Organization SOS-Méditerranée. Other organizations complement the goals of these NGO’s by distributing life jackets and the providing emergency medical care.  Some of these include the German nonprofit Sea Watch and the Spanish NGO Pro Activa Open Arms.


Currently, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) organizes all of these missions. NGOs are involved in more than 40 percent of all missions and continue to save the lives of refugees. In its 2015 report, MSF said that it saved around 23,000 people in the 120 rescue missions that occurred that year.


These NGOs also face various challenges that hinder the amount of impact that they have. Mostly funded by small private donations, these groups lack the aid by their local governance. The captain of the rescue ship Sea-Eye states that due to the little support it gets from the government they are unable to save enough people.


NGO’s struggle with suspicion and criticism. In February, a Frontex report said NGO ships that sail close to the Libyan border aid the increase of migrants in the region. These rescue missions done by NGOs have the unintended effect of facilitating “criminals [to]strengthen their business model by increasing the chances of success.”


The University of Oxford published a study in March which examined these claims.  By comparing the number of refugees arriving at times when rescue missions on the sea were successful, the study hoped to understand if NGO rescue missions had an impact on the number of refugees coming in the EU. The researchers found that an increase in SAR missions had little effect on refugee arrivals or their deaths rates while traveling. These SAR missions had the effect of decreasing the risk of mortality of passage through the Mediterranean Sea by migrants.


However, criticism continues against these NGO’s. In April, Italian state prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro began to make allegations against some of the NGOs doing rescue missions. On top of this, he investigated possible connections between the NGO’s and Libyan smugglers. In an interview, Zuccaro stated that some NGOs might be receiving funding by traffickers.


Zuccaro claimed to have evidence that smugglers and NGOs were in communications.  Zuccaro later revoked this statement. However, Zuccaro continually states that the organizations guide refugee vessels to the mainland with light signals. The only NGOs the prosecutor excluded include Save the Children and MSF. His investigations mainly target small NGOs.  These include MOAS, Proactive Open Arms, Sea-Eye, Sea-Watch, and SOS-Méditerranée.


Several of the NGOs engaged in the search for refugees deny Zuccaro’s claims.  In a statement about these accusations, Stefano Argenziano from MSF argued that it was “ludicrous” and that these allegations divert attention from the real issue.  Argenziano also stated that the high death toll of refugees on their way to Europe is primarily caused by the EU failing to offer legal methods for migrants to utilize the Mediterranean route.


Zuccaro’s claims fuel European actors calling for an end to the reception of refugees.  These allegations continually foster public suspicion of migrants. Outside of the Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri, critics of the NGO’s work include prominent political figures.  One example of this is the German Secretary of the Interior Thomas de Maizière and Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz.  In a statement, they said that “NGO-madness” on the Mediterranean Sea must come to an end. These critics ignore that the EU has international agreements which oblige military, private, and trade vessels to assist ships under dire circumstances.


Despite the accusations and suspicion, these NGOs continue their refugee search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.  The increase of migrant death on the Mediterranean Sea route makes it clear that these groups are a necessity. To extend their efforts, these NGOs require financial and contextual support from both government and the public. Moreover, as Argenziano states, these NGOs are not going to solve the issue of migrants immigrating to the EU. NGO can only fight its the symptoms of increased migration. Argenziano demands politicians provide legal and safer routes for migrants to enter the EU.


– Lena Riebl

Photo: Flickr


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