Search And Rescue In The Mediterranean: Are We Encouraging Traffickers?


Due to political unrest, thousands of people from Northern Africa attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to seek refuge in the Europe. However, the journey is fraught with difficulties and boats are prone to sinking, resulting in the deaths of thousands every year. Over 1,000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of this year. This far exceeds the death tolls of previous years at the same time and brings forth worries that this year will result in the highest death toll yet. The European Magazine is currently working on an “emergency plan” for the upcoming summer when they expect to see a surge in numbers. In 2016, over 5,000 people are assumed to be dead or missing after attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

Organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have created initiatives in the Mediterranean Sea to help refugees who are attempting to cross the waters between Northern Africa and Italy. The refugees are crammed into small boats that are not fit for the journey. By the time they are found by rescue operations, the boats are often half-filled with water and leaked fuel, which burns those who have been packed in the bottom of the boats.

Non-governmental organizations in the Mediterranean were initially welcomed by European authorities. In 2015, the majority of operations were undertaken by Italian law enforcement with NGOs involved in only 5% of incidents. Since then, NGO vessels are responding to up to half of the missions. NGO vessels operating in the Mediterranean are undoubtedly now a key part of the search and rescue effort.

The organizations remain largely unpolitical, although their actions do play a part in a largely controversial issue in Europe. MSF defends their actions as non-political, saying that inaction cannot be justified when people are in need. In regards to their actions on the sea, they are well within their legal rights, acting under maritime law which states that everyone at sea has a duty to rescue vessels and people in distress. MSF also coordinates with Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome in order to ensure that they are complying with the law at all times. According to their website, MSF patrols in international waters, operating at 30 to 35 nautical miles off the Libyan coast.

However, earlier this year, Fabrice Leggeri criticized volunteer organizations for rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, saying that such rescue operations “should be re-evaluated” as they encourage traffickers. Leggeri is an executive for Frontex, the European Border and Coast Agency. Frontex operates off the coast of Italy and the Greek Islands. In a report issued in December, Frontex has said that “we must avoid supporting the business of criminal networks and traffickers in Libya through European vessels picking up migrants even close to the Libyan coast … this leads traffickers to force even more migrants onto unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years.” He also accused NGOs of acting as “taxis” for refugees, despite their claim that their primary goal is to prevent the loss of life, not provide transport between the two shores.

Since then, right-wing politicians and groups have begun to accuse NGOs of “colluding” with smugglers. Austrian interior minister, Wolfgang Sobotka, has said that the rescues “hands organized traffickers every argument to persuade people to escape for economic reasons.” Such accusations have been vehemently denied by the NGO leaders, including Stefano Argenziano, operations manager for MSF. In response, he said, “It’s a ludicrous accusation that’s diverting attention from the real issues … the real problem is that people are dying.” He emphasized that the actions of NGOs in Mediterranean waters are not “the cause, but a response” to the problem.

Trafficking in Northern Africa existed long before volunteer organizations created their initiatives to save refugees in Mediterranean. There seems to be little evidence that NGOs are actually “colluding” with trafficking organizations, as some have suspected. However, it is undeniable that Leggeri was correct: there is a real possibility that NGOs working in the Mediterranean Sea to rescue refugees may encourage traffickers to send out more people with fewer supplies. The non-political stance of these organizations also means that more often than not, they have no choice but to leave unseaworthy boats in the sea where traffickers are waiting to recollect them.

However, it’s important to note that if NGOs such as MSF retreat from the Mediterranean Sea, trafficking in North Africa will undoubtedly continue. There is no guarantee that the removal NGOs in the Mediterranean will decrease trafficking. However, it is a certainty that refugees will continue to attempt the crossing, and that traffickers will continue to exploit their desperation. The only certain outcome of NGOs leaving the Mediterranean Sea is that countless refugees will drown and that the death toll will surely rise.

Rob MacGillivray, the director of Save the Children’s search and rescue programme, echoes this sentiment, saying “Safety is not the smugglers’ first priority and they will use whatever floats to send people across the Mediterranean … if search and rescue providers were to finish work tomorrow, would the people smugglers just fade into the background?”

While it is easy to accuse group such as MSF of encouraging and colluding with traffickers to evoke a negative response towards them when it suits your political gains, it is also easy to forget that these organizations are also saving lives. Removing them will result in more deaths. Criticizing the organizations and their actions does little to solve the problem, which needs to be tackled from its roots. Unfortunately, such problems are unlikely to be solved anytime soon, with refugees fleeing their countries due to extreme poverty or the fear of persecution.

For now, it seems only humane and just to offer help to those who need it. Turning a blind eye is not an option. Although it is not the best solution, it is important to ensure that a desire for the best does not get in the way of what is good. As Stefano Argenziano said, “Search and rescue … is a necessity to save lives unless politicians can produce a safe and legal alternative.”

Kimberley Mobbs