Migrant boat rescue missions do not encourage crossings: study

Migrant boat rescue missions do not encourage crossings: study
A recent study has found that humanitarian rescue missions do not encourage migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. This year alone, more than 1,727 migrants died or disappeared while crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
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Migrants are seen sitting inside the rescue vessel Open Arms after being rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. (Photo by Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Humanitarian operations to rescue migrants attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea do not encourage further crossings, a modelling study said on Thursday.

The finding contradicts claims that charity-run ships which find and save migrants in the Mediterranean incentivise people to risk their lives trying to get to the European Union.

Instead, migrants are driven to make the perilous voyage by intensifying conflict, natural disasters or economic hardship in their country of origin, according to the study.

More than 20,000 migrants have died trying to cross the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy since 2014, according to the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM).

A range of charity-run ships have been working to rescue migrants, who are often on rickety boats, from drowning in the Mediterranean.

Recent Italian governments, including that of current far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, have sought to block or impound the rescue ships, saying they encourage migrants to attempt the crossing -- and boost the fortunes of people smugglers.

However, the new study published in Scientific Reports found no evidence of this so-called "pull factor", said co-author Ramona Rischke of the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research.

"This suggests that search-and-rescue operations first and foremost save lives and do not attract migration," she told journalists.

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The researchers analysed data from the EU's border patrol agency Frontex, the coastguards of Tunisia and Libya, the IOM and UNITED for Intercultural Action -- a non-profit that records the identities of those lost at sea.

They then used predictive modelling to simulate the flow of migrants on the central Mediterranean route between 2011 and 2020, searching for factors that impacted the number of crossings.

Not even the Italian government's year-long Mare Nostrum operation, which rescued more than 100,000 migrants in the Mediterranean before ending in 2014, encouraged more crossings, the study found.

However, conflicts, environmental conditions, unemployment and commodity prices all played a role, as did weather conditions on the day of embarking and the amount of air traffic from North African and Middle Eastern countries, it said.

The data showed there was also a reduction in crossings in 2017 when the Libyan coastguard ramped up efforts to intercept and send migrant boats back to Libya under a controversial EU-backed deal.

This came "at the expense of well-documented human rights violations against prospective migrants," including at detention centres along the Libyan coast, the study emphasised.

In the first half of this year, there were 1,727 deaths or disappearances in the central Mediterranean route, mostly from drowning, the IOM's Missing Migrants Project said last week.

Rischke lamented that "search and rescue activities by NGOs continue to be criminalised and obstructed," even as the number of "shipwrecks and recorded deaths has recently been increasing yet again".

In February, Italy passed a law limiting charity-run ships carrying out more than one sea rescue at a time, as well as forcing them to dock at an assigned port.