Do Mediterranean search-and-rescue missions cause more drownings?

Earlier this week, a ship chartered by far-right activist group Defend Europe entered Mediterranean waters: apparently in a bid to support the Libyan Coast Guard's reconnaissance efforts, prevent human trafficking, and monitor humanitarian NGO activity. On its website, the group states that humanitarian NGOs are “responsible for the mass drowning of thousand [sic] of Africans in the Mediterranean.” The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that from the beginning of this year to the end of June, 2257 people have died or gone missing while trying to reach Europe by sea.

Defend Europe describe themselves as “Identitarian”: a label used by those who wish to preserve European culture by drastically cutting immigration and combating what they perceive to be Islamization. Although they claim to be partially motivated by preventing the suffering of migrants and refugees who drown attempting to cross the Mediterranean, they are at least honest about their primary goal. But immigration concerns notwithstanding, do those who claim that rescue missions incentivize dangerous Mediterranean crossings have a point? The key question here is whether the lives saved by SAR operations outweigh the lives lost as a consequence of irregular migration incentivized by them; the evidence suggests that they don’t.

One argument used to criticize the impact of SAR missions is that they increase the mortality risk of Mediterranean sea-crossings: independently of the overall number. An internal report from the European border agency Frontex, obtained last year by the Financial Times, argued that search-and-rescue (SAR) missions in the Mediterranean may incentivize riskier methods of smuggling. However, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—one of several humanitarian organizations working in the area—have cast doubt on Frontex’s reasoning for this claim. Furthermore, Blaming the Rescuers—a report released last month by Forensic Oceanography—highlights more compelling explanations for changing smuggling practices in 2015-2016:

...the increasing involvement of militias in the smuggling business, the shift in composition of migrant nationalities, and the increasing interventions of the Libyan Coast Guard...have contributed to a downward spiral in the practices of smugglers and conditions of crossing over 2015 and 2016. The dynamics of Libyan smuggling are deeply shaped by the fragmented political landscape in Libya, which constitutes a causal factor in its own right. While difficult to measure, the influence of these trends on the increasing danger of the crossing in 2016 is undisputable. While Frontex has analysed smuggling networks in Libya, it has kept these factors out of the analysis of the causes of the deteriorating conditions of crossing offered to migrants, blaming them instead on SAR NGOs...

These criticisms stack up with recent analysis of mortality rates in relation to different periods of SAR activity:


The authors of this analysis also anticipate an objection to the use of Triton I mortality figures:

The high mortality rate during Triton I is largely the result of two large accidents on 13th  and 18th April 2015, with estimated casualties of 400 and 750 people respectively. However, it would not be appropriate to consider these accidents outliers that were unrelated to the (absence of) SAR capacity. The excellent ‘Death by Rescue’ investigative report by the University of London’s Forensic Oceanography department analysed the circumstances of both accidents, using multiple sources such as photos, interviews with shipwreck survivors, rescue vessel crews, statistical data, GIS locations and internal reports by national authorities. It concluded that the deaths could have been prevented, had a more intensive SAR mission been in place...

The data referenced above casts doubt on the other main argument used by SAR-detractors, since it shows that migrant arrivals in Europe significantly increased despite the end of Mare Nostrum. Whilst it’s reasonable to assume that SAR operations may have some causal effect on irregular migration, the fact that arrivals were highest in the low-SAR period casts doubt on the strength of this effect and the likelihood that it outweighs the lives saved by SAR operations. Push-factors such as conflicts in Libya and Syria seem to have a far greater impact on the number of attempted sea-crossings than any pull-factors, as echoed in a 2015 International Organization for Migration report:

...the current migratory flows across the Mediterranean, from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East to Europe, seem to be driven much more significantly by push factors that cause migrants to depart their homes, than by the pull factors that draw migrants to Europe.

I’m pessimistic about the possibility of self-styled Identitarians changing their mind about SAR missions in the Mediterranean on the basis of the available evidence. For them, the wellbeing of migrants and refugees is at best secondary to their misplaced concerns about the impacts of immigration. However, I’m hopeful that others—who understandably find the “pull-factor” explanation intuitively appealing—view this argument with a more critical eye.