Speaking to Ben Cowles, Italian researcher MATTEO VILLA debunks the idea that search and rescue operations are encouraging people to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to Europe
THE European Union recently agreed to extend its anti-human trafficking naval mission, known as Operation Sophia, for a further six months.
Though ostensibly a military mission, Operation Sophia is thought to have saved close to 50,000 lives in the Mediterranean since it began in 2015, following the outbreak of the so-called “migrant crisis.”
There was one very important caveat to the EU’s extension of Operation Sophia however. The EU agreed not to redeploy the search and rescue (SAR) ships it “temporarily” suspended in April after Italy’s government, then a populist and far-right coalition, threatened to veto the entire mission.
Central to Italy’s objection to Operation Sophia was then interior minister Matteo Salvini’s claim that the search and rescue ships were a “pull factor,” meaning their mere presence at sea was encouraging migrants to try to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.
And so when NGOs from across Europe began carrying out the rescue missions the EU should have been doing, Italy’s far-right poster boy directed this allegation at them.
But, according to migrant researcher Matteo Villa at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, there is no evidence that NGO ships are “pulling” migrants into the sea.
“This narrative had never been tested and many supposed it to be true,” Villa says. “But once you check the data you find the NGOs are not correlated with more departures from Libya.”
Villa has been recording both the numbers of migrant boat departures from Libya each day and the numbers of NGO migrant rescue ships in the Libyan SAR zone.
“Since at least January this year we either have NGOs in the Libyan SAR zone or nobody. So that’s almost like a natural experiment,” Villa says.
“It’s not like Frontex vessels or anyone else is there. There is nobody. You really just have a zero or a one, which is very good to test the hypothesis.”
If the civil fleet were acting as a pull factor on the numbers of migrant departures from Libya, Villa explains, then you would expect the numbers of departures to increase when the ships are in the SAR zone and decrease when they’re not.
“But what I have found from the data is that there is actually no difference when NGOs are there or not. And actually, when you look at the average, you have even more attempted crossings from Libya, when the NGOs are not there.
“Just to be a little clearer; there are 41 departures each day on average when there is nobody there and when NGOs arrive it’s about 35 departures per day. So you can see, the numbers are so comparable.
“Actually, we can predict quite well the number of departures each day if you look at the temperature and the wind. When it’s cold and windy, you get down to about five to 10 departures each day. And when the weather is clearer then it can go up to 100.”
Villa also believes the political stability in Libya could also be affecting the numbers of departures. There was a significant drop in migrant departures in April this year during the most intense fighting between the rival warlords over Tripoli.
“The data suggests there are many correlations for why migrants depart but NGOs are not one of them.”
Still, the idea that the civil rescue fleet is acting as a pull factor on migrant departures from Libya persists.
“The far right have this conspiracy theory that NGOs are working with smugglers to bring people into Europe to substitute us,” Villa says. “But almost everybody has acknowledged the ‘pull factor’ narrative, not just the far-right.
“Even in more moderate circles, the narrative was pushed as an unintended consequence. The centre-left government in Italy in 2016 and 2017 said it could be the case and started to take measures to deter NGOs from carrying out rescues at sea.
“All over Europe this narrative is being taken for granted. We saw a huge backlash when [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel said the EU should reconsider deploying rescue ships to the Mediterranean.
“European politicians and the media were saying that if we do public rescues then more people will come. But they never even look at why these people are running away. They just say that if the ships were not there, then nobody would come.
“And they usually point to Australia, which managed to bring down arrivals but also increased deaths at sea by doing almost all of the things we’re doing here. But it was even harsher.
“They detained people and they put them on an island, Nauru or Papua New Guinea, and left them in indefinite detention.”
Villa believes that the political class across Europe know that the civil rescue fleet and Operation Sophia are not encouraging migrants to escape Libya in leaky boats and deflating rubber dinghies. But, he says, the political narrative is too compelling.
“It’s so easy to tell the story and it’s so believable. You know, I started out this research believing that the pull factor was there but that its effect was small. But data showed me that there was no pull factor.
“When you have politicians who are hard pressed, when you have a compelling narrative, and when it will take a lot of effort to convince people of the contrary then it’s hard to show what you’re saying is the truth.
“I expect that even the new Italian government will bring the pull factor hypothesis to the fore. I just hope that we move from the narrative that there is a crisis to a narrative of pragmatism.”
Matteo Villa is a researcher for the migration programme at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. You can follow him on Twitter via: @emmevilla.