This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here.Pål Nesse is Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council. This is the fifth and final instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective.
A few years back I participated in a moving ceremony outside the Maritime Museum in Oslo, where Vietnamese refugees unveiled a monument in appreciation of being rescued by Norwegian merchant ships in the South China Sea in the 1970s and 80s. In the first row were several retired captains, some of them in their nineties, sitting next to Vietnamese people that were rescued at their orders. They were life-saving heroes – and the many hundred saved were granted resettlement in Norway. Fortunately, I never heard anyone suggesting this was an unacceptable practice, as it was a pull factor for future Vietnamese migrants.
Since then, I have visited the Italian Coast Guard in Sicily, the crew on a Norwegian oil rig support ship that rescued 1,900 persons off the Libyan coast, fishermen and others plying the seas. They all referred to the duty of rescue as an “of course” practice, something they all adhere to.
In July last year, Germany requested European countries to join a “coalition of the willing” that would jointly share responsibility for those rescued in the Central Mediterranean – and support Italy’s policy change that again permitted disembarkation in Italy, without Italy solely being left the responsibility for those coming ashore. Eight European countries responded positively. Since then, more have joined. This is one of those few recent European occasions – where the shortage of pan-European consensus on refugees and migrants resulted in a constructive protection and responsibility sharing initiative.
As I write this, the Norwegian ship “Ocean Viking” has 407 migrants on board, rescued in the Mediterranean during the last week of January. The ship is chartered and operated by MSF (Doctors Without Borders) and SOS Mediterranée. Yet, various European governments, including my own, keeps warning against this NGO activity. They claim it constitutes a pull factor for African migration to Europe, contributing to more deaths at sea.
Academics and news channels have countered this argument based on their research and interviews with the migrants and refugees themselves. NGOs operating rescue ships claim the same. Migrants state they took the risk of leaving Libya to reach Europe by boat, irrespective of rescue ships in the area.
But isn’t the question of “pull factor” the wrong one to start with? Any forced displacement or voluntary migration intervention in countries of origin, transit countries or potential destinations may constitute a certain degree of push or pull – based on real or perceived options and opportunities for those on the move. Rescuing people from fragile or sinking boats at sea is a humanitarian imperative, practiced by coastal countries like Italy and Norway for centuries. Even if the boat used for the transport should never have left the port of origin due to its condition, incompetence of the crew or the weather forecast, that is irrelevant to the simple duty of rescue.
This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here.Kyrre Lind is a field worker and spokesperson and Head of program department MSF Norway. This is the fourth instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective.
Last night when I wrote this piece, the search and rescue ship Ocean Vikingrescued 92 people, including pregnant women and small babies, from an overcrowded rubber boat 30 nautical miles from the coast of Libya. Many of the survivors suffered from hypothermia and seasickness, and many were extremely weak and saturated in fuel.
Doctors without Borders (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE have since august 2019 rescued over 1,500 people at sea in the central Mediterranean. In 2019, 14,876 people reached Malta or Italy by sea, while 771 deaths were recorded. In 2019, more than 2,000 people were evacuated from Libya by UNHCR, to Niger, Rwanda, different European countries and Canada. At the same time, the Libyan coastguard forced more than 9,000 border crossers back. About 3,000 – 5,000 remain trapped in official detention centres in Libya.
In August 2019, MSF returned to sea as people were drowning. Our actions were directed at saving their lives. We intervened because the conflict raged in Tripoli and ever more migrants and refugees were losing their lives in Libya. Throughout the second half of 2019, it often took days and weeks before assignment of a place of safety for the people we rescued. There is no established, predictable system for disembarkation of people from rescue ships and boats.
From our perspective as participants in the search and rescue, there seems to be little indication that NGO boats are a pull factor from the countries of origin. We see that reasons for leaving home are manifold. For those who already planned to cross the Mediterranean when they set on their journey, Europe is the real pull factor. They hope to obtain protection, security, a better life and a good job. However, there are also long-established migration routes from West Africa and Sudan to Libya and not everyone planned to cross the Mediterranean when they first set out on their journey. Many people we encountered tell us that they just wanted to get a job. Libya has for a long time been a country that hosts guest workers from African countries and others. The fact of the matter is that today Libya is a fragile country ravaged in civil war: lawless conditions make it easier to get a job without paperwork, but also increase the risk of exploitation and abuse. Yet, many take the chance and try to get a job in Libya.
What people tell us aboard the Ocean Viking is that the situation in Libya is the main reason why they are trying to leave the country. People tell us about war horrors, brutal violence, gross exploitation and slavery-like work conditions. Our medical staff on-board Ocean Viking see wounds and scars from beatings, cuts, burns and gunshots, the consequences of sexualized violence, and illnesses related to unhygienic living conditions. EU reports confirm how bad the situation is. IOM has expressed strong concerns about the situation and has asked for a completely new approach in the region. The people we meet say they would rather risk their lives at sea than stay in Libya.
Norway, the country where I come from, receives quota refugees from Libya (450 in 2019), and at the same time supports transit reception centres in Rwanda. However, Norway, via the EU, also supports the Libyan coastguard, which is forcibly returning people to Libya. Back on land, most of them are sent straight back to detention centres – back to the very same detention system MSF have consistently called for people to be evacuated from. Absurdly, and shamefully Norwegian politics is currently helping a few to get out of a terrible situation, while at the same time contributing to pushing people back to that very same conditions.
From where I stand, the narrative that our search and rescue activities are a pull factor for migration seems oversimplified. It is a tool used to defend the present politics, which is failing to solve the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean Sea.
This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here.Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is a Research Director and Senior Researcher, PRIO. This is the second instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective.
Debates have flourished in recent years about whether the NGO-led rescue vessels in the Mediterranean create a pull-factor and encourage more migrants to attempt the risky journey across the Mediterranean. The connection between aid to migrants and the fear of creating a pull-factor is neither new, nor unique to Europe, and constitutes one of the central elements in refugee reception policies in many host countries across the world. It has also been an element in European refugee reception policies for many years, and has become particularly pregnant in recent years following the large number of arrivals in 2015, and the debate around the rescue operations at sea.
This debate around the rescue efforts in the Mediterranean can be traced back to the set-up of Operation Mare Nostrum. The search and rescue mission, led by the Italian navy, was established in response to the large shipwreck of Lampedusa in October 2013, which was met with moral outrage, compassion for the victims and declarations of this brining “shame” on Europe by European leaders. The year during which Mare Nostrum was operational was also the period in which migrant arrivals increased the most. Although there were probably many driving factors for this increase, the juxtaposition of increased rescue efforts and increased migrant arrivals quickly led to conclusions that the first led to the second. While the theory was initially seen as controversial, since it was used to legitimate the need to reduce rescue capacities at a time where these needs seemed to be increasing, it has become a commonplace, widespread and generally accepted in European political circles.
State of the art: what has been said about the connection
The theory has been increasingly questioned and criticized by scholars in the field, including in previous posts on this blog, especially by Elias Steinhilper and Rob Gruijters. They demonstrate such an approach is not reflected in data as they compare periods of high rescue capacity and low rescue capacity (also seen in relation to the total number of arrivals and drownings in these periods). Moreover, the reports “Death by Rescue” and “Blaming the rescuers” by researchers from Forensic Oceanography at Goldsmiths (University of London) have shown how the policies in this area led to the retreat of state-led rescue and an increase in the loss of lives at sea. They also demonstrated that NGOs filling this role are becoming the target of accusations outlined above. The most recent attempt to engage in this controversy by refuting the pull factor theory is the work of Eugenio Cusumano and Matteo Villa, who have systematically analysed the number of departures from Libya to Italy, from 2014 to October 2019. They concluded that there is “no relationship between the presence of NGOs at sea and the number of migrants leaving Libyan shores”. They also found that departures from Libya have been largely shaped by weather conditions, as well as Italian policies of “onshore containment” in Libya.
What these reports highlight is that the assumption about SAR as a pull factor is either weak or unfounded. The picture is much more complex and policy responses need to reflect that.
The pull factor as a symptom: of what?
Despite these findings, the assumption about the SAR as a pull factor is still deeply anchored in policy and popular debate around responses to migration in the Mediterranean. It pervades policies and public discussions in different reception countries across Europe, from Greece where border crossers are stuck, to France that seeks to avoid a creation of a new “Jungle” off Calais. It is also very much present in countries like Norway, much further away from the Mediterranean and with very few arrivals in recent years (2655 asylum applicants in 2018, and 2305 in 2019, the lowest number since the mid-1990’s). This focus appears to be symptomatic of the way the EU is struggling to deal with and respond to the “migration issue”, and analyzing this debate indeed tells us several things about the state of EU policies in this area – or the state of the stalemate.
First, debates about how to solve the Mediterranean crisis over the past years have been complex, as well as intense and polarising, with seemingly few solutions in sight. In such a setting, it becomes important to point to certain causes, or ideally, actors to blame. While the focus a few years ago was to a large extent on the smugglers as the root cause and actors to blame for the Mediterranean migration, the blame is now on the rescuers, for “playing into the hands of the smugglers”. Condemning the presence of the rescue vessels also becomes a way to point to a “solution”, at the time when there are seemingly very few solutions in sight. Returning them to Libya is not legally feasible, as it is not considered a “safe harbour” (see upcoming post by Røsæg), and seeking to establish asylum reception centres in Libya also pose several legal, practical and political challenges. The fact that intense policy efforts and enormous financial spendings to reinforce European border security have not put an end to the tragic situation in the Mediterranean, with people still attempting the perilous journey, also creates a political need for someone to blame.
Finally, the tragic humanitarian situation at Europe’s borders today is likely not the result of an inability of providing an official Search and Rescue operation, but is first and foremost a product of an unwillingness to provide better and more assistance to border crossers. This unwillingness is inherently tied together with the idea that any form of aid runs the risk of both “fixating” already arrived migrants and encouraging more to come. The humanitarian concerns, however, are not absent from European policy makers’ discussions in this area, which also constitutes the strength of the “pull factor theory”: as it is argued that is for humanitarian reasons that we should refrain from rescuing, as these practices contribute to maintain the same humanitarian suffering. Such rhetoric is the main reason why this assumption that links the SAR and increased mobility should continue to be challenged and debated.
A simple, moving ceremony for the people who died at sea on 7
October, took place today in the small island of Lampedusa. Only a few days ago
Lampedusa commemorated the anniversary of the tragedy that occurred on 3
October 2013, when over 360 persons lost their lives in the Mediterranean
waters when the fishing boat transporting around 500 people sunk a few
hundred metres from the coast. Thousands of people have died in the
Mediterranean Sea in the past few years in an attempt to reach Europe. What
happened two days ago was only the most recent episode in this human-made,
According to the latest figures,
at least 30 people, including an infant, lost their lives on 7 October. Many
are still missing. All the 13 bodies that were initially pulled out of the sea
were women. The survivors have only identified four of them.
Raised anchor in Sfax, the boat got into
trouble a few miles from the coast of Lampedusa. The engine stopped working
properly, and water started flooding into the bottom of the boat where a group
of Sub-Saharan women were sitting with their children. The boat capsized when
approached by the coast guard, pouring all the Sub-Saharans and
Tunisians onboard in the water. Two Tunisian guys told me that, right before
the boat capsized, they have been able to through a pregnant woman on the coast
guard vessel. In the dark water, they said, it was chaos. “People who could not
swim tried to grab us. They can pull you down, they make you drown,” one of
them said. “The only thing you can do is to swim away and reach the
A sense of loss
pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make, but also
for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it.
Laura Nader once asked: “Is there anything more fundamental to what makes
humans human than ideas of right or wrong?” That is a good question. Every
discussion about migration, borders and refugees seems to be dominated by
pragmatic approaches: Is it convenient, in economic terms, for Europe to
welcome high numbers of migrants? Are they really “high numbers”? Are
protectionist national regulations in conflict with international law? Who is
legally responsible for the boats filled with migrants in need of help in the
Mediterranean? These are pertinent questions. Yet, they don’t address the core
issue, which is rather a matter of right and wrong. I struggle with the thought
of how anyone with a basic moral attitude towards humanity can think that it is
right that some people have passports and are free to move around while others
don’t even have a passport (or have a passport that “doesn’t count” in the
international mobility) and are denied this basic right.
Open borders is the
only possible answer to the current dismantling of the European project and,
more profoundly, of ideals of solidarity, fraternity and equality. We need open
borders simply because it is the right thing to do. It should not be contingent
on an analysis of pros and cons, or on considerations of an economic, legal and
political nature. The arrogant and violent language of a transnational class of
political figures, the tyranny of financial capitalism, the disintegration of
socialist ideologies, and the rising of a vulnerable underclass at the European
level has transformed a matter of right and wrong into a battle among the poor.
“Migrants steal our jobs”, “They receive more benefits than us”, “Italians first”
(tragically reproducing Donald Trump’s deplorable motto “America first”). These
discourses signal the victory of dominant classes over the subalterns. Local
populations in hotspot locations like Lampedusa have shown great solidarity in
the past years, often against the will of national governments. But
anti-migrant sentiments seem to prevail all over Europe at this point in
history. Qualitative studies have extensively demonstrated that irregular
migration is a huge business for those in power and for criminal organizations.
Whoever today reiterates ideologies of closed borders that hinders mobility
becomes complicit in a business whose profit is made from human suffering and
It is always
illuminating to try to explain complex things in simple ways. Now, try to
explain the politics of borders to a child. How can we explain to a child that
some people, who are in dire need, cannot cross a border to enjoy refuge and
care in search for a better life? Unscrupolous pragmatists would say that you
do that by explaining the child that we have to protect “us” first, that we
have to secure jobs for ourselves first, and that this is “our land”. I have
deep concerns about who that child will be tomorrow.
The Norwegian-registered vessel Ocean Viking, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, has recently been at the centre of a debate that has become dominated by one assumption: that search-and-rescue (SAR) operations are encouraging people to attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
The logic is problematic for
several reasons, and I will try to address some of them: 1) the statistics
suggest otherwise; 2) it ignores the wider picture – that a range of complex
factors drive people to flee their homes, with some heading towards the
Mediterranean; and 3) the theory is being used to legitimize non-rescue of
boats in distress.
A temptingly simple explanation
The logic has a name, the pull
factor – in other words, that SAR operations contribute to “pull” more people
to attempt the crossing. The power of this idea lies partly in how it provides
a simple and apparently clear-cut explanation for a complex problem — a problem
that we otherwise have a hard time understanding, and even harder time
addressing. It is also powerful because it is difficult to refute: it is hard
to know exactly what makes people decide to embark on this dangerous sea
crossing, and there are probably as many reasons as there are refugees and
In 2004, Erna Solberg, then
Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, argued against a local initiative in Trondheim, which sought
to provide food and accommodation to asylum seekers lacking refugee status.
Solberg claimed that the initiative would “in practice mean unfettered
immigration by people from the Horn of Africa”. Today the idea that any measure
intended to ensure a minimum level of subsistence for refugees or other
migrants will help “pull” more people in the same direction pervades European
policy on migration, from Greece and France to Norway.
The pull factor and SAR operations
particular, the legacy of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum has served to boost
the pull-factor theory about SAR missions in the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum
was established in response to a major shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013,
which was described by high-ranking EU politicians and the Italian president as
a “shame” for Europe. Mare Nostrum was run by the Italian navy as a
“military-humanitarian” operation. The number of refugees and other migrants
who attempted to make the crossing had already begun to rise before the
operation started, and even while Mare Nostrum was saving tens of thousands of
lives at sea, the numbers continued to rise.
quickly concluded that the increase was linked to the presence of the SAR
operation, and that Mare Nostrum was directly and indirectly encouraging more
people to make the crossing. This allegation, which was seen at the time as
controversial, has nonetheless become almost conventional wisdom in today’s
What do the numbers tell us?
researchers have examined the statistical relationship between the numbers of
migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and SAR capacity. One study, conducted by Elias Steinhilper and Rob Gruitjers,
looks at the period between late 2013 and 2017. They divide this period into
three periods: an initial period with high SAR capacity (October 2013 – October
2014); a subsequent period with low SAR capacity following the launch of the
Frontex-led Operation Triton (November 2014 – May 2015); and a third period
with high SAR capacity (Triton II with increased SAR capacity, plus more
vessels operated by NGOs). The numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean
began to increase before Mare Nostrum was implemented, and continued to
increase after it was shut down and throughout the period of low SAR capacity.
In fact, the numbers increased most sharply during the period of low SAR
capacity, rather than during the two periods with high SAR capacity. This same
period also saw the sharpest increase in the number of drownings, compared with
the periods before and after.
still ongoing, study conducted by Matteo
Villa at ISPI in Milan, is examining the number of migrants leaving
Libya in 2019 compared with the availability of SAR vessels on the actual dates
the migrants’ boats left shore. The findings show that the likelihood of boats
leaving Libya is not affected by the availability of SAR vessels, but rather by
wind and weather conditions. Figures from the IOM and UNHCR show that so far
this year, on average, 31 migrants leave shore on days when SAR vessels are
operating, against 41 migrants on days with no SAR vessels.
A narrow perspective
while these figures sow doubt about the existence of any direct link, it is
important to point out that the theory itself, assuming that the availability
of x number of SAR vessels affects the number of people attempting the sea
crossing, is built on a problematic premise. The thinking is based on a very
narrow perspective, which views SAR vessels as a unique factor in a world where
the availability of more or fewer SAR vessels is the sole factor influencing an
apparently inexhaustible number of migrants ready to attempt the crossing. The
wider picture, with its multiple factors that either hinder migration or make
it possible or necessary for people to leave their homes, is too complex to
understand and too difficult to do anything about. This line of thinking posits
NGOs’ activities as the simple explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible
situation, and thereby also the factor that needs to be addressed in order to
resolve the situation.
Humanitarian rhetoric used to legitimize not saving
problem with this hypothesis however is not only that it appears to be
unfounded and based on a narrow perspective, but that it is being used to
legitimize both the closed ports and an active policy of not coming to the
rescue of vessels in distress. There is in fact a duty, enshrined in the
international law of the sea, to provide assistance to vessels in distress and
take the rescued to a safe harbour.
of one’s political standing, it is no easy matter to argue against saving lives
at sea. That is also why many of those advancing this argument. are trying to
prove that SAR operations will “entice” more people to attempt the crossing,
and thereby putting more migrants at greater risk. As such, the policy of
non-rescue is presented as a policy that protects more people from drowning.
hindering the operations of SAR vessels will not save the lives of more
migrants, and it will also not address the complex causes of displacement and