Despite being locked in a fierce battle fought on social media and played out in real life on the Mediterranean, there is one thing migrant-rescuing NGOs and their opponents agree on — the current migrant crisis is a political failure.
The numbers are staggering. Although the EU has allocated €10.1 billion (£9.3 billion) last year alone to address the problem, these figures reveal just how vast the crisis is:
- 180,000 people made the voyage from Libya to Italy in 2016
- 95,000 people have crossed so far in 2017
- Around 2,410 people have died attempting the journey so far this year
- 75% of migrants interviewed by the Red Cross had seen a fellow migrant tortured or killed, usually in Libya itself
- 80% said they themselves suffered ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’
“You don’t solve the migrant crisis at sea, you solve it on land,” Dr Persi Paoli, Research Leader on Defence, Security and Infrastructure at think tank Rand Europe says. “The moment a migrant reaches the coast and they jump in a boat, that’s already too late.”
Those aboard the ships who dedicate their lives to rescuing people making the perilous journey from North Africa to Europe are under no illusions.
“I think of us more like an ambulance service until political solutions are taken on a global scale, and a European solution to this humanitarian crisis is found,” Till Rummenhohl, Search and Rescue (SAR) team member for SOS Méditerranée, tells HuffPost UK from aboard the Aquarius rescue ship.
At a European level, the response to the migrant crisis has been found severely wanting.
A damning House of Lords report earlier this year concluded Operation Sophia, the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operation to disrupt the business model of people-smuggling, had actually contributed to more deaths at sea.
But whilst the NGOs operating in the Med acknowledge a political solution is needed, critics such as the Defend Europe group and Katie Hopkins have targeted NGO boats “ferrying migrants to Europe” in the belief this will somehow stem the flow of people into Europe.
Over the past few weeks, three NGOs have suspended operations assisting in the rescue of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, coinciding with a 76% drop in the number of people making the perilous journey in the first 10 days of August.
The decrease was due to a number of factors, including the weather, an Italian Naval mission to assist the Libyan coastguard and increased conflict in Libyan towns used by people-smugglers as departure points.
But an examination of the wider situation in the Mediterranean casts doubt over whether fewer NGO rescue boats would actually lead to fewer migrants making their way to Europe.
THE ROLE OF EUROPE
Max, Deputy SAR Coordinator for SOS Méditerranée onboard the Aquarius, accused Europe’s leaders of effectively ignoring the ‘push’ factors that prompt migrants to make the journey in the first place.
He told HuffPost UK: “We’re keeping the problem at arm’s length.
“There are widespread reports of people being bought and sold, mistreatment and torture and the EU solution of trying to stop it in the ocean, surely that’s just a continuation of the same underlying principles - that nobody cares because these are the poor, the disenfranchised and the dispossessed people of the world and they’re taking the hit.”
The migrant crisis, of which Italy is currently bearing the brunt, threatens to turn into a heated debate ahead of elections in the country next year, potentially giving populist movements in the country a significant boost.
As the poll approaches, the Italian Government has become increasingly concerned with migrants and the people-smugglers and wants other EU countries to share the burden.
But what is known as the ‘Central Mediterranean Route’ is just one of many - and the territories covered by each path cross not just countries but also continents.
Rand Europe’s Dr Persi Paoli says the EU has properly failed to grasp the problem.
“The EU has a major role to play - not just in protecting borders but reaching out to other organisations such as the Arab League or the African Union. The migration crisis is putting a lot of pressure on domestic constituencies so it’s a very politicised issue.
“Therefore it’s seen as something many [EU] member states are trying to solve on their own, and the lack of European solidarity in dealing with the issue is damaging the credibility of the European Union in the eyes of the wider international community.”
Despite EU-wide initiatives like Operation Sophia, a military operation launched in 2015 to disrupt the business model of people-smugglers, responses from individual governments have tended to be piecemeal.
In a country where the public is becoming increasingly exasperated with the flow of people into Italy, Catania Chief Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro recently suggested rescuers are being paid off by smugglers: “Some NGOs could be financed by traffickers and I know there has been direct contact” between them, Zuccaro told state TV Rai in April.
Since he made the public allegations, though without opening a criminal investigation or presenting any evidence, media have turned on the rescuers with fury.
“Pact between NGOs and traffickers, the government knew everything and now it wants to cover it up,” read an April front page of Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the brother of four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The government’s response has been to assist the Libyan coastguard in turning back boats. Similarly, Boris Johnson this week pledged £9 million to Libya to tackle terrorism, which “left unchecked can pose problems for us”.
But Giorgia Linardi, a former Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) worker, suggests the actions of politicians have reflected the most current concerns of voters, rather than addressing the root causes of the crisis.
“The challenge of integration is difficult - that’s why you need a good, concerted effort,” she tells HuffPost. “But at the same time, we can’t be blind to this but people in the West just don’t care about these people, that’s the point.”
THE PROBLEM BEGINS LONG BEFORE MIGRANTS REACH THE MEDITERRANEAN
Defend Europe, the group of young, crowdfunded hipsters who have chartered their own boat with the intention of recording collusion between NGOs and people smugglers, insists the solution to the migrant crisis is “easy”.
A spokesman, Simon Wald tells us: “There is an easy answer - these migrants have to stop fleeing their countries and rebuild their nations but these people are cowards.
“They flee, they’re left their families, they’ve left their friends, their parents and their grand-parents.
“They left them just for a better life in Europe.”
Interviews with both migrants and those working in Libya and on the Mediterranean quickly dispel any notions of cowardice, variously describing people fleeing arbitrary imprisonment, torture, forced military conscription, forced prostitution, poverty and even slavery.
The crossing itself is incredibly hazardous - HuffPost witnessed the transfer of eight bodies to the Aquarius of people who had drowned in a collapsed dinghy and been overcome by fumes and corrosive acid.
“Why can’t you leave your [country] if you’re just begging in the streets or just selling water bottles and then one day on the way home you’re raped by three guys? Why wouldn’t you want to leave?”, MSF’s Linardi says.
In fact, testimonies from migrants given to HuffPost reveal some don’t intend to make their way to Europe, but find themselves stuck in situations where paying a people-smuggler to cross the Mediterranean is their only option of escaping horrific conditions in Libya.
“I have two kids. I came to Libya to work and get money. I didn’t know what was happening in Libya. If I had known I would never have come”, a 27-year-old man from Ghana tells us shortly after being rescued by the Aquarius.
The man left Ghana in October 2016 and once in Libya was kidnapped by a gang demanding money. Eventually his brother was forced to pay them and he was freed at the end of December.
Four months ago he was stabbed in the hand by the Libyan ‘mafia’ while going to get food. “I couldn’t go to the hospital because I am black, it’s too dangerous and they don’t like black people,” he says.
The increased presence of the Libyan coastguard, backed by the Italian Navy, means more migrant boats are being pushed back to Africa before they reach international waters.
Reuters also reported this week that a shadowy armed group called Brigade 48 launched by a former Mafia boss has been aggressively pushing back migrants and detaining them possibly in the hope of obtaining financial support from Tripoli.
Since the fall of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been riven with conflicting power interests all fighting for their share of influence and money-making opportunities (there are two parliaments and three governments currently in Libya) .
But NGOs say this means even more are now trapped in horrific conditions in the country’s notorious detention centres, a leading NGO has said.
Marcella Kraay, MSF-OCA Project Coordinator currently aboard the Aquarius, says: “This may sound like a solution of the problem [of people-trafficking] but actually it’s more a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
NGOs AREN’T THE ONLY ONES RESCUING MIGRANTS
According to Fabrice Leggeri, the chief of the EU border agency, Frontex, NGO boats make up only 40% of rescues. The other 60% are carried out by Italian naval vessels and commercial ships, that are obliged to respond to distress signals by international maritime law.
Interviews with recently-rescued migrants by HuffPost indicate the idea people-smugglers specifically send boats to be rescued specifically by NGOs is questionable.
Speaking aboard the SOS Mediterranee-operated Aquarius in August, 28-year-old Sa’id from Sudan, tells us: “I was told in six or seven hours we would arrive in international waters and then we would seek rescue by the Italian army [navy].
“They did not talk about NGOs. They gave us a [satellite phone] phone and said to us after four hours you try and call the rescue and give a sign.”
Of the other five migrants from Sa’id’s group that HuffPost spoke to, only one mentioned a NGO (the Red Cross), the others only speaking in general terms of “boats”.
The situation in the Mediterranean is further complicated by the presence of the Libyan coastguard, backed by the Italian Navy (and the UK) - but a volatile and unpredictable force unto itself.
On the one hand, its vessels have threatened both NGOs and Defend Europe’s ship the C-Star, even firing upon one ship. But on the other, as HuffPost recently revealed, there’s evidence it is also colluding with people-smugglers.
Ghanim, 20, from Sudan, tells HuffPost: “A [Libyan] colonel called Said was in charge of camp [detention centre] and departures. He was a high rank official from the army. His men had trucks with heavy guns.
“We had to wait for the right moment [for the boat to depart].
″[The smugglers] told me his army was paying the coastguard to protect our boat to get out of Libyan waters.
Fewer NGO operations mean more people either die making the crossing or are returned to Libya.
“Some are trapped in Libya and some die along the way - so many people die on the desert crossing for example, it’s one of the most dangerous moments of the journey.”
The UN Migration Agency (IOM) recently said the number of migrants dying crossing the Libyan desert far exceed the numbers of deaths at sea.
The challenge faced by authorities was summed up by Frontex’s Leggeri, who said earlier this month:
“The solution to the current situation must consist of many elements, not one: eliminating the root causes of migration: wars, conflicts, poverty and famine, dismantling the ruthless criminal networks which are taking advantage of the desperate situation the migrants are in and, lastly opening up of legal channels allowing the refugees to apply for asylum without having to put themselves in the hands of the traffickers. ”
This sounds, at the very least, daunting but lays bare the hugely complex nature of the problem and clearly demonstrates the fallacy of targeting NGOs and expecting the flow of people to stop.
“You have to invest and create the economic and social conditions in the countries of origin so these migrants don’t feel the need to leave,” Rand Europe’s Dr Persi Paoli says.
“If you don’t start fixing it now, in 10 years you will still have the same issue.”