Over the past week 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.
In response, the Defend Europe group immediately declared its mission to stop the flow of people from North Africa to Europe a “victory” and was widely praised by its supporters.
A press release from the self-styled alt-right, crowdfunded hipsters outlining their alleged achievement, was swiftly regurgitated by the Aaron Banks-founded website Westmonster, which attributed the fall in numbers directly to the presence of Defend Europe’s chartered ship, the C-Star.
Even Nigel Farage got in on the action.
A Defend Europe spokesperson told HuffPost UK on Sunday: “The situation in the Mediterranean seems at kind of a turning point.”
So, what role did the group have in these events?
While it has undeniably brought media attention to the issue and put a spotlight on the activities of NGOs in the Mediterranean through its unprecedented mission and social media presence, the decrease in migrant numbers and the suspension of NGO missions appear almost completely unrelated to Defend Europe.
In fact, numbers making the crossing from Africa to mainland Europe have been dropping steadily for months with July seeing a decrease of 57% on June’s figures, which at the time was the lowest number since 2014.
Here’s what’s really responsible.
1) The Italian Navy
On the 2 August Italy began a naval mission to assist the Libyan coast guard to curb the flow of migrants.
The numbers making the journey had been slowing over recent months but dropped sharply during the first weekend of the operation as 1,124 people were intercepted and returned to Libya, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
But aid groups suggest the apparent stemming of one problem is exacerbating another far bigger issue.
Marcella Kraay, Médecins Sans Frontières Project Coordinator currently aboard the Aquarius, told HuffPost UK: “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’.”
Once back in Libya, migrants face a host a host of abuses including arbitrary arrest, routine torture, forced prostitution and extortion.
Joseph, a 34-year-old Nigerian, told HuffPost UK aboard the Aquarius shortly after he was rescued: “Libyan people take us as their slaves.
“They beat us with the back of their guns or a wooden stick. In my presence they killed 19 people.
“When they kidnap you they tell you to call your family for money. If you don’t get money from your family they take you [imprison] for four months.
“They shoot the leg first. Then they kill you if you don’t pay.”
The relationship between the Italian authorities and the Libyan coast guard to deter migrant crossings was formalised way back in 2009 with The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation.
The latest naval mission is just the most recent example of efforts to solve - with varying degrees of success - the hugely complex problem of people-smuggling and its associated push and pull factors.
2) The Libyan Coast Guard
As mentioned above, the increased presence of the Libyan Coast Guard has resulted in more intercepted migrants as well as a reduction in the number of boats launched in the first pace.
In addition, it is the recent alarming actions of its vessels that NGOs have cited as one of the main reasons for suspending operations.
After unilaterally announcing the extension of Libyan territorial waters from the customary 12 nautical miles from shore to 70, well into what is generally considered international waters, authorities then aggressively enforced the newly-created zone.
On the 8th August, as the C-Star was floundering off the Tunisian coast suffering “technical difficulties”, a ship operated by Proactiva Open Arms was fired upon by a Libyan Coast Guard boat as seen in the video below.
The incident was repeated just today.
Italian authorities failed to condemn the threats.
Save the Children said in a statement: “Save the Children is ready and eager to deploy our vessel to the rescue zone.
“However we have a duty to ensure the safety of our team and the viability of the rescue mission. We need to have these assurances in place, before we can continue with the rescue mission as intended.
“The safety of our staff and crew is paramount and without assurances we would have to consider the possibility of a suspension – an outcome none of our staff or crew want to face.”
None of the NGOs made any mention of Defend Europe’s actions which culminated in shouting at a boat from a safe distance.
3) The Italian Government
NGOs and the Italian government have been locked in negotiations over a new Code of Conduct governing rescue missions for months, and on 29th June authorities said they even were considering stopping NGO vessels from disembarking in Italian ports.
This led to the European Commission ordering Italian authorities to draft their own version in consultation with NGOs on the 4th July - three days before the C-Star even set sail (it would be another month before it reached its intended destination of the Search and Rescue zone).
The new version contained a number of sticking points, primarily a rule which would force NGOs to sail with armed police onboard, something they argued would breach their neutrality and place further stress on the rescued.
At the time of writing, only five of the eight NGOs operating in the Med have signed up, with only three boats currently on patrol.
Fewer 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 town of Sabratah is a key departure area on the coast Libya and violent clashes between rival governments (there are two parliaments and three governments currently in Libya) have meant long-standing people-smuggler routes have faced much disruption.
Islamic State did have a presence in the area before being fought out and Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena bomber, met operatives of the group on a number of occasions.
5) The Weather
Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, has attributed the weather as a major factor limiting the number of migrants making the journey across the Mediterranean.
MSF’s Marcella Kraay told HuffPost UK: “We know that [the weather] is one of the factors that affect whether or not small boats can leave the shores of Libya.
“When there is wind from the north and big waves are breaking on the shore it makes it hard for small boats to leave, or if the moon is very bright it makes it difficult to leave under the cover of darkness.”
UPDATE: Defend Europe has claimed the Libyan Coast Guard has contacted the C-Star to in an act of solidarity whilst threatening an NGO boat nearby.
When contacted by HuffPost UK about their impact in the Mediterranean, a Defend Europe spokesperson said:
″[Defend Europe] has had a huge impact on the situation in the Mediterranean. The now ongoing changes are bound to the campaign and without the campaign the business of smugglers and NGOs would continue as before. Please let me further explain this conclusion:
“1) As I stated before, the CSTAR can, of course, not stop the whole NGO fleet, but this was never the plan. Just with proper research and our physical presence in the Mediterranean we crushed the narrative of ‘rescue’ and raised awareness of their taxi-like business and fundamental role for the traffickers-profits. Confirmed by a left-wing-newspaper here.
“2) We have done what usually would be the task of our governments - now it is in their hands. Of course we have no direct influence on lets say for example the Libyan coastguard or the Italian government, but we can be an idol for them, when 10 guys to the job they are supposed to do.
“3) The establishment-media completely crashed their reliability by calling our mission failed several times. After a lot of false accusations, fake news about the ship, ridiculous fantasies about some technical problems here is the reality: The CSTAR is still on sea, JugendRettet, MSF, Save the Children and SeaEye are not.”