Since the large inflows of asylum seekers and other migrants in 2015, migration across the Mediterranean Sea has captured the attention of the public and received extensive media coverage all over Europe. What stimulates or stems sea crossings of migrants? How should the ‘European Rio Grande’ – a pervasive parallel with the equally sensitive US-Mexico border – be controlled to both deter irregular migration and avoid migrants’ casualties during perilous journeys in the Mediterranean? A major controversy revolves around the role of Search-and-Rescue (SAR) operations at sea. Some commentators and political leaders claim that these operations increase departures from Libya and thus serve as a ‘pull factor’, while others condemn the EU and member states for their limited action and alleged breach of humanitarian standards.
Recently, academic research has started to collect and analyse systematic data about the impact of SAR operations on sea crossings – with diverging results. In particular, the papers Migration at Sea: Unintended Consequences of Search and Rescue Operations by Deiana, Dehesri and Mastrobuoni (2019) and Sea Rescue NGOs? A Pull Factor of Irregular Migration? by Cusumano and Villa (2019) reach quite opposite conclusions: the former that SAR operations unintendedly boost migrant smuggling, the latter that they do not affect it. In this post, we briefly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the two studies. We argue that these papers make heroic efforts to adapt the available data to statistical modelling, but they are both limited in different ways and, therefore, cannot provide definitive answers. The relationship between SAR activities and the number of sea crossings of migrants remains an important and unsettled area for future research.