MPC Seminar on ‘Search and Rescue’ – Postponed, date tbc

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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?

Recently, academic research has started to collect and analyse systematic data about the impact of Search and Rescue (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.
As part of its seminar series, the Migration Policy Centre will host the following presentations:

‘Migration at Sea: Unintended Consequences of Search and Rescue Operations’ presented by Giovanni Mastrobuoni, Collegio Carlo Alberto, UNITO, Essex


The Central Mediterranean Sea is the most dangerous crossing for irregular migrants in the world. At any point in time, over half a million potential migrants wait in Libya to travel to Italy with the aid of human smugglers. In response to high profile shipwrecks and mounting deaths, European nations intensified search and rescue operations beginning in 2013. We develop a model of irregular migration in order to identify the effects of these operations on activity along this smuggling route. Leveraging plausibly exogenous variation from rapidly varying weather and sea conditions, we find that smugglers responded to these operations by shifting from seaworthy wooden boats to flimsy inflatable rafts. In doing so, these operations induced more crossings and had the ultimate effect of offsetting the intended safety benefits of search and rescue operations, which were captured at least in part by smugglers.

‘On search and rescue, what do migrants and smuggling facilitators have to say?’ presented by Gabriella Sanchez, MPC, RSCAS, EUI


There is an ongoing debate over the interactions between NGOs and smuggling facilitators in Libya and what the numerical data concerning boat interceptions and arrivals say about search and rescue missions. The conversation has been so far centred on statistical analyses and discussions among stakeholders. Yet a critical piece remains missing: the testimonies from the people whose role is in fact to get migrants onto boats. What are migrants’ recollections and perceptions of the decision-making processes leading to their departures from Libya’s coasts? How do they interact with those behind their journeys? What do these say about the way they operate? Drawing from fieldwork in Italy, Tunisia, and the border it shares with Libya, this presentation presents empirical data on the day-to-day dynamics of migrants’ journeys out of Libya, and how they can better inform our understanding of search and rescue missions.

‘Are Sea Rescue Operations a ‘Pull Factor’ of Irregular Migration? The Case of NGOs in the Central Mediterranean’ by Eugenio Cusumano, MPC, EUI and Matteo Villa, Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale – ISPI


Maritime migratory flows have prompted a variety of actors to problematize the moral and legal obligation to rescue those in distress at sea. In this presentation, we conceptualize maritime rescue as a contested international norm, investigating the salience and accuracy of the arguments problematizing the conduct of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Central Mediterranean. We focus on the highly salient claim that sea rescue missions serve as a ‘pull factor’ of irregular migration, testing this hypothesis against the case of the no-governmental organizations (NGOs) conducting SAR in the Central Mediterranean. As they operate closest to Libyan shores than any other actors, NGOs are especially likely to have incentivized departures, thereby serving a most likely case for this alleged pull effect. Nevertheless, our preliminary results show no relationship between the presence of NGO ships at sea and the size of migratory flows from Libya to Italy between 2014 and February 2020. Contrary to widespread allegations, NGOs do not appear to have served as a pull factor of irregular migration.

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