Sea of Blood.
Following the Spring Revolution and then the Libyan Civil War, the influx of refugees and asylum-seekers has intensified. They long to enter Europe through the perilous waters of the Mediterranean. The number of migrants has been increasing at an alarming rate each year though many are drowning.
Once operated as a supply support vessel and rescue craft for offshore oil rigs and gas platforms, Ocean Viking shifted to rescuing migrants and refugees who became stranded while crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe. This migrant rescue vessel, conducting maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, is jointly run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) organizations. It was dispatched by the NGO to rescue people from dying at sea, missing or being returned to Libya. Sailing under a Norwegian flag, the ship's spacious deck now houses a medical clinic on board, life jackets, several tonnes of food and shelter for the migrants, instead of containers.
Following the Spring Revolution and then the Libyan Civil War, the influx of refugees and asylum-seekers has been intensified. They are people longing to enter Europe from Libya via the perilous waters of the Mediterranean. Since then, the number of migrants has been increasing at an alarming rate each year, and thereby, increasing the risk of migrants to become stranded or drowning in the sea. To save the lives of these stranded migrants, the SAR operations, such as Ocean Viking, have become crucial in response to the ongoing human tragedy.
The Ocean Viking has rescued almost 30,000 people from rubber dinghies in distress so far, off the Libyan coast. They were the ones who risked their lives to reach Europe each year. The humanitarian rescue vessel, like many others, is also facing political hurdles from European countries, mainly Italy, Malta and Greece which are taking a hardline stance on these vessels and turning them away. The rescue ships have been confronted with a huge backlash for encouraging human traffickers to arrange illegal crossings and getting involved in smuggling people for economic purposes. The tough anti-immigration policies adopted by the Italian government brought a sharp decline in SAR operations. This posed a serious concern for the life safety of migrants who were abandoned either at detention centres in Libya or at sea.
In 2018, the humanitarian non-governmental organization, MSF, was forced to stop its rescue vessel conducting SAR operations by the authorities after being accused of colluding with traffickers and aiding illegal immigration. Earlier in 2017, the crew members of civilian rescue ships were charged or prosecuted for working with smugglers under anti-smuggling laws. They were detained for 20 years by the Italian authorities. Moreover, these officials seized rescue vessels that disembark refugees at Italian harbours or charged heavily those rescue ships that were trying to enter Italian waters against bans and limitations.
Another stronger assumption that dominates this argument is that the presence of rescue ships not only facilitates smuggling but encourages more people to cross the sea. Critics argue that the humanitarian NGOs operating at sea act as a pull factor for the migrants to proceed on such horrendous endeavours. As a bridge to Europe, these rescue vessels foster irregular migration by making the journey easier and safer, thus taking more and more migrants to sea. Getting more people to sea, in turn, means risking more lives. Hence, it has been argued that it is not the stoppage of SAR operations that would increase mortality risk of shipwrecked migrants but the presence of rescue ships like the Ocean Viking near the Libyan coast, will deteriorate safe maritime migratory movement. Though the statistical facts do not show any conformity with this notion and substantially reject the hypothesis, it is a conventional thought in today's policy-making.
The findings from a recent study conducted by the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) in Milan further refute this pull-factor assumption and conclude that there is no direct link between the number of migrants crossing the sea and rescue capabilities. It has been found that, in fact, migratory movements increase on the days when there were lower levels of SAR operations. Also, the mortality rate is highest on such days. This shows that high SAR capacity does not drive people to migrate. This reduces the mortality risk of migrants as well. This can only be one of the many complex factors of irregular migration and displacement across the sea. In this regard, the asylum seekers' narrative would help to look at the other side of the picture. Their rhetoric substantiates that political instability and civil war in Libya along with hard weather conditions, such as floods, are the main causes for them to leave the country. The study also found that everyday almost 85 migrants attempted to cross the sea without any NGO vessel operating at sea throughout the year. The figures dropped to 75 with rescue ships present.
According to a UNHCR report, nearly a thousand number of migrants have drowned or gone missing in an attempt to cross the dangerous and perilous waters during the year. These figures can increase manifolds if nothing is done to rescue migrants at sea. They have warned that lack of NGO vessels would turn the Mediterranean waters into a sea of blood.
Regardless of the validity of the pull factor hypothesis, the narrow perspective does not justify the legal deterrence of rescue missions to save human lives at sea. The international law of the sea also obliges governments to aid boats in distress and disembark them at safe ports.
This perspective is the only unique factor for encouraging asylum-seekers to migrate. It will fail to present the situation appropriately. It is important to address the issue considering all the possible factors in order to aptly resolve the problem at hand. The respective governments should grant legal and safe routes to asylum-seekers disembark to reduce deaths at sea. Governments should relax visa restrictions for legal passage, increase family reunification opportunities and resettlement places, and introduce humanitarian visas to protect the fundamental rights of the migrants.