Mediterranean Crossings – NGOs Helping or Hurting?

While much of the international media has turned attention elsewhere, thousands of migrants are still attempting to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats for a chance at safety in Europe.

In early February of this year, over 2,600 migrants were rescued over the course of only three days attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Over 181,000 people crossed the Sea in 2016 alone. This migration pattern has forced the coordination of national coastguards, navies, non-governmental organizations, and more. Majority of the migrants traversing the Mediterranean are placed in unsafe boats by human traffickers, which then evokes the rescue missions by the previous mentioned organizations. Many people have died in this journey, over 5,000 were estimated to have died in 2016.

This has been a contentious issue in international politics as European governments, notably Italy, feel they are spending too many resources on a problem that is not theirs to solve. EU nations have been working with Northern African countries to try to have them control their migration flows. This has received a lot of backlash, as many argue people are fleeing their homes not because they want to, but because of persecution, political or economic turmoil, and war. While this crisis has much more depth, the latest development is that national governments are criticizing aid groups for rescuing migrants.

Upon first reading headlines about this, I was baffled—could politicians really stoop so low to reprimand non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for doing dangerous and life-saving work? While there is some truth to my initial reaction, the back story is much larger. The UNHCR has noted that the human traffickers these migrants rely on often put them in unsafe boats that are not suited to make it all the way across the Mediterranean to Europe. The head of the EU border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, explained that NGOs rescuing migrants is only encouraging traffickers to use unstable transportation and make riskier decisions. Leggeri also accused NGOs of not working well with security forces, such as in checking the nationalities of the migrants.

Under maritime law, everyone at sea is required to rescue people and ships in distress, but Leggeri and others are worried that picking up migrants closer and closer to the African coast is only perpetuating the problem. Belgium’s migration minister, Theo Francken, also made headlines echoing Leggeri’s comments, claiming that NGOs were only causing more deaths by rescuing migrants. Naturally, there has been a resounding response to these claims. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) humanitarian adviser on displacement was quoted by The Guardian explaining, “We are a humanitarian agency, and we carry out proactive search and rescue operations because the alternative is that hundreds of people will die from drowning, asphyxiation and dehydration. If we just wait 60 miles out to sea for boats that may pass by chance, rather than going to the areas where the smugglers are operating, there will be many more deaths. NGOs like MSF are explaining that without their efforts, many more people would die. They were critical of claims made by Leggeri and Francken as destructive and unproductive.

While I agree that the charged statements made by these politicians caused more harm than good, and that the work of non-governmental organizations like MSF is crucial to the safety of migrants, it did bring into question the larger, structural issues causing these massive migration flows. Rescuing migrants on the high seas is important, necessary, and moral, but it is a temporary solution to a long term problem. Countless geographers, political scientists, and others have extensive research and ideas about this issue, but it made me start thinking about the bigger picture. There have been numerous suggestions on how to slow migration flows, such as developing a stronger Libyan coastguard and creating settlement camps on the Libyan shores. Nonetheless, these too are relatively short-term solutions to incredibly dense problems. These migrant flows are due to conflict, civil strife and suffering. These driving forces have come to be because of war, economic uncertainty, and some issues can be traced back to a colonial legacy. Thousands of experts have a myriad of ideas about how to solve these complex problems – development programming, aid, capitalism, military intervention, grassroots empowerment, etc.

As a young college student, I can’t say I know which “solution” is necessarily the right one. But this contentious issue has forced me to consider the larger picture of these migrant flows, when too often I have been focused narrowly on short headlines and quantitative data relating to this issue. Secondly, the statements of Leggeri, Francken, and more initially shocked me. I was disgusted with their nonchalant attitude and disregard for all the lives NGOs have saved. Instead of shutting out their comments, I encouraged myself to think broadly about this issue, and while I cannot say I necessarily agree with the claims, now I have a better perspective of this problem. In a time of quick headline updates and short blurbs, it is easy to have tunnel vision and to react immediately and passionately. I appreciated thinking more broadly about the issue, and hope that I can continue doing this more often.

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