Death and rescue in the Central Mediterranean: overcoming the limits of private outsourcing

The search-and-rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean were overall successful in saving thousands of lives in the years 2014-2017. Compared with the previous years, the rescues reduced and stabilised the fatality rate for the persons attempting a dangerous sea crossing. Several NGOs contributed significantly to this joint effort coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard's Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre (MRCC) and involving various Navies.  However, more people died at sea in 2014-2017 than in the previous 14 years. This also means that the additional resources contributed by the private nonprofit organizations – a dozen vessels in the years  2015 and 2016 – did not have a significant impact on a further reduction of the fatality rate. This is probably due to a variety of factors, from the sheer size of the numbers involved to a substitution effect of private for public assets, and the intrinsic limits of private outsourcing of the direct provision of essential public services (especially when capacity and security considerations are paramount). Meanwhile, political figures and media outlets accused NGOs active in SAR operations of a sort of "moral hazard", inducing migrants and smugglers to attempt riskier crossings on unseaworthy vessels in the hope of being rescued. While no evidence has emerged so far to back any of these charges, in the end public policies towards SAR operations shifted first in mid-2017 when the center-left Italian government asked the NGOs to abide by a "code of conduct". One year later, the new center-right government closed the harbours to rescue vessels – even Italian ones, like the decision on the "Diciotti" CG vessel that proved extremely divisive and possibly illegal – and prevented the Coast Guard to further engage. This seems to hint at a transition towards the pre-2013 "normal" of few departures, few arrivals, no large scale SAR operations, no NGOs involvement, higher risk during the crossing, but overall fewer deaths.

In what follows I will focus on the overall deaths and missing persons in the Central Mediterranean and the fatality rates during the last fifteen years or so, in order to assess the relative impact of SAR operations. The fatality rate is calculated for each calendar year as the ratio of dead or missing persons over the total of those who attempted the crossing of the Central Mediterranean. The latter are estimated as the sum of those who arrived safely to Italy or other shores of the Central Mediterranean (and in recent years virtually all of these were rescued at sea), plus the dead and missing, plus those who have been returned to Libya by a SAR operation or interception of the Libyan Coast Guard (the great majority of attempted crossings originated from Libya, although there are reports of increased departures from Tunisia too). Using the annual aggregated data one clearly loses some granularity, but at the same time this brings the advantage of equalizing the strong seasonal effects of attempted crossing and tragic accidents at sea.

The Migrant Files database by Journalism++ covers the years from 2000 to 2015. It is itself based on Gabriele Del Grande’s Fortress Europe dataset, United for Intercultural Action’s dataset and a few others. All these datasets have been systematically checked by the authors, seeking cross validation of media and official sources. The sea arrivals' data are taken from the Italian Ministry of Interior.

The UNHCR dataset covers the years 2013-2018, including data about the SAR and interception operations carried out by the Libyan Coast Guard. The two datasets overlap with more or less matching data in the years 2013-2015.

Main findings

After the Italian government started the Mare Nostrum SAR operation in October 2013 committing to it important assets of its Navy the casualty rate stabilised on a relatively low level – compared with previous years – of between 15 and 20 per one thousand, or 2% approximately.

Despite its success, some European governments criticized Mare Nostrum for exercising a "pull factor" on migration to Europe precisely because it reduced the risk involved in the crossing thus. It is debatable whether a significantly higher risk may influence smugglers and migrants' decisions whether to attempt the sea crossing. In at least one recorded case a Syrian doctor explicitly said that in 2013 he did assess the risk involved and concluded that a 1.3% fatality rate (according to his reckoning of the dead and arrivals to Lampedusa that year: less than 400 dead for 30 thousands safe arrivals) was perfectly acceptable (La Repubblica, 12-5-2017). Unfortunately, his family and hundreds more eventually died off the shores of Lampedusa on 11 October 2013, the tragic event that led then prime minister Enrico Letta of Italy to launch operation Mare Nostrum.

Since 2014, a number of NGO vessels started to participate in SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean. These organizations quickly increased their role and arrived to claim almost two-fifths of all the persons rescued by the year 2017 (Italian Coast Guard SAR report 2017).

The increased role of these private organizations and the overall higher public profile of SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean became the centre of heated controversies. NGOs have been accused of various counts. Firstly, of acting as a “pull factor”, thus increasing the number of those attempting the crossing in the first place. Then, an extension of the previous count, NGOs would be guilty of “moral hazard” because their simple presence in SAR activities would increase the migrants' propensity to attempt a risky journey on unseaworthy vessels, thus contributing to an increase in the overall fatality rate. Lastly, a prosecutor in Sicily sought to indict an NGO of criminal collusion with people smugglers (the investigation did not yield any evidence and the case was eventually dismissed, not without a damaging effect on the operations and reputations of all rescue NGOs, though).

The first point has been convincingly rebutted by, among others, ISPI researchers who found no correlation between the intensity of NGO SAR operations and an increase in sea arrivals to Italy on the Central Mediterranean route.

On the second count, the same researchers also showed that there is no correlation about monthly fatalities at sea and NGO SAR activity in the period from January 2016 to June 2018.

The annualized data from UNHCR also confirms that in the years of maximum NGO SAR activity 2015-2016 the fatality rate remained more or less stable, although with a slight positive correlation.

However, the question that I try to address here is different: why the additional dozen rescue vessels contributed by several NGOs to the overall SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean were apparently not sufficient to significantly decrease the overall fatality rate and hence the total number of deaths?

This is not to say, of course, that lives were not saved. Tens of thousands were rescued from drowning, there is no doubt about that. Those were times of tumultuous events, with the number of total arrivals spiking to 170 thousand in 2014 and then again to over 180 thousand in 2016.

A first factor to consider is that more and more people attempted to cross in 2014-2017. Regardless of the direction of the causality arrow, if any, it is reasonable to consider that perhaps the number of attempted crossings equalized and balanced the increased assets and efforts of the rescuers.

Another factor to consider is that SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean, effectively coordinated by the Central Command of the Italian Coast Guard, were a highly cooperative effort and figures attributing rescued migrants to this or that organization should be taken with a pinch of salt. In many cases migrants in distress were spotted by one vessel, then taken on board by another one, perhaps transferred onto a third larger ship belonging to yet another organization, private or public, NGO or commercial, before being disembarked to a safe harbour.

A third factor to consider is a possible substitution effect. On the one hand, the EU missions that took Mare Nostrum's place starting in late 2014 were not specifically aimed ad SAR operations, even if they did contribute to thousands of rescues. Frontex's Triton was a border control operation, while EUNAVFOR Med Sophia was tasked with fighting smugglers, just as Italy's Mare sicuro since 2015. On the other hand, the high public profile of NGOs in SAR operations may have led other actors to quietly decrease the intensity of their role assuming that the matter was taken care of by others (Italian Coast Guard report 2017, p. 19-20).

As for the charge of “moral hazard”, we have to first consider the fact that the Italian Coast Guard recorded a progressive decrease in the seaworthiness of the boats used by people smugglers sailing out of Libya already starting in 2014, when NGOs were hardly present (and before Sophia started its anti smuggling activities), a trend that continued in the following years.  As the smugglers used smaller boats and dinghies without satellite phones, squeezing more migrants on each of them (Italian Coast Guard report 2016, p. 15-16, see table below; Italian Coast Guard report 2017, p. 22) the SAR area moved closer and closer to the Libyan territorial waters. This is probably an evolutionary dynamic  involving several independent actors, a multiplicity of interests and factors where it is impossible to discern a single “causal” direction, and it regards the whole SAR operations, not just the NGOs.

Year Area of highest SAR events concentration
2012 Outside Italian territorial waters (south of Lampedusa island)
2013 Between maltese SSR and Libyan territorial waters
2014 Outside Libyan Territorial Waters
2015 Few miles outside Libyan territorial waters
2016 Near the outer Limits of Libyan territorial waters

If we look at the fatality rate at sea for the years prior to the deployment of Mare Nostrum and the following complex SAR operations, even taking into account that the data for the period 2000-2012 are perhaps less complete or simply more methodologically heterogeneous than those collected by UNHCR and IOM in recent years, we can see that the overall, coordinated SAR operations did have an important impact in reducing the fatality rate. This is the case regardless of the kind of actors involved in the operations: national navies, Coast guards, EU's missions, NGOs, etc. When the intensity of the overall SAR operations decreased in 2018, the fatality rate climbed back to the worse years of pre-2012 levels, although the total deaths were much lower than in 2014-2017 years, mainly due to a substantial reduction in departures from Libya.

The governments and public opinions in Italy and perhaps other European countries seem to prefer this precarious equilibrium compared to the high-intensity SAR years: fewer departures, fewer arrivals, fewer people dying while attempting the crossing even if this is comparatively more dangerous. While the high-SAR years saw more departures, more arrivals, more dead and missing, even if the crossing itself was relatively less dangerous in terms of fatality rate.

Period            Arrivals per year (avg.) Dead & missing (avg.) Fatality rate (x1000)
2000-2013 23,800 776 31.5
2014-2017 156,100 3,370 20.2
2018 23,370 1,311 44.2

Beyond and above the shouting match regarding the role of the NGOs and the utterly unacceptable criminalization of solidarity, these findings should come as a sobering realization. If human lives are the priority, as it should be, the years of large scale SAR operations saw the best and worst in terms of absolute numbers of persons rescued and total deaths. Private nonprofit organizations with intrinsically limited capacities cannot replace state responsibility in the provision of critical services such as search and rescue operations in the high seas. Even with more resources directly committed by states, the crossing of the central Mediterranean on smugglers' dinghies would still be very dangerous. The fact that people are still ready to take this risk, should give pause to anyone with ready-made explanations. But the fact that now fewer people are drowning should not be dismissed out of hand. Once human life is preserved, it is still possible to do something about it; it is possible to send inspectors and crack down on the intolerable conditions in Libyan migrants camps. If the “high-intensity SAR” approach is unsustainable (morally problematic as implemented, despite its successes, and politically unviable), better to focus on alternatives rather than simply decrying its demise. The return to an even harsher pre-2013 situation with Europe just pinning its hope on local strongmen to “manage” the migration crisis for them is not acceptable. Not least because relying on informal agreements with transit countries often bypasses the justice system and legal safeguards. One alternative worth fighting for is to strengthen so-called “humanitarian corridors”, or  opening them outright in Libya. A multi-stakeholder governance scheme involving states, UN agencies, EU bodies and NGOs, including pre-screening of applicants and pooling of resources (including private “sponsorship” schemes) could turn these corridors from a trickle into more sizeable channels of safe entry and planned welcome for asylum seekers.

Wrapping up, the argument in a nutshell:

– two “normals”/equilibria: pre-2013 (fewer departures, fewer arrivals, fewer overall deaths, no rescues, high risks); 2013-2017 (more departures, more arrivals, more deaths, high SAR, lower risks); 2018: back to pre-2013?

– SAR operations stabilized the fatality rate at lower levels: 2% in 2014-2017 instead of  3-4% (with peaks of 5-8%) in 2000-2013;

– tens of thousand lives saved; but still, thousands died;

– even with 12 NGO vessels deployed in 2015-2016 the fatality rate did not decrease further (if anything, it slightly increased);

– long term dynamic driven by political changes in North Africa, power settlements, political shocks (Arab spring; fall of the Gaddafi regime; war in Syria; etc.);

– medium term (2013-2017) evolutionary dynamic (multiple agents/interests): more SAR capability -> changing incentives for smugglers -> higher risks for migrants (squeezed on rubber dinghies…) –> more SAR capability closer to Libyan coasts -> worse conditions for migrants … that draws in more SAR resources and keeps fatality rate still too high, and overall death levels higher than pre-2013;

– this dynamic regards SAR operations in general, not the much debated NGOs role (whose specific impact on the overall trend is limited); still there are the usual limits in the private outsourcing of a public service (SAR), especially if it has security implications (limited capacity of volunteer, nonprofit orgs, vulnerable to armed threats, no guarantees of continuity of service etc.);

– changes in policies by successive Italian governments (agreements with Libyan militias in 2017; closed harbours and halt to SAR in 2018) against a backdrop of EU's stalemate on refugees/migrants “crisis”: back to an even harsher old “normal” of fewer departures, fewer arrivals, no rescues, high risks, fewer overall deaths;

– if the “high-intensity SAR” approach is unsustainable (morally problematic as implemented and politically unviable), better to focus on alternatives rather than decrying its demise. Which alternatives? For example, turning so-called “humanitarian corridors” with multi-stakeholder (states, UN agencies, NGOs) pre-screening of applicants from trickles to viable channels of entry for asylum seekers.

Data sources:

UNHCR (based on official data from national authorities) and IOM Missing Migrants project

Fortress Europe (based on official data from national authorities), where among the arrivals are counted both those directly disembarked and those intercepted at sea and later taken to harbour.

FRONTEX database, selecting only sea borders arrivals on the Central Mediterranean route.

The Migrant Files  database by Journalism++ (itself based on Gabriele Del Grande’s Fortress Europe dataset, United for Intercultural Action’s dataset and a few others all of whom rely on systematic check and cross validation of media and official sources). Database query by year, cause_of_death field set to “All”;  CartoDB_Cause_of_death field set to “All”; Route (Frontex) field set to Apulia&Calabria + Central Mediterranean route. The data from 2009 seem to double count the victims of one or more boats that capsized on 28 March. They have not been plotted pending further checks.

Libyan Coast Guard SAR operations: data from ISPI / UNHCR (


Cover photograph: LÉ Róisín Rescues 371* Migrants in Three Separate Search and Rescue Operations 37 Nautical Miles NW of Tripoli, taken on June 27, 2016, (CC) Óglaigh na hÉireann

(CC) Óglaigh na hÉireann