It has been two years since more than 1,200 people perished at sea in the 12th and 18th of April 2015 shipwrecks – the largest to have been documented in recent Mediterranean history. These deaths, as we demonstrated in the Death by Rescue report published last year, were the result of the termination of the Italian Mare Nostrum (MN) operation, which had patrolled close to the Libyan coast to rescue migrants in distress.   The end of Mare Nostrum left a huge gap in Search and Rescue (SAR) capabilities that, partially filled by ill-equipped merchant vessels, led to a staggering increase in deaths at sea in early 2015. Despite these consequences and the recognition that ending Mare Nostrum was a “serious mistake”,   no proactive state-led SAR operation was launched as a response, and the SAR gap was progressively filled by SAR NGOs.

Today the SAR activities courageously undertaken by NGOs are under attack.   Despite their crucial life-saving role, SAR NGOs have in recent months become the object of a de-legitimisation and criminalisation campaign that has not only involved Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, high-level politicians, and the media, but has also led to the opening of several exploratory inquiries by prosecutors in Italy. While some of the most heinous aspects of these attacks have proven baseless or have already been effectively refuted,   the core of our report focuses on a subtler and yet no less grave line of criticism that was initially formulated by Frontex and that revolves around the alleged effect of proactive SAR on the dynamics of migration across the sea. The main lines of this argument can be summarized as follows: SAR NGOs are (1) constituting a “pull-factor” leading to more migrants attempting the dangerous crossing; (2) “unintentionally helping criminals” by encouraging smugglers to use even poorer quality boats and more dangerous tactics; (3) in turn making the crossing more dangerous for migrants.   Our report analyses of the dynamics of migration across the sea between 2015 and 2016 to assess these claims. Our focus is justified on the one hand, by the gravity of these accusations given the Agency’s prominent institutional role; on the other, we consider the increase in the danger of crossing a worrying development that demands a serious evaluation in and of itself. By untangling the threads of the multiple processes and actors that have shaped these dynamics we demonstrate the accusations formulated against SAR NGOs rest on biased analysis and spurious causality links.


The following report relies on new findings generated through extensive interviews with state officials, SAR NGOs and migrants, as well as newly accessed official reports, analysis by investigative journalists specialising in smuggling networks in Libya, statistical analysis and cartographic methods. It has been produced by Forensic Oceanography – a research team based within the Forensic Architecture agency at Goldsmiths (University of London) that specialises in the use of forensic techniques and cartography to reconstruct the conditions that lead to deaths at sea.

At the core of this report, lies the analysis of the dynamics of migration across the sea between 2015 and 2016. We rely on official documents, statistics, qualitative interviews, photographs and maps to assess how the conditions and the danger of crossings has evolved, and how the main actors operating at sea (including the state-led operations of the EU and its member states at sea, Libyan officials, smugglers, SAR NGOs and migrants) have affected them. While our report does generate substantial new data, it also relies on existing analysis by official bodies and other forms of expertise. This is important to demonstrate that the analysis we are offering would have been available but has been occluded in attacks against SAR NGOs.


After this introduction, in section 2, entitled “Toxic Narrative”, we offer a brief summary of the main claims put forward against SAR NGO missions by a variety of actors including media outlets with ties to the far-right, Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard agency, Italian prosecutors and institutions, and high-level political leaders across Europe. Analysing these claims, we briefly reconstruct the spread over time and from one actor to another, as well as their overall logic. We show that this toxic narrative has created a climate of hostility towards NGOs that threatens the continuation of their operations.

In section 3, entitled “Counter Analysis”, we analyse the three main accusations against SAR NGOs our report focuses on and provide empirical evidence to critically assess them. In the subsection “Pull Factor?”, we analyse the variegated migration dynamics according to different countries of origin, demonstrating that despite the overall decrease of crossings towards Italy recorded over 2015, arrivals from several African nationalities were increasing, and the trends over 2016 only continued those already underway over 2015. Deep political and economic trends allow to account for the increasing crossings, not the presence of SAR NGOs. In the sub-section “Worsening Smugglers’ Tactics ?”, we focus on the evolution of the EUNAVFOR MED operation and its effects on smugglers’ tactics as well as shifts that took place on Libyan territory – particularly the growing involvement of militias in smuggling activities and the increasing intervention of the Libyan Coast Guard. We demonstrate that these actors and processes, whose effects started to be felt while SAR NGOs’ presence at sea was still marginal, played a key role leading to more dangerous smugglers’ tactics. SAR NGOs responded to these shifts and were not their driving cause. Finally in the sub-section “Increasing the Danger of Crossings?”, we analyse the response of NGOs to these worsening conditions of crossing, demonstrating that the deployment of SAR NGOs did contribute to make the crossing safer but also led to consolidate some of the shifts in the practices of smugglers. By untangling the threads of the multiple processes and actors that have shaped the dynamics of maritime crossings we demonstrate the accusations formulated against SAR NGOs rest on biased analysis and spurious causality links.

Finally, in the “Conclusions” section, we summarily rebut the claims against SAR NGOs. While they are based on deeply flawed analysis, we show the toxic narrative they have fuelled has nonetheless served to reinforce a number of strategic effects with regards to EU migration policies. It has allowed state actors mobilising these arguments to divert public attention from their own responsibilities and failures; the de-legitimisation and criminalisation of proactive SAR is in continuity with prior policies – such as the ending of Mare Nostrum – which have targeted SAR activities to make the crossing more difficult in the aim of deterring migrants; finally this toxic narrative has also served to legitimise policies of cooperation with dictatorial regimes at the EU’s periphery to stem crossings. While SAR NGOs cannot in and of themselves be a sufficient response to the deaths of migrants at sea as long as insufficient legal pathways for migration exist, the fate of migrants would be even worse without them. We illustrate the life-saving role they continue to have through the central role they played in the rescue of more than 9,000 migrants over the Easter weekend this year. We argue that in the face of the horrendous death toll that is the product of the EU policies of closure, the right to solidarity at sea must be asserted.


The argument blaming NGOs operating SAR in the Mediterranean for enabling the arrival of illegalised migrants on European shores had been until recently confined to the conspirationist discourse of small groups, often with ties to the far-right. On 15 November 2016 for example, GEFIRA, a Dutch-based think-tank, published an article with the self-explanatory title: “Caught in the act: NGOs deal in migrant smuggling” in which it accused NGOs of being “part of the human smuggling network”.   On 5 December 2016 the same organisation published another article titled: “NGOs are smuggling immigrants into Europe on an industrial scale”, arguing that NGO SAR operations amounted to an “illegal human traffic operation”.   The article, which as the previous one was quickly picked up in several xenophobic news outlets, was accompanied by the release of a video monitoring the activities of SAR NGOs through AIS vessel tracking data.

Video monitoring the activities of SAR NGOs through AIS vessel tracking data, GEFIRA, 5 December 2016.

These spurious arguments however remained confined to the limited audience of these groups until the publication of an article in the Financial Times on 15 December 2016.   The piece was based on “confidential reports” by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which according to the journalists accused the NGOs of “colluding” with smugglers (see Annex).   The article mentioned a particular incident that the agency considered to be “the first reported case where the criminal networks directly approached an EU vessel and smuggled the migrants directly into Europe using the NGO vessel”, a claim we will assess within this report. It further reported the agency deploring that “the number of rescues triggered by a distress signal fell from roughly two-thirds of all incidents this summer to barely one in 10 in October (…). This drop-off coincided with a jump in the number of rescues carried out by NGOs in the central Mediterranean.” Despite a partial retraction that forced the Financial Times to admit that it had “overstated” its accusations,   Frontex would consolidate its critique of SAR NGOs in subsequent publications in early February 2017.  

On 15 February 2017, Frontex published its annual Risk Analysis Report, in which it made publicly accessible several of the claims that had been echoed by the Financial Times.   It is useful to detail the way the agency’s argument is formulated. With regards to the central Mediterranean, Frontex notes in its annual report that “important changes were observed on this migratory route in 2016”. However, of the many evolutions that the agency might have mentioned based on the reports available to it and that we will discuss in more detail further on, Frontex focuses on one – the role of NGOs in SAR activities. It first observes the decrease in satellite phone calls to the Italian Coast Guard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome to trigger rescue operations, which makes detecting and rescuing migrants more difficult and may result in vessels not being rescued. It then implicitly draws a “parallel” between this decrease and the increasing presence of SAR NGOs,   suggesting a correlation – also shown in the graph reproduced below - without actually demonstrating one.

Graph showing the monthly rate of vessels rescued in response to a satellite phone call and the rate of rescue performed by SAR NGO.

Frontex’s report then continues to draw a second “parallel”: “NGO presence and activities close to, and occasionally within, the 12-mile Libyan territorial waters nearly doubled compared with the previous year, totalling 15 NGO assets (14 maritime and 1 aerial). In parallel, the overall number of incidents increased dramatically”.  

Frontex then generalises its critique of SAR to all actors operating close to the Libyan coast, without however discussing in detail their respective operations and impact. “Libyan-based smugglers (…) heavily relied on the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and associated SAR as well as humanitarian assistance efforts, turning it into a distinct tactical advantage. (…) Dangerous crossings on unseaworthy and overloaded vessels were organised with the main purpose of being detected by EUNAVFOR Med/Frontex and NGO vessels”.  

The section of the report concludes that:

“Apparently, all parties involved in SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean unintentionally help criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost, strengthen their business model by increasing the chances of success. Migrants and refugees – encouraged by the stories of those who had successfully made it in the past – attempt the dangerous crossing since they are aware of and rely on humanitarian assistance to reach the EU.”
Frontex, 2017 Annual Risk Analysis report  

We should underline how similar the argument formulated by Frontex here is to that it repeated, time and again, against Mare Nostrum in 2014 and that contributed to delegitimizing and ultimately terminating the operation, with the dramatic consequences documented in our Death by Rescue report.  

We can see here at work in an exemplary way Frontex’s analytical and narrative strategy. First, it focuses on a single actor, SAR NGOs, isolating them from the web of interactions with other actors which together shape the dynamics of migration across the sea, and establishes parallels between their activities and trends relating to migration and smuggling. Second, it generalises its criticism of the “unintended consequences” of SAR to “all parties involved in SAR operations”. However, because of its previous singling out of SAR NGOs, and because NGOs have become the primary SAR actor in the central Mediterranean, they emerge as the main target of the criticism.

Based on these spurious correlations, Frontex has constructed a narrative which can be summarised in three main claims regarding SAR at sea, of which SAR NGOs are the main target:

  1. (1) SAR NGOs constitute a “pull-factor” leading to more migrants attempting the dangerous crossing

  2. (2) SAR NGOs “unintentionally help criminals” by encouraging smugglers to use even poorer quality boats and more dangerous tactics

  3. (3) SAR NGOs in turn are making the crossing more dangerous for migrants

The broad contours of this narrative were put forward again and again by Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri in different forums, such as in his interview with the German Newspaper Die Welt on 27 February.   Through repetition, it has spread like a virus across media and policy circles.   Considering the credibility the Agency enjoys thanks to its institutional role and its advisory function to EU Member States, its attacks and allusions have surreptitiously created a climate of mistrust that has raised heinous doubts about the NGOs’ activities, generated hostility, and made further attacks possible.

Being the main point of disembarkation for migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean, Italy has unsurprisingly been the epicentre of this debate and where it took on the most heinous tone.   In addition to being fought out in the media, it also unfolded in legal and political institutions – inquiries were launched by public prosecutors as well as by two different commissions within the Italian parliament. Only two days after the release of Frontex’s Risk Analysis Report, on 17 February Carmelo Zuccaro, public prosecutor in Catania (Sicily), announced that his office had launched an “exploratory inquiry” – i.e., not a formal investigation – to scrutinise the activities of SAR NGOs. Echoing the conspirationist positions expressed in the GEFIRA article and video, Zuccaro later justified his decision using the “objective fact” that NGOs are constituting a “safe corridor” that grants migrants an “anomalous access” to Italian territory,   in order to “destabilise the Italian economy”.   He also lamented that the involvement of NGOs in SAR operations was hindering anti-smuggling judicial activities.   As such, the ongoing inquiry aims at uncovering:

“who is behind all these humanitarian organisations that have proliferated in recent years, where all the money they have is coming from, and, above all, what game they are playing”  
Carmelo Zuccaro, public prosecutor in Catania

Despite specifying that none of the elements in his possession constitute evidence that can be used in a judicial process, on 23 April 2017 Zuccaro told La Stampa that:

“We have proofs that there are direct contacts between some of the NGOs and traffickers in Libya: telephone calls from Libya to certain NGOs, floodlights lighting up the way to the boats of these organisations, ships that suddenly cut their transponder (allowing for their localization) are proven facts”  
Carmelo Zuccaro, public prosecutor in Catania

As we will discuss discuss later these allegations are at best dubious, either because they have not been confirmed by any factual element, or simply because they involve practices that are normal in the context of SAR activities at sea (such as SAR vessels turning on their floodlights at night to establish a visual contact with migrants’ boats). However, on the basis of these claims, he has contributed to spreading serious doubts on the behaviour of nongovernmental actors conducting SAR operations at sea, and threatened that “as soon as the occasion would present itself”   he would open a criminal investigation into SAR NGOs for facilitating illegal immigration.

The opening of Zuccaro’s inquiry was followed by at least three other Italian Prosecutors Offices - Palermo, Cagliari and Trapani. While they are ongoing, these inquiries into the actions of civilian actors involved in the rescue of migrants at sea bring us back to a dark phase prior to Mare Nostrum when assistance to migrants in distress at sea by non-state actors was heavily criminalised. While all the most well-known legal cases of this period – such as the one involving the humanitarian ship Cap Anamur in 2004 and the one targeting 7 Tunisian fishermen in 2007 – ended with acquittals, they had the extremely dangerous effects of making non-state actors reluctant to rescue people in distress at sea, thus leading to repeated cases of non-assistance.  

A second crucial forum for the debate around SAR NGOs’ activities in Italy have been the inquiries by two different parliamentary commissions. Both the so-called Schengen commission of the Chamber of Deputies and the Defence commission of the Senate have launched in late March and early April 2017 a series of public hearings with the aim of inquiring into these allegations and understanding the unfolding situation in the central Mediterranean. While the hearings have included representatives of all actors operating in the Central Mediterranean, and thus offered the opportunity for SAR NGOs to defend themselves against accusations, they also operated as an echo chamber for the accusations of the prosecutors investigating SAR NGOs and other state agencies. The findings of the Defence Commission of the Senate were published on 16 May 2017. While the Commission concluded that no evidence of collusion with smugglers had emerged,   it also lamented the opening of a “privately-run humanitarian channel”. To reassert state control over these matters, it called for SAR NGOs to be put under greater scrutiny, come under the full command of the Italian Maritime Rescue and Coordination Center (MRCC), and for police to travel aboard NGO vessels or be able to board them at every rescue.  

AIS tracks of NGO ships contained in the final document produced by the Defence commission of the Italian Senate.

With the conjoined accusations by Frontex and the Italian Prosecutors and the echo these have received in the parliamentary hearings, the toxic narrative against SAR NGOs spread like a trail of powder across leading national newspaper and other mainstream media, but has also been picked up by key political and institutional figures not only in Italy, but also in Belgium and Austria.   While formulated each time in slightly different terms, the broad contours of this attack have been remarkably similar and have relied on a quite simple rhetorical strategy of de-contextualisation and omission.

First of all, statements criticising SAR NGOs have repeatedly shrouded their presence in the Mediterranean in a veil of mystery. The “sudden proliferation” of SAR NGOs described by Zuccaro,   the “NGO madness” evoked by the Austrian Foreign Ministry during official talks with Frontex,   and the “paradox” that their becoming the largest SAR operator in 2016 would constitute according to Frontex director Leggeri   are all examples of this. However, as we will discuss in more detail in the next section, the reasons that spurred a rising number of NGOs to dedicate themselves to SAR activities over the last two years are in no way hidden or dubious. The launch of their operations was a direct response to the EU and its member states’ decision to cut back state-led SAR in late 2014 and to the tragic consequences – extensively documented in our last report – of this decision that materialised in the first months 2015. It is the absence of those very institutions that now criticize NGOs, such as Frontex, in the area close to the Libyan coast, that has led the former to start their SAR operations.

Secondly, de-contextualisation and strategic omission in statements criticising SAR NGOs allow for the recombination of otherwise truthful pieces of information into a spurious argument. It is for example undeniable that NGOs have become the largest SAR operator in the central Mediterranean, conducting 28% of all rescues in 2016, all the while we have witnessed worsening conditions of crossing leading to record numbers of deaths at sea. However, as we will demonstrate in this report, the temporal coincidence of these phenomena in no way proves that they were causally related – and on the contrary we will demonstrate that SAR NGOs responded to the increasingly dangerous conditions of crossing caused by other actors and played instead a crucial life-saving role.

Despite corrections and partial retractions, the toxic narrative that is produced through such omissions and recombinations has a number of extremely worrying effects which are still unfolding and to which we will return in more details in the conclusive section to our report.


While several aspects of the attacks alluded to above have proven baseless or have already been effectively refuted by others,   we will mainly focus on the underlying claims put forward by Frontex that the presence of the NGOs would be the cause of an increase in both the numbers and danger of crossings.   Our focus is justified on the one hand, by the gravity of these accusations given the Agency’s prominent institutional role; on the other, we consider the increase in the mortality rate a worrying development that demands a serious evaluation in and of itself, so as to assess which actors, practices and processes are responsible for it and how one may in turn make the crossing safe(r).

In what follows we will not dispute the reality of several key trends highlighted by Frontex and other actors, such as: the increasing crossings of the central Mediterranean – which have risen from 153,842 in 2015 to 181,436 in 2016;   the worsening conditions of crossing exemplified by the overloading of rubber boats that increased from an average of 103 people per boat in 2015 to 122 in 2016;   and the rise both in the number of deaths – from 2,892 in 2015 to 4,581 in 2016 - and in the mortality rate – from 1.84 in 2015 to 2.5 in 2016.   What we will challenge, however, is the way Frontex has claimed that (NGO) SAR activities are causally connected to these trends, all the while occluding much more important processes and actors – including the regional political and economic contexts in Africa, EU policies and operations at sea, the intervention of the Libyan Coast Guard and the organisation of smuggling in Libya. In what follows, we seek to reconnect causal chains that have been severed by Frontex’s biased analysis in order to explain the trends outlined above.

Map and figures of the situation in the central Mediterranean between January and December 2016. Within the considered timeframe: migrants were rescued increasingly close to Libyan shores, as shown by Frontex and Coast Guard data; Frontex’s Triton operational area and EUNAVFOR MED’s operations area remained unchanged; Search and Rescue NGOs deployed a maximum of 12 vessels, and became the largest SAR operator in the central Mediterranean; crossings were comparable to 2014 and 2015 over most of the year, apart for the months of October and November which saw far more crossings then in previous years; deaths reached a record high and mortality rates peaked in Spring and Autumn. Credit: Forensic Oceanography. GIS analysis: Rossana Padeletti. Design: Samaneh Moafi.

To understand both the rise in crossings and in fatalities in 2016, we must take up the analysis of the situation in the central Mediterranean where we left it upon the publication of our report Death by Rescue one year ago.   We noted then that following the April 2015 shipwrecks, there had been a (re-)expansion of activities at sea by both state and non-state actors. Several new humanitarian SAR NGOs missions were launched, deploying their vessels off the Libyan coast to rescue migrants in distress.   At the same time, we saw the partial expansion of Frontex’s Triton operation and the launching of the anti-smuggling EUNAVFOR MED operation, which have since operated as a border-control and anti-smuggling operation respectively. For the operations Triton and EUNAVFOR MED, SAR activities have always been subordinate to their security-oriented mission.

Over most of 2015, complementarity prevailed over conflict between these two groups of actors and their distinct operational logics. A certain “division of labour” emerged, with rescues operated by NGOs allowing security-oriented actors to focus on their main tasks of surveillance, interceptions of smugglers and destruction of vessels. Both appeared to be able to fulfil their respective objectives. From a humanitarian perspective, by the end of 2015, the nongovernmental flotilla had been able to rescue more than 20,000 people, representing some 13% of all rescues. Even though 2,800 people died in the central Mediterranean between May and December 2015, the effort of all actors brought the mortality rate down to a level comparable to that recorded during Mare Nostrum. From a security perspective, the crossings had also slightly diminished. This allowed EUNAVFOR MED to boast in its first 6 monthly report that between January and the end of December 2015, “for the first time in 3 years, we have seen a 9% reduction in the migrant flow using the central (Mediterranean) route” in relation to the same period in 2014.   “This reduction,” the report explained, “is due to the improved security situation in Egypt, which is making it more difficult for migrants to cross into Libya coming from the Middle East especially Syrians, the eastern route being much safer and shorter route, and the deterrence effect provided in international waters by EUNAVFOR Med assets”.   EUNAVFOR MED expected this decrease to continue, noting that “this is an encouraging decrease in the flow and should continue to be driven down through EUNAVFOR MED’s continued efforts”.  

In retrospect, we can see that the rise in crossings and deaths that unfolded over 2016 were the product of dynamics already at work in 2015 but that remained largely invisible. In what follows, we will reconstruct how these dynamics materialised over the second half of 2015 and 2016. First, we analyse the variegated migration dynamics according to different countries of origin, demonstrating that despite the overall decrease over 2015, arrivals from several nationalities were increasing, and the trends over 2016 only continued those already underway over 2015. Second, we analyse the (f)actors that influenced the shifts in smugglers’ tactics, focusing on the evolution of the EUNAVFOR MED operation and its effects, and on analysing dynamics that took place on Libyan territory – particularly the growing involvement of militias in smuggling activities and the increasing intervention of the Libyan Coast Guard. Finally, we will analyse the response of NGOs and how they affected smugglers’ tactics and the danger of crossing.


While Frontex and other actors blame NGOs for constituting a pull-factor and leading to more crossings of the central Mediterranean, in fact deeper regional economic and political dynamics were leading to increased migration to and from Libya prior to SAR NGOs’ deployment.

EUNAVFOR MED’s prognosis that the “decrease” observed over 2015 “should continue to be driven down through EUNAVFOR MED’s continued efforts” was deeply flawed. What it missed was the different dynamics affecting migrants of different countries of origin. This was perceived much more clearly by Frontex, which, in its Annual Risk Analysis report released in early 2016, noted that:

“In 2015, there were 153 946 detections of illegal border-crossing on the Central Mediterranean route, representing a 10% decrease compared to 2014. The decrease is due to a fall in Syrians (about 40 000 in 2014, but fewer than 7 500 in 2015) after a shift towards the Eastern Mediterranean route. However, the number of East and West Africans steadily increased from below 80 000 in 2014 to more than 108 000 in 2015 (+42%).”
Frontex 2016 Annual Risk Analysis  

In retrospect, we can see how the drop in overall numbers registered by EUNAVFOR MED over 2015 was simply due to the fact that Syrians had all but stopped crossing the central Mediterranean after the April 2015 shipwrecks and the temporary opening of the so-called Balkan route in Autumn 2015, reaching Europe along the much shorter and safer Aegean route. While 2015 registered an overall decrease of 16,000 arrivals along the central Mediterranean route compared to the previous year, the decrease in the number of Syrians using this route was around 32,500. It is therefore easy to see that crossings by migrants of other nationalities were actually already increasing over 2015.

Main nationalities arriving in Italy, 2014-2015 comparison.

In this same report, Frontex further recognises that migrants from the Horn of Africa - Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan - are “driven by regional security issues, slow economic development, and lack of long-term livelihood options for refugees in the region”.   While Eritreans had been a prominent nationality amongst arrivals in Italy for several years and increased sharply as of summer 2013, in 2015 they became the top nationality arriving to Italy, with 39,162 arrivals. In 2015, arrivals of Sudanese migrants showed one of the sharpest increases (+194%), in the context of the deteriorating situation in Darfur at the time.

Concerning West African migrants, Frontex notes that “motivation for migration may vary among individuals, but most are believed to be pushed by economic motivations”.   Nevertheless, for the second strongest increase over 2015 - Nigerians (+166%), Frontex notes in its December 2015 Biweekly report thatthe precarious situation in North-Eastern Nigeria, with continuous attacks perpetrated by insurgents and radical Islamist groups, mainly Boko Haram, have led to the internal displacement of over 2.1 million people in Northern Nigeria. Most of the displaced people are settled in host communities and camps, but in precarious conditions, with many of them deciding to try to reach a better place to live”.  

Frontex thus perceived clearly the increase in arrivals over 2015 from different African countries and that these were driven by contexts of economic and political crisis across the continent. To understand the increasing arrivals over 2015 by several different East, Central and West African nationalities, one would need to offer a more detailed analysis of political and economic trends in each country that contributed to outwards migration, an analysis which lies beyond the scope of this research. It would also be necessary to analyse the distinct smuggling networks they resort to – an issue which we will return to, which may have either eased or added friction to migrants’ movements. For the purpose of our present analysis however, what is crucial is that the increasing migratory trends from several parts of Africa that were underway over 2015, and noted by Frontex, largely continued over 2016. While there were exceptions, in particular with a decrease in the arrivals of Eritrean nationals by nearly half,   the sharp increases in arrivals from several African nationalities remained steady over 2016 especially for migrants from Nigeria, Gambia, and Ivory Coast. The number of Nigerians arriving on Italian shores increased from 22,237 in 2015 to 37,551 in 2016, making Nigerians the top nationality.

Main nationalities arriving in Italy, 2015-2016 comparison.

Summarizing the trends observed over 2016 in its 2017 Annual Risk Analysis report, Frontex noted that:

“the Central Mediterranean saw the highest number of migrant arrivals ever recorded from sub-Sahara, West Africa and the Horn of Africa (181 459 migrants, increase of 18% compared with 2015). This trend, which is consistent with previous year-on-year increases, shows that the Central Mediterranean has become the main route for African migrants to the EU and it is very likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.”  
Frontex, 2017 Annual Risk Analysis report

Frontex thus itself recognises that the rising crossings in 2016 was consistent with the increase amongst migrants of different Sub-Saharan nationalities, which had begun already over 2015 - that is, prior to NGO SAR assets becoming the biggest rescue actor in the central Mediterranean.   The latter could thus not be the cause of the increase. It further recognises some of the regional “drivers” of migration related to economic and political crises affecting the region. The fact that NGOs were not the key driver of increased crossings from African migrants is further corroborated by the 46% increase in crossings over 2016 documented by Frontex in the Western Mediterranean, in absence of any NGO SAR assets whatsoever. “As in the case of the Central Mediterranean route, Frontex notes, most migrants were from Africa, indicating a growing pressure of illegal immigration from this continent towards the EU.”   While these trends and the regional dynamics that were driving them were reported by Frontex both internally and externally, they were not mentioned in relation to arguments that focused on the role of SAR NGOs allegedly constituting a pull-factor. This occlusion contributed to the toxic narrative against SAR NGOs.



While Frontex and other actors are blaming the NGO SAR assets’ presence close to the Libyan coast for leading to a shift in smugglers’ practices towards deteriorating conditions of crossing, shifting strategies were already recorded by EUNAVFOR MED over 2015, and described as a consequence of the anti-smuggling operation.

While we will argue in the next section that there were other factors influencing these shifts relating to developments on Libyan soil, in this section we focus on establishing the timing of the shifts in smuggling tactics and understanding the impact of the EUNAVFOR MED operation on them. We rely on the two EUNAVFOR MED reports that were made public by Wikileaks, the first covering the period from June to December 2015, the second from January to October 2016.   We further corroborated their findings through interviews with military personnel, reports from Frontex and the Italian Coast Guard, and the analysis of investigative journalists having interviewed smugglers in Libya.

EUNAVFOR MED’s mission was planned as a progression through four operational phases: first, surveillance activities; second, interception and destruction of vessels used for smuggling, initially on the high seas and eventually, if a UN resolution and Libyan consent was secured, into territorial waters; a third phase involving action on Libyan land following similar approval; and finally a fourth phase of handing over control of migration from Libya to Libyan authorities.  

As of the beginning of the operation on 22 June 2015 until the end of September 2015, the EUNAVFOR MED mission mainly focused on surveillance. The operation established “a patrol cycle predominantly located in the south west of the operating area in what was determined the area of highest migration concentration” – the so called ‘Lampedusa triangle’. […] Throughout the summer months,” the report continues, “the first priority of the force was to establish a presence and develop an understanding of the patterns of life within the area” - analysing the “flow of migration vessels” and determining patterns and modus operandi of smugglers.   During this phase, only 3,078 migrants were rescued,   and few boats appear to have been destroyed.  

Power point slides indicating EUNAVFOR MED’s assets and their areas of deployment during phase 2A (High Seas).

It is only on the 7th of October 2015 that EUNAVFOR MED moved into Phase 2A, which “saw a shift in the force’s focus from intelligence gathering to interdiction of Smugglers and Traffickers on the high seas, as the first active step in the disruption of [their] business model.”    In comparison to Phase 1, the force deployed for Phase 2A was substantially augmented by Member States. “At the height of the surge, nine surface units, a submarine, three fixed wing maritime patrol aircraft, five helicopters and one tactical UAV were deployed”, before being slightly reduced again as of the end of November in line with the seasonal decrease in crossings. During this phase, “airborne surveillance was stepped up to provide a near persistent presence across the southern boundary of the Lampedusa Triangle”, which in turn allowed naval assets to be “deployed tactically to effect interdiction, boarding and subsequent detention of escort, lookout or jackal Smuggler and Trafficker craft”.  

By the end of 2015, the report indicates that 8,336 migrants had been rescued, 67 migrant vessels (wooden and rubber) had been destroyed, and 46 individuals had been detained by Italian authorities and investigated for smuggling and trafficking crimes. The EUNAVFOR MED report notes that this surge in activities had important effects on smugglers’ mode of operation, which were described as “vigilant and highly adaptive, quickly implementing changes in the established Modus Operandi in accordance with perceived threats and opportunities.”  

EUNAVFOR MED first had an impact on the spatial logic of smugglers. Due to the deployment of the EUNAVFOR MED assets off the Libyan coast, the 2015 report notes that:

“smugglers can no longer operate with impunity in international waters. They have to stay within Libyan Territorial Waters, as they otherwise would be apprehended by EUNAVFOR Med operation SOPHIA assets.”  
EUNAVFOR MED, Six Monthly Report 2015

Second, the interdiction on the high seas and the destruction of migrants’ boats had an important impact on the shift from the use of wooden to rubber boats by smugglers.   The 2015 report notes that:

“Wooden boats are more valuable than rubber dinghies because they can carry more people, hence more profit for smugglers and are more resilient to bad weather and can be re-used if recovered by smugglers. However, following operation SOPHIA entering into Phase 2A (High Seas), smugglers can no longer recover smuggling vessels on the High seas, effectively rendering them a less economic option for the smuggling business and thereby hampering it. Inflatable boats are used in two thirds of the cases and wooden boats in one third of the cases.”  
EUNAVFOR MED, Six Monthly Report 2015

Third, also in their 2015 report, EUNAVFOR MED had already reported worsening conditions of crossings offered by smugglers coinciding with the beginning of the operation, without however noting any causal link. “Since the start of the operation, we have seen an evolution in smugglers Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, which has been corroborated by reporting from FRONTEX.”   Specifically, the report noted that:

“over the past 6 months we have seen smugglers provide migrant vessels with less fuel, food and water and launch them in more difficult weather conditions.”  
EUNAVFOR MED, Six Monthly Report 2015

What is fundamental to note here is that several of the evolutions in the practices of smugglers that are today being blamed on the nongovernmental flotilla were recorded over 2015, a period in which civilian assets were still marginal (accounting for only 13% of rescued people), and while NGO SAR assets operated mostly outside of the 24nm limit marking the Libyan contiguous zone. Instead of the NGOs, the EUNAVFOR MED report attributes many of these shifts to the effects of its own operation.

It is probable that the effects of the EUNAVOR MED operation were incremental, and were heightened as the operation continued to implement Phase 2A over 2016, as described in its second six monthly report, covering the period from January to the end of October 2016. It is over this period that the destruction of vessels stepped up. While only 67 boats had been destroyed in the operation’s first 6 months in 2015, in the next 10 months in 2016, this figure was multiplied fourfold to reach 269 vessels (225 rubber boats, 40 wooden boats and 4 speed boats).   This figure does not include the vessels destroyed by the other actors – such as the Italian Navy within its operation Mare Sicuro and other Italian assets, which are also reported to have increasingly destroyed vessels since 2015.   Furthermore, while Médecins Sans Frontières for example usually does not destroy vessels following SAR events, some SAR NGOs such as Sea-Watch also puncture rubber boats so as not to confuse them on their radar   Military sources reported to us that between 75-80% of all intercepted vessels were destroyed over 2016.  

As EUNAVFOR MED had already indicated in its first report, the increasing destruction of vessels contributed to heighten the tactical shifts in smugglers’ practices towards the use of rubber boats. By the end of February 2016, Frontex also had reported internally this shift without attributing any cause to it, other than the shortage in wooden boats:

“Thus far in 2016, inflatable dinghies (67) have been the main type of boat used to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy from Libya, while wooden boats were used in 2 incidents. Thus far in 2016, only ~3% of migrant vessels intercepted in the Central Mediterranean have been wooden boats, whereas in 2015 this percentage was around 25%.”  
Frontex, JO EPN Triton, Biweekly Analytical Update, no 2, 15-28 Feb, 3 March 2016, p. 3.

Over 2016, the share of vessels continued to shift towards small rubber boats, which came to be used in 70% of the SAR events, as shown by the data collected by Frontex and the Italian CG.

Figure comparing types of vessels provided by smugglers in 2015 and 2016.

Because rubber boats carry less people at a time, and even more people than before sought to make the crossing in 2016, the reliance on rubber boats multiplied the number of SAR events – with 1,424 SAR events recorded by the Italian Coast Guard in 2016 against 906 in 2015.

Furthermore, by the end of March 2016, Frontex had already noted the tactic of smugglers to send off several rubber boats at once:

“migrants continue to report simultaneous departures of rubber dinghies from the Libyan coast in what seems to be one solution to the lack of wooden boats. Using this approach smuggling networks are able to smuggle several hundred migrants at the same time aboard rubber dinghies”
Frontex, JO EPN Triton, Biweekly Analytical Update, no 4, 14-27 March, 31 March 2016, p. 3

Regarding these marked tactical shifts in early 2016 - the increasing use of rubber boats and multiple simultaneous departures - it is crucial to note that they were reported by Frontex between January and March 2016. At this point in time, there was only one single NGO SAR vessel deployed (SOS Méditerranée’s Aquarius), while other SAR NGO assets had not been deployed over the winter. As such, the allegation that the presence of SAR NGOs has been the driver of these tactical shifts must be ruled out.

The evidence provided by the evaluation of EUNAVFOR MED of its own mission between 2015 and 2016, confirmed by interviews in Libya and the trends documented by the data compiled by the Italian Coast Guard and Frontex, thus demonstrates that the shifts in smugglers’ tactics registered at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 cannot be attributed to NGO SAR activities since these activities were limited during these periods. Rather, EUNAVFOR MED attributes these shifts, which increased the danger of the crossing, to the effects of its own operation.

In addition to being corroborated by several sources, the effects of the operation are further consistent with the effects of past anti-smuggling operations, which systematically lead to an evolution of smuggling tactics, usually entailing more risk for migrants, while the demand for the service of smugglers remains unchanged.   While we have identified several instances in which Frontex noted smugglers’ tactical shifts that were consistent with those recorded by EUNAVFOR MED, it is surprising that Frontex and others did not ever note that these may be even partly related to the EUNAVFOR MED operation, which seems to remain entirely outside of their field of attention. Keeping EUNAVFOR MED’s effects on smugglers’ tactics outside of the frame of analysis has allowed Frontex and others in turn to blame these shifts on SAR NGOs, fuelling the toxic narrative against them.


While we have focused on the evolution and effects of the EUNAVFOR MED operation in the preceding section, it would be simplistic to attribute to it the sole responsibility for the evolution in the practices of smugglers. EUNAVFOR MED’s reports are mostly focused on documenting the effects of its own mission so as to justify its existence, and thus do not fully account for other actors and factors, in particular dynamics taking place on Libyan soil. While the political context in Libya makes detailed fieldwork difficult, our ongoing collaboration with investigative journalist Nancy Porsia and a recent report by Mark Micallef offer uniquely informed glimpses into smugglers’ practices and the evolving context in which they operate. When possible their findings have been corroborated with analysis from other sources such as Frontex. Through this prism, we can tell the same story of evolving smuggling tactics between 2015-2016 reconstructed above, but seen from the perspective of Libyan soil. What these insights demonstrate is that the growing Libyan turmoil and the smuggling practices that were allowed to proliferate within it had a far greater impact on the deteriorating conditions of crossing than the presence of SAR NGOs.

Map of main smuggling routes along the Libyan west coast. Credit: Forensic Oceanography. Design: Samaneh Moafi. Based on an original map by Mark Micallef, “The Human Conveyor Belt: trends in human trafficking and smuggling in post-revolution Libya”, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, March 2017.

As we argued in Death by Rescue, the downward spiral in the conditions offered by Libyan smugglers has been documented since 2013.   The fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 led to deep changes in what had previously been a relatively stable smuggling business.   The political fragmentation in Libya allowed new actors to enter the smuggling market, offering lower prices but not always possessing the willingness or know-how to organise safe crossings.   With increasing competition, smugglers resorted to subpar navigation equipment, or to loading more migrants on board unsafe boats so as to guarantee their profit margins. The increasing number of crossings as of summer 2013 and the October 2013 shipwrecks, which led Italy to launch its Mare Nostrum operation, were the expression of these worsening crossing conditions. However, after this phase of “liberalisation” of the smuggling market which saw the rise of the “low cost” model of smuggling, Mark Micallef has identified a new phase which began to take shape at the end of 2014 and consolidated towards the end of 2015, which he calls “resource predation”.   In this phase, militias have increasingly gained control over the migrant smuggling business, first taxing smuggling activities and then increasingly operating it themselves, considering migrants as “simply another commodity to be exploited in the broader resource predation carried out by armed groups that exercise effective control over the Libyan territory”.   Frontex also recognises the increasing involvement of militias in smuggling networks, noting that on the Libya coast “the militia’s ‘commanding officer’ in the region is the head of the network.”   Now, as Porsia notes, “migrants who voluntarily left their homes to seek a better future in Europe, are taken hostage by militias which sell them to smugglers from one leg to the other across the journey”.   In this configuration, in addition to the ebbing and flowing of state and non-state actors and their operations at sea which we have discussed above, Micallef argues that “routes, hubs, actors and modalities” of smuggling also evolve as a function of “the ebb and flow of tribal and militia relations”.   Several important evolutions took place over 2015-2016, which impacted the condition of crossing. We underline, in particular: the shift from Zuwara to Sabratha as main smuggling hub, which contributed to the fusion of the activities of smugglers and militias; secondly, the evolution of the main national groups of migrants crossing and the variegated smuggling networks they resort to; and finally, the increasing intervention of the Libyan Coast Guard.

Photos of Zuwara’s protest in August 2015 aiming to push smugglers out of the city. Credit: Zuwara Media Center

First of all, the geography of smuggling along the coast evolved in conjunction with the transformations of smuggling networks noted above. While since 2013 the area of Zuwara had become the main point of departure for migrants, following a tragic shipwreck in August 2015 which resulted in bodies washing ashore, smugglers were pushed out of the city by the local population.   Several prominent smugglers long-established in Zuwara relocated their activities eastwards towards the area of Sabratha, which soon became the main departure hub. Sabratha however, is a highly militarised area fragmented along multiple fault-lines.   It is here that the new model of militia control over the smuggling business achieved its fullest realisation – with a symbiosis between the experience of Zuwaran smugglers and the territorial control of Sabratha militias. As both Porsia and Micallef note, despite the struggle for power in the area, syndicates of smuggling militias soon emerged, leading to a concentration of the market into a handful of key players who were able to operate with a free hand. As a Zuwaran smuggler told Micallef in August 2016:

“Work in Sabratha is great, you can only imagine it. Imagine 30 or 40 different locations. From every location, five, six rubber boats leave (per day) and there is a location from which (large) boats leave with people from Eritrea or Syria. There is a specific location from which even 20 rubber boats leave (in a day). They all carry guns... and... nobody goes to them, it is only the people from Sabratha themselves who work from there, no foreigners are allowed to work from there. To work from there is fantastic.”  
Zuwaran smuggler interviewed by Mark Micallef, August 2016

Sabratha became a node of attraction within a web of increasingly strong transnational smuggling networks stretching to Sudan and Niger and enabling more and more intense movements of people to converge towards it.   Now instead of a few dozen people locked in connection houses waiting for the next leg in their journey, several hundred people could be “stocked” at any given time, according to a security source from Sabratha interviewed by Porsia.   This scale of human movement as a commodity illustrates the “industrial” dimension human smuggling has taken. The more the smuggling business came under the control of militias, the more migrants lost agency and control over their own fate. This evolution also contributed to worsening conditions, for in a market that increasingly depends on territorial and logistical control, as well as practices of extortion, rather then the choice and fidelity of customers, the level of service becomes less important in guaranteeing profitable transactions.   In addition to the impact of EUNAVFOR MED, these changing smuggling dynamics in response to endogenous factors in Libya certainly contributed to the decreasing quality of boats offered to migrants and their ever-higher degree of overloading. It is probable that these factors also contributed to the increasing tendency towards continuing departures during the dangerous winter months, a trend that was noted as “exceptional” by Frontex in early 2016 without attributing any cause to it.   While Sabratha is the paradigmatic example of the new fusion between smugglers and militias, it has emerged to different extents across the smuggling chain in other areas of the coast such as Garabulli, Zawiya, Surman and deeper inside Libya.  

Main nationalities arriving in Italy, 2015-2016 comparison.

Second, the changing composition of migrants discussed above has probably contributed to increasing the danger of crossing. We noted earlier the increasing prevalence of Central and Western African nationalities in 2016, while the number of Eritreans crossing the sea dropped by nearly half. However, migrants of different nationalities resort to using distinct smuggling networks, which have their respective operational modes, implying more or less danger for migrants.   As Porsia notes, Nigerian, Eritrean and Ethiopian brokers have set up their headquarters inside Libya and are able to control the entire passage from Sudan and Niger up to Europe, relying on Libyan smugglers for particular sections of the crossing through and from Libya. Migrants from the Horn of Africa – mainly Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis – seal their deals with smugglers in Sudan with local brokers and their business partners from Eritrea and Ethiopia for the whole journey to Europe.   They also pay higher prices then their West African counterparts, and in certain cases the smugglers only receive actual payment once the passengers have arrived safely on European soil thanks to a payment system known as “hawala”.   This means that migrants from the Horn of Africa have more margin of manoeuvre in exercising their limited bargaining power. For examples, they usually refuse to leave outside of the Spring and Summer months when the risk of encountering bad meteorological conditions is higher.   Central and Western African migrants have instead usually been recruited by smugglers in Niger, in the city of Agadez, and pay their smugglers cash for each leg of their journey up to the embarkation point, often opting for lower budget crossings. As a result, they are offered less high security standards, which translates in boats of lesser quality, travelling in the hold of vessels and being regularly sent off during the winter. While Porsia notes that over 2015 “the low cost business model for migrants’ sea crossing spread over all the embarkation points, including those in which the major smuggling players operate,” a hierarchy has continued to exist between the networks smuggling migrants from the Horn of Africa versus those smuggling migrants from Central and West Africa.   The changing composition of nationalities marking the crossing over 2016 has meant that a greater proportion of migrants went through the more dangerous networks. This certainly affected the risk of crossing even though this is difficult to verify empirically.  

Third and finally, over 2016, under pressure from European authorities the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) increased their interception of migrants upon departure, thereby leading to a rise of the volatility and danger of the crossing. Ever since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, with whom Italy had collaborated to push-back migrants intercepted at sea, the EU and its member states have been pressuring whichever authority they could speak to in Libya to clamp down on migrants.   The EU’s mission EUBAM Libya has been conducting training with the LCG since 2014, and the LGC further cooperates with the EU Commission, Frontex and the EU’s Seahorse project.   The European Council decided on 20 June 2016 to launch a new training program for the LGC to be implemented by EUNAVFOR MED, which considers “a capable and well-resourced Libyan Coastguard who can […] prevent irregular migration taking place from their shores” critical to its exit strategy.   The training began on 26 October with 78 trainees on board EUNAVFOR MED assets and with teams from UNHCR as well as Frontex in charge of specific modules.   Finally, on 2 February 2017, the cooperation with Libya that Italy had sought to re-establish over the last years was formalised in a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MoU) signed between Italy and the National Reconciliation Government of Libya.   While the MoU, which has at its core the fight against illegalised migration at sea and on Libya’s southern border, has been officially suspended following a decision of the Tripoli Appeals Court, its implementation remains underway and several patrol boats have been recently delivered by the Italian government to the LCG.  

Map of Libyan Coast Guard sectors.

As Nancy Porsia’s analysis however shows, the Libyan LCG is itself as fragmented and volatile as the Libyan political landscape.   While the Libyan Coast Guard is technically made up of six sectors which should be coordinated by the national command located in the capital of Tripoli, in practice the LCG command in Tripoli has no control over the units in the Eastern area, as they report to the Parliament based in Tobruq. Even in the Western area however the LCG command in Tripoli has little control overall and militias have come to operate Coast Guard-like functions, making it extremely difficult to differentiate actors on the ground. Despite this fragmentation of the LCG, as well as the limited vessels at its disposal, the increased pressure from the EU has resulted in a greater number of interceptions of migrants at sea in 2016. While over 2015 the LCG intervened infrequently in response to situations of distress, over 2016 the LCG units “rescued” 18,904 people off the Libyan coast according to IOM data, bringing them back to Libya where migrants are subsequently detained in extremely dire conditions.   The delivery by the Italian government on 15 May 2017 of the first four out of ten patrol vessels will further boost the LCG capacity to intervene at sea.  

The LCG’s intervention, however, simultaneously conflicts with, and is embedded within, the smuggling business. While the LGC has sought to demonstrate its effectiveness in intercepting migrants to tap into the opportunity for EU financial and political support, units also receive payment by smugglers and militias to let boats pass, and officials may receive payment for the release from detention centres of intercepted migrants.   The ambivalent role played by Libyan officials in relation to smuggling is no secret. While not referencing explicitly the LCG, Frontex has noted several times in its internal reports information it gathered of the participation of Libyan authorities in the smuggling business. For example, in its Biweekly report internally released on the 31st of March 2016, it noted that:

“Gathered information suggests that high ranking officers from different military branches are involved in the smuggling of irregular migrants from the west coast of Libya towards Italy. The information collected suggests that military officers between the ranks of Lieutenant and General are involved at different stages of smuggling people from Libya to Italy. Moreover, information regarding the identification of law enforcement officers involved in the smuggling of migrants from Libya to Italy was also obtained during the interviews.”
Frontex, JO EPN Triton, Biweekly Analytical Update, no 4, 14-27 Mar, 31 March 2016, p. 3  

In this sense, the LCG appear as one more actor intervening in migrant smuggling which has increased the volatility and danger of the smuggling business and SAR alike. Smugglers have adapted to the increasing activity of the LCG by carrying heavy weapons.   The risk of having vessels intercepted by the LCG may have also contributed to the shift from wooden to cheaper rubber boats as well as the tactic of towing one boat by another, which we have discussed above. The LCG itself has been involved in repeated acts of violence at sea. The LCG of Zawiya, which still has several functioning patrol vessels and rigid hulled inflatable boats, has been the most active West of Tripoli, patrolling the coastline stretching from Mutrud to Sabratha. It is reported to have removed the engine of boats seeking to pass without payment, leaving the boats adrift.   The Times further published a video (initially part of Ross Kemp’s documentary Libya’s Migrant Hell) showing the Zawiya CG beating migrants with a rope, while they were packed into a rubber boat during an interception.   Deplorable in it self, such a practice can also lead to the boat capsizing.

Several maritime units located near Zawiya – some belonging to the LCG, others not formally LCG but patrolling near an offshore oil refinery, were implicated in incidents with SAR NGOs.   On 17 August 2016, MSF’s vessel Bourbon Argos was attacked while it was located 24 nautical miles north of the Libyan coast. As MSF’s press release at the time described, “armed men on board the speedboat fired shots toward the Bourbon Argos from a distance of 400 to 500 metres and then boarded the vessel”.   The armed men then left without harming the crew. On 9 September 2016, the crew of a speedboat belonging to the NGO Sea-Eye was also arrested by the LCG after it entered territorial waters near Zawiya.   Finally, on 21 October 2016, the LCG of Zawiya violently interrupted a rescue operation Sea-Watch was conducting 14.5nm from the coast, boarding the overcrowded rubber boat and beating people, causing panic and a rupture in the boat. Over 150 people ended up in the water; of which Sea-Watch rescued 124 people and recovered four corpses.   This last incident exemplifies the additional risk the LCG’s increasing intervention has entailed for migrants.

Photographs showing the sequence of the events of the 21 October 2016 incident in which the Coast Guard of Zawiya violently interrupted a rescue operation Sea-Watch was conducting, leading to the death of at least 25 people. Credits: Christian Ditsch.

As we finalise this report, a new incident between the LCG and Sea-Watch occurred, which has been well documented by Sea-Watch as well as a report by Amnesty International.   On 10 May 2017, the Italian coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome (MRCC Rome) received a distress call from migrants navigating within the Libyan territorial waters. MRCC Rome contacted the Libyan authorities who responded that they would take over the coordination of the rescue. MRCC Rome also contacted Sea-Watch, since its vessel was in the area, and requested it to direct itself towards the boat in distress. Sea-Watch’s vessel reached the passengers in distress first, with their boat now located outside Libyan territorial waters. As Sea-Watch deployed its RHIB to approach the migrants’ boat, the LCG’s vessel almost rammed into the Sea-Watch vessel to intimidate them. The Sea-Watch vessel retreated immediately, but could witness the LCG stopping the migrants’ boat under the threat of a gun and failing to act in accordance to established safety standards. While no casualties were reported, the migrants were pulled-back back to Libya, a country where their lives are at risk and where they were brought to detention centres. This incident indicates that the destabilising intervention of the LCG is bound to increase in 2017, as the pressure and resourcing from the EU continues.

All three evolutions outlined here – the increasing involvement of militias in the smuggling business, the shift in composition of migrant nationalities, and the increasing interventions of the Libyan Coast Guard – have contributed to a downward spiral in the practices of smugglers and conditions of crossing over 2015 and 2016. The dynamics of Libyan smuggling are deeply shaped by the fragmented political landscape in Libya, which constitutes a causal factor in its own right. While difficult to measure, the influence of these trends on the increasing danger of the crossing in 2016 is undisputable. While Frontex has analysed smuggling networks in Libya, it has kept these factors out of the analysis of the causes of the deteriorating conditions of crossing offered to migrants, blaming them instead on SAR NGOs and contributing to the toxic narrative against them.


By the beginning of 2016, the effects of the EUNAVFOR MED operation and the dynamics within Libya had combined to make the conditions of crossing increasingly dangerous. More people were crossing, in more boats that were less sea-worthy, in more dangerous conditions, and were in distress closer to the Libyan coast. SAR NGOs responded to this by seeking to rescue migrants closer to the Libyan coastline and helped make the crossing safer. However, in the process, they might have contributed to consolidate some of the shifts in smugglers’ tactics.

From the above, we can see that the cumulative effects of the EUNAVFOR MED operation and of the dynamics within Libya, led to marked shifts in the strategies of smugglers towards worse conditions of crossing. More people crossed in 2016, and among them were more migrants of nationalities who resorted to the more dangerous “low cost” smuggling networks. More rubber boats were used, which are less resistant to adverse meteorological conditions, but also carry less people than wooden vessels, meaning that more vessels were sent out over the year – the number of SAR events leaped from 906 in 2015 to 1,424 in 2016.   Smugglers also increasingly sent out many boats at once. As the Italian Coast Guard data shows, instances of more than 20 simultaneous cases of SAR occurred regularly over the summer months of 2016, with a staggering peak of 53 SAR events in one day reached on 29 August.   Smugglers offered less provisions, launched migrants in worse weather conditions, and packed ever more migrants on boats of decreasing quality – with an average of 122 people aboard rubber boats recorded in 2016 compared with 103 in 2015.   Cases with as many as 200 people aboard rubber boats were recorded. Such extreme overloading increased the risk of capsizing, which was further heightened by the fact that “the wooden planks used to reinforce the floor of the rubber dinghies are so roughly cut that, on several overcrowded boats, they broke under the migrants’ weight”, as Frontex notes in its 2016 AFIC report.   While death by suffocation and asphyxia were reported in previous years in instances when migrants were trapped in the hold of wooden vessels, over 2016 they were reported by NGOs even on rubber boats, with migrants being crushed by fellow passengers. While smugglers continued to seek to recover vessels and their engines for re-use   – a task made increasingly difficult by the interdiction operated by EUNAVFOR MED – they also developed a new tactic noted in EUNAVFOR MED’s 2016 report: “the new modus operandi entails a skiff towing a rubber boat without an engine, which is then left adrift”.   This tactic proved lethal in several instances, such as the 26 May 2016 case involving the Watch The Med Alarm Phone.   These worsening conditions of crossing find their expression in the increasing mortality rates recorded in April and May 2016, almost reaching the height of the mortality spike registered in April 2015.

Monthly analysis of migrant mortality comparing 2014, 2015, and 2016. Credit: Lucio Malvisi.

As a result, situations of acute distress – imminent death – occurred closer and closer to the Libyan shores. In its 2015 report, EUNAVFOR MED had already recognized that “with the limited supply and the degree of overloading, the migrant vessels are [to be considered in distress according to international conventions] from the moment they launch.”   In its 2016 report, it noted that “the majority of migrants still die inside or very close to Libyan territorial waters”.   Similarly, in January 2016, Frontex noted an increase in incidents reported outside of the Triton operational zone, that is close to the Libyan coast.  

Map of SAR events between 2014-2016, showing that they grew closer to the Libyan coast.

These shifts naturally had a dramatic impact on SAR activities. It should be noted that the peaks in mortality recorded in April and May 2016 occurred while SAR NGO vessels were still being redeployed after their winter break.   There was still only one SAR NGO vessel present for most of April, that of SOS Méditerranée, and only five were deployed in May. SAR NGOs accounted for a small fraction of SAR activities over these months – 4% in April and 12% in May. According to interviews conducted for this research, the assets of MSF and of Sea-Watch continued to be positioned beyond the 24nm limit when they were deployed at the end of April. MRCC Rome however increasingly directed them to intervene within the 24nm limit, where situations of imminent distress were being signalled. Over the summer, MSF’s vessels maintained their default operational zone beyond the 24nm, while Sea-Watch and other SAR NGOs increasingly intervened proactively beyond that limit in order to best respond to cases of distress closer, and at times within, Libyan territorial waters. While inter-NGO competition characteristic of humanitarian contexts may have also played a part in this trend, moving closer to the Libyan coast corresponded to a humanitarian need.

MSF monthly analysis of share of rescue by actor. Credit: Lucio Malvisi.

Importantly, we can note that the mortality rate was brought down over the summer months, just as the NGO flotilla reached its peak deployment – with eleven SAR vessels – and the share of rescues operated by NGOs increased – with a peak of 35% in June. The mortality rate peaked once again in November and December when NGO SAR vessels progressively stopped their operations for the winter. Plotting the evolution of the mortality rate and that of the number of SAR NGO assets deployed at sea, we can observe a striking inverse correlation.   The importance of an increasing number of SAR assets proactively deployed to make the crossing safer is logical: only a high number of assets close to the Libyan coast could respond to the multiplication of SAR cases that was being observed in this area. In November, SAR NGO presence remained important, but encountered several adverse conditions that mitigated the capacity to avert deaths at sea. First, record crossings in October and November were observed, while these months normally see decreasing crossings as meteorological conditions worsen – a phenomenon which Frontex attributes once again to the presence of “maritime assets are patrolling close to the Libyan shore” without providing any evidence of this causal connection.   High winds were repeatedly recorder in November and several lethal incidents occurred in bad weather over the month.   In addition, while the number of SAR NGO assets decreased to seven in November, this month saw the highest share of rescue performed by SAR NGOs – 47%. This indicates that other actors must have disengaged at the time as NGOs absorbed a greater share of rescues with fewer assets; we note in particular the decreasing share of rescues operated by EUNAVFOR MED and Frontex in November. With a greater burden to carry in more adverse conditions, the activities of SAR NGOs were not able to mitigate the increasing danger of crossing in November.

Monthly migrant mortality rates for 2016 (based on IOM and UNHCR data) and number of deployed SAR NGO vessels, showing a striking negative correlation. Credit: Forensic Oceanography. Statistical analysis: Gian-Andrea Monsch, Researcher at Fors, University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Design: Samaneh Moafi.

The NGO flotilla thus responded to trends in smuggling practices that had been spurred by the anti-smuggling operation, as well as endogenous dynamics in Libya, and the increasing presence of NGO SAR vessels did in fact make the crossing less dangerous. While looking at overall data for the year of 2016 may give the paradoxical impression, repeatedly pointed out in attacks against SAR NGOs, that the increase in both the mortality rate and the share of SAR operations carried out by NGOs were simultaneous, a month by month analysis reveals the positive impact these operations had in reducing the danger of the crossings. At the same time, it is probable that their presence so close to the Libyan coast further contributed to consolidate smugglers’ new practices.

We can understand why smugglers would be seeking to rely on NGOs. As the EUNAVFOR MED’s 2016 report mentions: “It could be argued that by operating so close to the Libyan territorial waters the NGO presence has allowed the smugglers to recover boats to the shore more easily for re-use and shorten the average rescues from 75nm to 35 and now 20nm from the Libyan shore.”   In addition, echoing Frontex’s analysis, the report notes the decrease in the provision of satellite phones by smugglers to migrants and attributes it to the identifiable presence of the NGO SAR vessels, noting that “this is believed to be because smugglers seem to be aware where they can reliably find rescuing assets particularly from the NGO’s who broadcast their position via the Automatic Identification System (AIS).” The use of online vessel tracking platforms to identify the location of NGO SAR assets was confirmed to Nancy Porsia by smugglers in Libya.   While it is thus probable that the presence of SAR NGOs contributed to the decreasing provision of satellite phones, this occurred in the context of the deeper trend of the worsening conditions of crossing provided within the militia-led smuggling model. The decreasing use of satellite phones, which normally allow migrants to alert the Italian Coast Guard, in turn made the deployment of SAR assets close to the Libyan coast an absolute humanitarian necessity since this became the condition to detect vessels that might otherwise have drifted or sunk unnoticed.

Graph showing the monthly rate of vessels rescued in response to a satellite phone call and the rate of rescue performed by SAR NGO.

While the practices of SAR NGOs may thus have inadvertently contributed to consolidating the shifts in smugglers’ practices, there has so far been no evidence of the criminal collaboration with smugglers alluded to by several actors, and as such, we cannot engage with these claims in details. As we mentioned in the “toxic narrative” section, Carmelo Zuccaro, public prosecutor in Catania, has claimed that “telephone calls from Libya to certain NGOs, floodlights lighting up the way to the boats of these organisations, ships that suddenly cut their transponder (allowing for their localization) are proven facts”.   Zuccaro’s claims appear to simply seek to turn standard practices which SAR actors, state and civilian alike, have been undertaking openly for years, into a suspicious practice. While NGOs such as the WatchTheMed - Alarmphone and state agencies in charge of rescue alike routinely receive distress calls via satellite phone from migrants at sea following which SAR operation are triggered, direct contact between the smugglers and SAR NGOs at sea has been firmly denied by all SAR NGOs. For what concerns the (mis-)use of floodlights, SAR vessels ordinarily turn on their lights to be able to be seen by vessels in distress in the night. Finally, it is not uncommon that the poor quality of AIS vessel tracking coverage off the coast of Libya leads to interruptions in the transmission of positions. If these are the practices Zuccaro has “proof” of, they do not involve criminal activity. In fact the claims of criminal activity have been increasingly retracted by several prosecutors as they failed to find conclusive evidence.  

Even Frontex’ interpretation of the already mentioned incident of November 2016, which the Agency claimed to be “the first reported case where the criminal networks directly approached an EU vessel and smuggled the migrants directly into Europe using the NGO vessel”, has subsequently been revealed to be spurious.   In this incident, Frontex reports that according to the Italian authorities, “a small fibreglass boat in the area displaying a Libyan flag with persons pretending to be fishermen (…) approached one of the NGO vessels Minden and transferred two Libyan citizens from the small boat to the EU vessel claiming that they were migrants. The NGO vessel took them aboard and let the Libyan boat leave the area. After the debriefing activities, the migrants stated that the crew aboard the small Libyan boat were the people smugglers”.   However, as investigative journalist Zach Campbell has demonstrated in his detailed reconstruction of the reported case, in all probability the reported incident involved “engine fishers” – often fishermen who as an additional lucrative activity recuperate engines from the boats from which migrants have been rescued. Regardless of their identity, what is most important is that they did not “smuggle migrants directly into Europe using the NGO vessel” but simply supported the SAR operation by pulling out of the water two people after their boat had capsized.   From the scarce elements that were put forth and our analysis of them, as has been the case for the Italian Senate’s Defence Commission, no evidence of collusion with smugglers emerges.  

From the analysis above, it appears clearly that NGO SAR vessels were not the drivers of shifts in smugglers’ practices, but rather sought to respond to them. Their deployment close to the Libyan coast was made necessary by the increasingly dangerous conditions of crossing, and may have in turn consolidated some of the smugglers’ new tactics – as indicated by the “parallel” developments of SAR NGO presence and the decreasing use of satellite phones. Over the period of the peak deployment of SAR NGOs however, the mortality rate was substantially reduced. Our analysis thus reveals that, contrary to the claim made by Frontex and others, SAR NGOs have made the crossing safer.


Aiming to deter migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, the EU and its member states have pulled back from rescue at sea leading to record numbers of deaths. Non-governmental organisations were forced to deploy their own rescue missions in a desperate attempt to fill this gap and reduce casualties. Today, NGOs are under attack, wrongly accused of ‘colluding with smugglers’, ‘constituting a pull-factor’ and ultimately endangering migrants. Our report however has demonstrated the crucial life-saving role fulfilled by SAR NGOs, without which many more lives would be lost to the sea, and offered empirical analysis that disproves those accusations.

We can now summarily rebut the claims made against SAR NGOs by Frontex and other actors:

(1) NGOs operating close to Libyan territorial waters constitute a “pull-factor” leading to more migrants attempting the dangerous crossing

Our report has demonstrated that the increased crossings recorded in 2016 were not the product of the supposed “pull-factor” constituted by SAR NGOs, but were a continuation of a trend that had already begun independently of the presence of SAR NGOs. This rise in crossings (especially of migrants from Central and Western Africa) was the product of worsening economic and political crises that affected several countries and regions across the African continent, including the chaos raging in Libya. These trends were reported by Frontex both internally and externally, but were not mentioned in relation to the agency’s arguments against SAR NGOs. As the continued crossings in the wake of the termination of Mare Nostrum demonstrated, while the prospect of being saved may give hope to migrants that they will survive the perilous crossing, those stuck in Libya have little choice but to attempt it, and do so with or without dedicated SAR operations. A very similar rebuttal of the “pull-factor” argument has been made by institutional figures with no interest in defending the NGOs such as the commander in chief of the EUNAVFOR MED Mission, Admiral Credendino,   the Rear Admiral of the Italian Coast Guard Nicola Carlone,   and the Italian vice-minister for Foreign Affairs, Mario Giro, who have also stressed the need to highlight “push-factors” such as the appalling conditions in Libya and the overall situation in sub-Saharan Africa rather than simply focusing on NGOs as alleged “pull-factor”.   Finally, while the empirical analysis shows that the “pull-factor” argument is flawed, it should also be highlighted that, regardless of its veracity, it rests on the morally questionable assumption that it would be wrong to provide migrants with a safe(r) opportunity to leave the extremely dire situation in Libya and cross the Mediterranean. Whoever invokes this argument is also implicitly legitimising the use of the prospect of death at sea as a deterrent.

(2) NGOs are unintentionally helping criminals by encouraging smugglers to use even poorer quality boats and more dangerous tactics

Our analysis shows that SAR NGOs responded to evolving smuggling practices that had been spurred by endogenous dynamics in Libya and heightened by the EU’s anti-smuggling operation, EUNAVFOR MED. At the heart of the continuous degradation of the conditions of crossing since 2013, has been the violent and chaotic situation in Libya, which at the end of 2015 led to a new and more dangerous model of militia-led smuggling. The EU’s anti-smuggling operation, EUNAVFOR MED had an important impact on smugglers’ tactics, as recorded in its own internal reports.   By interdicting and destroying the vessels used by smugglers, it confined them to Libyan territorial waters and contributed to the shift from wooden to cheap rubber boats. That such tactical shifts were noted at the end of 2015 and in the first months of 2016, when the presence of SAR NGOs was limited, further confirms that SAR NGOs were not causing them. Finally, under pressure from the EU, the Libyan Coast Guard (LGC) has increasingly intervened to intercept migrants’ boats as they left the Libyan coast over 2016. As the LCG repeatedly exercised violence in the process at times leading boats to capsize, it contributed to increasing the danger of crossing. In response to these trends, as of Spring 2016 NGO vessels were increasingly directed by the Italian Coast Guard to intervene closer to the Libyan coastline to avert situations of imminent distress. While by moving closer to the Libyan coastline, SAR NGOs may have contributed to further consolidating smugglers’ new practices – such as no longer providing migrants with a satellite phone, this was the condition to rescue migrants more effectively.

(3) NGOs are making the crossing more dangerous for migrants despite their intentions

Our analysis contradicts this claim and reveals the crucial life-saving role of NGOs. While it has often been noted that 2016, the year that saw the highest number of SAR NGOs at sea, also saw a new record number of deaths (4,576) as well as a rising mortality rate in comparison to the previous year (from 1.83 to 2.46), closer analysis throughout the year tells in fact a very different story. The migrant mortality rate had risen in early 2016 before NGO SAR assets returned to the central Mediterranean following their winter break, it declined in parallel to their redeployment, and rose again only when SAR NGOs’ presence decreased at the end of Autumn. There is thus a striking negative correlation between the decreasing mortality rate and the rising number of SAR NGO vessels, which however, unsurprisingly, has not been noted by those seeking to delegitimize SAR NGOs. The life saving role of SAR NGOs has been again illustrated in 2017 through their fundamental contribution to the many SAR events that occurred over the Easter weekend, which we analyse in more detail below.

Our empirical analysis thus allows to counter the allegations put forward to delegitimize SAR NGOs, and demonstrates that the these accusations have been founded on biased analysis which has deliberately singled out SAR NGOs from the broader web of interactions that together shape the dynamics and conditions of maritime crossings. SAR NGOs were not the cause of increased crossings and shifting smugglers’ tactics, but were rather a fundamental civilian response to a dire situation that was not of their making. The increasing deployment of SAR NGOs succeeded in making the crossing less dangerous.


Our analysis thus shows the flawed nature of these attacks. It also demonstrates that they are based on the omission of information that, although widely available, has not been mentioned by those attacking NGOs, thus fuelling what we have defined a toxic narrative. This narrative has had very real effects in public debates in terms of delegitimizing and criminalising SAR NGOs, but also, as exemplified by the recommendations of the Italian Senate’s Commission for a stricter regulation of SAR NGO activities, initiating an institutional process that threatens their operations.   Further more, the targeting of SAR NGOs has also strengthened policy directions supported by Frontex and EU member states. We can now see with more clarity these de facto effects:

Hiding the EU’s failures

The attack on SAR NGOs has served to keep out of the spotlight and justify the failure of the “solutions” that EU actors had proposed in the wake of the April 2015 shipwrecks. These measures, that were meant to reduce crossings and the deaths of migrants at sea, were the expansion of Frontex’ Triton operation, and the launching of the EU’s EUNAVFOR MED operation, which have focused respectively on border control and anti-smuggling activities. Neither of these measures have succeeded in their stated aims. Crossings have increased despite them and, as we have demonstrated, by systematically destroying the boats used by migrants, EUNAVFOR MED has even directly contributed to make the conditions of crossing offered by smugglers more dangerous. By blaming SAR NGOs for their supposed “pull-factor” effect and for the worsening conditions of crossing, NGOs have served as an easy scapegoat, which states could blame for the failure of their own policies.

Re-enforcing deterrence

By focusing on the “mysterious” presence of SAR NGOs, EU actors have also managed to mask the continuing SAR gap left by state actors in the wake of the termination of Mare Nostrum. As we have demonstrated in Death by Rescue, the EU and its member states pulled back from rescue at sea to enforce their policy of migration deterrence, and this retreat proved lethal.   The current attack on what has become the primary actor operating SAR – NGOs – once again threatens proactive SAR. The precedent of Mare Nostrum and the recurrent claim that SAR NGOs constitute a “pull-factor”, indicates that this latest attack on proactive SAR can be understood as an attempt to re-impose deterrence.   If NGOs were forced to stop or reduce their operations, there is no doubt that many more lives will be lost to the sea. Furthermore, the opening of inquiries against SAR NGOs and their possible incrimination for “facilitating illegal immigration” risks bringing us back to a period prior to Mare Nostrum when civilian actors involved in the rescue of migrants at sea were repeatedly criminalized. This had the extremely dangerous effect of making seafarers reluctant to rescue people in distress, leading to repeated cases of non-assistance that caused tremendous loss of life.   While the effects of the campaign of de-legitimisation and criminalisation of SAR NGOs are still unfolding, the risk of dramatically increased loss of life looms large.

Justifying externalisation

The de-legitimisation of NGO SAR activities has also allowed other “real” solutions to appear as ineluctable, such as the externalisation of border control to African states, which has received an increased boost in recent months. Asked “how can we then find a solution in the near future for the Central Mediterranean route ?”, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri in his interview with Die Welt used the example of the closing of the Atlantic route to Spain, which was achieved through “cooperation with African states from which migrants’ boats were leaving”, and to which “migrants were swiftly brought back”.   This is the model Frontex has been referring to time and again, as in its 2016 Annual Risk Analysis report and it was also invoked in the European Commission’s strategic note “Irregular Migration via the Central Mediterranean” of February 2017.   What these proposals however omit is that the closure of the Atlantic route did not stop the crossings of illegalised migrants and deaths at sea overall, but rather displaced these crossings and deaths to other routes.   Furthermore, what they also neglect is the tremendous human cost of the cooperation being advocated for. Externalising migration control to “transit and origin states” in the central Mediterranean effectively means cooperating with (war) criminals, such as in Sudan and Eritrea, and relegating migrants to a country, Libya, where widespread human rights violations against migrants have been systematically documented.   In particular, the EU is increasingly relying on cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), the intervention of which has led to repeated loss life. In effect, targeting SAR NGOs so as to gain control over them and enabling the LCG to pull-back migrants to Libya are both sides of the same coin.   Considering the condition of migrants in Libya today, preventing migrants from departing from Libyan territory amounts to complicity with arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, forced labour and trafficking.

Criminalising solidarity

In several trials that have taken place in recent months in Denmark, Greece and France, people who have hosted or helped migrants en route have been accused of trafficking or other “crimes of solidarity”.   The attacks against SAR NGOs should be understood in relation to this wider attempt of criminalisation, which does not only puts migrants’ lives and rights at risk, but also the rights of EU citizens to stand in solidarity as well as their capacity to exercise civilian oversight at the EU’s frontiers. Recognising that migrants are forced to resort to perilous means of accessing the territory of the EU as a result of the EU’s migration policies, the right to solidarity must be asserted.


The analysis we have provided does not leave NGOs and their SAR activities untouched and raises important questions for their continuation. Despite their best intentions, NGOs have increasingly come to be “sandwiched” between the operational logics of states and smugglers alike, and instrumentalised from both sides. Furthermore, while the NGO flotilla is not the main cause of the rise in deaths and mortality and it was instead able to reduce the mortality rate in the period of its maximum deployment, the NGO flotilla was not able to prevent the increase in the overall number of deaths either. The risk that their presence would keep reinforcing the trends we have discussed, thus resulting in effects that are the exact opposite of their humanitarian aims, is real and should not be underestimated. SAR NGOs are acutely aware of this difficult position. As the authors of an internal MSF position document “Unsafe passage” noted: “We are caught in a vicious circle because both smugglers and border guards are exploiting our presence at sea and people continue to die, despite our actions”. As such, the urgent question for SAR NGOs and civil society at large is “How will SAR NGOs manoeuvre themselves out of these unwilling complicities and break the cycle of death?” Most SAR NGOs have been aware from the beginning that their operations could not be, in and of themselves, a solution to end the dangerous crossings that are the product of the EU’s policies of exclusion. They know that as long as insufficient legal pathways for migration exist, migrants will be forced to cross the sea through precarious means, the Libyan smuggling business will continue to thrive, and deaths will continue to occur, with or without their presence. As such, several SAR NGOs have consciously used their position to demand a fundamental shift towards policies enabling the passage of migrants through safe and legal means that would make their own activities redundant.   However, as the ending of Mare Nostrum has demonstrated, the fate of migrants would be even worse without the courageous humanitarian work NGOs have undertaken while states have remained focused on border control and anti-smuggling activities. NGO’s SAR work thus remains both necessary and by definition insufficient. The question for them remains how to realise safe(r) passage in this challenging context.


The beginning of 2017 shows no sign of migrants’ crossings abating, or of the danger of crossing diminishing. Despite having been under constant attacks for several months, SAR NGOs have continued to play a central role in SAR efforts in the central Mediterranean, as exemplified by the events of the Easter weekend. Two years after the April 2015 shipwrecks that cost the lives of 1,200 people, April 2017 has once again seen record crossings. Between 14 and 16 April 2017, 9,262 people travelling on 55 different boats were rescued, constituting one of the largest events of concentrated SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea in the past few years.  

These SAR events have highlighted the continuing absence of state-led SAR assets. “According to MRCC data”, The Guardian reported, “of the 25 ships involved in rescue operations over the Easter weekend one was operated by Frontex and one by EUNAVFOR MED. Ten belonged to NGOs, six to the Italian coastguard, six were merchant vessels, and one was an Italian navy ship.”   While Frontex has subsequently clarified to us that some of the Italian Coast Guard assets mentioned by the Guardian article were co-financed by them and thus technically are part of its Triton operation, it also admitted that only 6 vessels of its 16 assets were deployed in an area close to where the SAR events were taking place and could thus participate in some capacity to the rescue efforts.   EUNAVFOR MED also confirmed to us that only one of its ships took part in the operations, as the operation’s 4 other ships were either in port or busy with other tasks.  

It is in this context that NGOs have once again played a leading role in the SAR operations. As the Watch The Med-Alarm Phone network – which was in direct contact with two boats in distress and several of the NGOs operating in the area – summarized, “the NGOs ships present in the area worked at the limit of their capabilities. […] The crew of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) alone rescued more than 1,500 people from 9 precarious boats, and took hundreds on board of their vessel Phoenix. The rescue vessel Iuventa of the NGO Jugend Rettet similarly took hundreds of people on board. Unable to navigate, they were even forced to send off a MAYDAY call on Sunday. Fortunately, they could successfully complete their SAR operation and safely return to Malta.”  

Rescued migrants on the deck of the Iuventa of the NGO Jugend Rettet during the Easter Weekend 2017 operations. Despite a nominal capacity of no more than 100 people, the Iuventa had to take on board hundreds of people to make up for the absence of state-led SAR assets. Credit: Giulia Bertoluzzi.

In addition to SAR NGO vessels, the newly launched NGO SAR plane Moonbird was also crucial in determining the position of several migrants’ boats in distress, that might otherwise have drifted unnoticed towards a tragic fate. The Moonbird’s presence is a fundamental response to the decreasing provision of satellite phones recorded over 2016, demonstrating civil society’s extraordinary capacity to respond to evolving practices at sea in the aim of enabling safer passage.

Aerial photographs of the rescue operations taken by the civilian SAR aircraft Moonbird during the Easter weekend. Credit: Moonbird Airborne Operation /,

The events of the Easter weekend highlight the continuing absence of an adequate number of state-led SAR assets, and the crucial role of SAR NGOs in filling this gap. While the number of people crossing over Easter 2017 was comparable to that recorded in April 2015, thanks to the remarkable work of all these SAR actors, “only” 115 casualties were recorded during the 2017 Easter weekend, instead of the 1,200 recorded in the 12 and 18 April 2015 shipwrecks. Without SAR NGOs interventions, the death toll would have been much higher. Underlining SAR NGOs’ life-saving role is the strongest antidote to the toxic narrative that has been spread against them. It does however make the prospect of them having to suspend or reduce their activities all the more worrying. The work of SAR NGOs must be able to continue without being blackmailed and criminalised. In the face of the horrendous death toll that is the product of the EU’s policies of closure, the right to solidarity must be asserted.

As long as migrants are forced to resort to smugglers for lack of legal pathways, proactive Search and Rescue at sea will be a humanitarian necessity – whether it is operated by states or NGOs. Only a fundamental re-orientation of the EU’s migration policies to grant legal and safe passage may bring the smuggling business, the daily reality of thousands of migrants’ in distress and the need to rescue them to an end.