Post by Katja Franko and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert. Katja is Professor of criminology at the University of Oslo. Her work is primarily concerned with borders, globalization and issues of criminalization of migration. Maria is Research Director and Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and the Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS). Her work is primarily concerned with humanitarian and security responses to migration and border management. This is the first instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective. 

During 2016 and 2017, more than 46,000 migrants were rescued yearly by NGOs and civil society actors close to the Italian coast. The numbers have declined considerably in the past two years. NGOs are, nevertheless, still the largest single actor in search and rescue in the area apart from the Libyan coast guard, after Italy and the EU  delegated increased responsibilities on this matter to Libya during the last year. As pointed out by previous contributions on this blog, these activities have been subjected to various types of state intervention such as seizure of rescue vessels, arrests of crew members, and initiation of legal procedures against them. 

At the same time, NGO search and rescue (SAR) activities have been surrounded by intense rhetorical battles. Migration policy is a highly politicised field and positions on humanitarian rescue vary considerably, often depending on the speakers’ professions, institutional affiliations and political convictions. Attention to language is important here. The use of certain metaphors, discursive couplings and rhetorical tropes framing migrants and rescuers influences attitudes and political actions by focusing on certain aspects of the activities while suppressing others. At the most extreme, NGOs have been accused of ‘playing into the hands of human traffickers’ (Fabrice Leggeri, Director of Frontex, Die Welt, 27.2. 2017). SAR has been rhetorically coupled with human smuggling and even trafficking. As Frontex wrote in one of its reports: 

“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.” (Frontex, 2017: 32).

More recently, the French interior minister Christophe Castaner suggested (5.4. 2019) that SAR off the North African coasts represent “a real collusion between smugglers and some NGOs“. What these linguistic tropes do is to present the rescuers as deliberately creating routes for irregular migration into Europe, and thereby effectively deflecting attention away from the duty of rescue and the lifesaving efforts they are fulfilling. Within this debate, there are similar discourses that eventually create doubts around the migrants’ right to assistance, by questioning their right to international protection. This narrative is underpinned by their awareness of the risks that they “put themselves into”, thereby obscuring the fact that the right to rescue is unconditional of any legal status (yet to be defined) and the reasons that have led anyone into that situation in the first place. 

While the statements referred to here may be the sharpest and most dramatic examples of condemnation of NGO rescue operations by EU member states and agencies, a more pervasive and, arguably, more influential perception has been established in the past decade or so: that SAR constitutes a pull factor for irregular migration. While the debate on the topic has raged, with polarized views and disagreements around this assumption, this idea of SAR as a pull factor has become more widespread. The idea is probably attractive because it provides a seemingly simple explanation to a situation that is otherwise difficult to comprehend: why people are risking their lives, and what should be done about it. 

Because the pull-factor argument has become pervasive in current discussions about  responses to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, it is important to address the question by closely examining the findings of existing scientific studies on the subject, and to critically discuss what this assumption does to the policy responses in the area. This is what we aim to do in this week’s thematic issue. The contributions address the issue of humanitarian Search and Rescue from several standpoints: from a policy and legal perspective, and from the point of view of humanitarian actors who are tackling these questions on a daily basis. The contributions were first presented at a public debate that took place at the House of Literature in Oslo in November 2019, jointly organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies and the University of Oslo’s NORDHOST project. Conscious of the fact that migration policies are often more informed by political convenience than scientific knowledge or even reference to international legal obligations, the event aimed to bring in dialogue researchers, politicians, NGO representatives and the general public in order to discuss the nature and impact of humanitarian SAR operations. 

In the second post, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert examines some of the existing studies about SAR as the pull factor, all refuting any direct connection and pointing to a more complex picture affecting the numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean. Her contribution then asks what the focus on SAR as a pull factor says about the state of European policies in the area.

Erik Røsæg, professor of maritime law at the University of Oslo, examines SAR from the perspective of the international law of the sea. What do existing conventions actually say about the duty to rescue, whose responsibility is it, and what it means to fulfil this responsibility? While political discourse may give an impression that there is much room for choice, Røsæg’s contribution points to the clarity and firmness of state legal obligations when it comes to SAR. 

The final two posts are contributions from the field by two NGO representatives, Kyrre Lind from Doctors without Borders Norway, and Pål Nesse from the Norwegian Refugee Council. Lind shares an account from the perspective of those participating actively in search and rescue, and who are at the centre of the “pull factor” polemic. Nesse follows up arguing that the “pull factor question” is all together the wrong question to start with: not only is the picture much more complex, but it also obscures what should be very clear, namely, the duty to rescue lives at sea.

While the contributions are critical of the discourses through which search and rescue activities have been framed in recent years, they also paint a more pressing overall picture. They show that European policies in this area have turned away from some central principles that have traditionally been seen as salient guides for political action: scientific evidence, legal rules and humanitarian principles. The contributions in this issue, and the preceding debate, show that this development is also taking place in Norway, a country that is often taking great pride in observing the above-mentioned principles. This is yet another reminder that when it comes to migration policy, there are few countries that have been able to stand firm on principles, when faced with the perceived urgency of the issue. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Franko, K. and Gabrielsen Jumbert, M. (2020). The controversial lifesavers: NGO Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/03/controversial[date])