Non-Governmental Search and Rescue Operations: So contested, yet so crucial

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  • May 9, 2017

Daniela Irrera

For the third consecutive year, growing numbers of migrants have been crossing the central Mediterranean to reach the shores of Europe. The European Union (EU) has remained without an effective policy or a common solidarity approach to address this challenge. In the meantime, national coastguards have returned to patrol and monitor at sea in order to rescue people in need. They do so with the (not always indispensable) support of Frontex.

One central pre-requisite for managing transboundary crises is coordination across different types of actors, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Search and rescue operations (SARs) by NGOs have complemented existing EU and member state operations and have significantly mitigated the effects of the humanitarian emergency: since 2015 a growing number of people have been rescued every year. Nevertheless, there have been continued and aggressive attacks against NGOs. For example, according to Frontex and a public prosecutor from Catania (Italy), NGOs are alleged to have colluded with people smugglers in illicit activities. They are also accused of contributing to destabilising the wider area because of their ill-managed SAR operations.

What explains such criticisms? The relationships between NGOs, member states and the EU regarding the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean has gone through four different phases, each responding to particular aspects of the wider crisis.

Initially, non-governmental SAR represented a new phenomenon in the Mediterranean. NGOs have been regarded as controversial actors, particularly within the wider humanitarian sector. Ranging considerably in their size and resources, they have been extremely active across almost all areas at issue. Their presence is essential for intergovernmental organisations and national states. They are closely involved in the international system. The first SAR in the Mediterranean in Spring 2015 challenged the popular perception of NGOs: traditionally, NGOs were involved in humanitarian efforts following man-made and natural disasters. Despite the novel environment of the refugee crisis, the NGOs’ SAR actions were nevertheless consistent with their earlier activities in protecting human lives.

Subsequently, NGO activities turned into a convenient phenomenon. In Spring 2016, their operations intensified and also became more specialised. Well-established NGOs, such as the MSF and Save the Children, and newly created ones, such as MOAS and SOS Méditerranée, provided examples of (sometimes uneasy) cooperation among organisations. They offered well-equipped vessels, rescue facilities and medical services that complied with international maritime law and were supervised by competent authorities. In doing so, NGO SARs proved extremely useful in addressing the worst effects of the refugee crisis, by reducing the number of fatalities, and, more importantly, by mitigating the lack of serious EU commitment and the failure of the solidarity approach.

More recently, especially following the agreement with Turkey, the intention to replicate this agreement with other countries, and the launch of a resettlement plan, non-governmental SARs represent a troublesome phenomenon. Unable to cope with new arrivals and constrained by populist campaigns, political elites would prefer approaches that, without violating their international humanitarian duties, would prevent people from travelling by sea and would support their electoral needs.

In the absence of any major change, it is likely that NGOs’ SARs will become an ‘uncontainable’ phenomenon. NGOs are becoming increasingly efficient and professionalised in their activities. They could extend their activities into states that are close to collapse. NGOs could be deployed in any rescue operation, as the example of the MOAS operation in the Adaman Sea in the Indian Ocean demonstrates.

This trajectory of increasing NGO prominence also reflects on the different phases of EU performance throughout the refugee crisis. The refugee crisis produces transboundary implications which require the involvement of different actors, instruments and procedures. The management of the humanitarian dimension of the refugee crisis requires the adoption of a comprehensive and collective approach.

If member states wish to preserve the moral high ground by prosecuting NGOs alleged of colluding with smugglers, then this requires the adoption of an effective and comprehensive set of transboundary policies and measures that set aside state-centred perspectives regarding asylum requests. NGOs would then no longer be required to continue their rescue missions at sea and could return to their more traditional fields of activity.

The question therefore is whether EU member state governments are ready to change their present approach. If they are not, then migration will continue and humanitarian emergencies will require responses. In that case, regardless of whether one considers their activities as legitimate or not, the NGOs’ activities will be essential in mitigating the well-organised, but, as yet, ineffective actions by states, and supplementing the lack of a collective response by the EU.

The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.

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