Migrant crisis, NGOs and the snares of the Mediterranean region

The growing number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean and fleeing to southern Europe in the last years made necessary a deeper intervention in the area; for this reason different NGOs decided to begin a collaboration with European governments in Search and Rescue (SaR) activities. After two years of intense operations however these organization are facing a series of unexpected upcoming dilemmas, both on the North African and European side.

NGOs operations in the Mediterranean

NGOs missions in the Mediterranean area begun in 2014 with a brief operation led by Moas (Mobile Offshore Aid Station), an organization founded by Chris Cantabone and his wife.[1] With the end of ‘Mare Nostrum’ in October 2014,[2] the amount NGOs operating in the area increased blatantly, in order to balance the absence of governmental operations. At the beginning of 2017 thirteen NGOs were taking part to SaR mission, all the operations have been coordinated by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.

NGOs’ massive involvement in the Mediterranean in the last year has coincided with a substantial growth in the number of migrants successfully reaching the Italian coasts. According to the data provided by the Italian Coast Guard, 181.377 migrants were saved in SaR operations in 2016, almost 30.000 more than the previous year. In analysing this data, it’s necessary to keep in mind that on 18 March 2016 it was signed the EU-Turkey Statement for the management of the migration flow: the agreement changed the dynamics of migration routes with an increasing number of refugees attempting to reach Europe through the Libyan path[3].

However, NGOs also played their role: in 2016 more than an half of the rescues in this area were completed by NGOs’ vessels,[4] furthermore the growing activities of NGOs have reduced almost to zero the necessity of an involvement of mercantile and fishing vessels in this sort of operation. As a result, SaR missions became safer and better organized. By cooperating with each other and with governmental organizations, NGOs built a sort of network composed by a number of ships and planes, with the aim of sifting through the Mediterranean in order to save as much people as possible. As stated before, this network is coordinated by the MRCC and each NGO is given an area of competence based on the necessities of the moment. The precise and functional way of operating noticeably contributed to increase the amount of migrants rescued in the area and safely carried to Italy.


‘Pull over factor’ theory and the Code of Conduct

As stated in an ‘Issue brief’ of Doctors Without Borders, since 2016 NGOs had begun to accomplish their operation off the Libyan Coast. This shift is due to the fact that smugglers, as testified by WikiLeaks and EUNAVFOR, changed their tactic, using less quality boats and staying within Libyan waters, in order to avoid being apprehended by EUNAVFOR MED vessels.[5]

The ‘Issue brief’ was written in opposition to those who accused NGOs of being a ‘pull factor’ for those seeking to leave, encouraging them to proceed to sea. The European border agency Frontex itself showed its reservation about NGOs’ behaviour engaged in SaR operations and, according to the Financial Times, it stated to have evidences that some of them concluded agreements with smugglers.[6]

The report has been reclaimed from Italian newspapers, and political leaders highly criticized NGOs’ behaviour, such as Matteo Salvini, Secretary of Lega Nord, and Luigi Di Maio, member of Movimento 5 Stelle.[7]

However, the worsening of the migration emergency and the political pressure together with Frontex accusations led the Italian authorities to change their approach on this issue.

First, the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and his Libyan equivalent Fayez al-Serraj signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 2 February 2017, a document aiming at establishing an area of competence for the Libyan Coast Guard, providing technical support to Libyan operations in fighting smugglers and guaranteeing an Italian finance in order to organize hotspots in the Libyan territory.[8]

At the same time, while making deals with the Libyan government the Italian authorities began to question NGOs’ conduct in the Mediterranean. The Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti stated that a regulation of NGOs’ activities in the area was necessary. Therefore on 6 July 2017 a migrant NGO Code of Conduct was published by the Ministry of the Interior.[9] On 17 July, the European Commission and Frontex approved the document and NGOs were asked to sign it. It includes some controversial points that made its signature complex for the NGOs. In particular three regulations have been strongly questioned: the commitment to receive armed judicial police officers on their ships, if requested; the commitment not to transfer those rescued on other vessels; the commitment to declare all the sources of financing for their rescue activities.


Consequences, NGOs’ current situation

The scenario, at the end of 2017, is becoming more complicated and adverse for NGOs operating in the Mediterranean. There are mainly two important issue that these organization need to face as a consequence of the latest political developments.

The former is the campaign against NGOs’ involvement in SaR operations that took place in 2017: the Code of Conduct and Frontex report together with the investigation concerning the funding of the charity ships launched in March by Carmelo Zuccaro, Prosecutor from Catania, are shaping an image of NGOs as a ‘pull factor’.[10] Several, mostly right-wing Italian politicians and newspaper, such as Il Giornale[11] and Libero[12], are supporting this opinion and asking for more regulations. Furthermore, as a consequence of the Italy-Libya deal there has been a significant drop in the number of migrants able to make it to the Italian coasts in the last year. This data might be interpreted as a success of the Code of Conduct, strengthening the position of those supporting the ‘pull factor’ theory.

To sum up, this negative campaign might cause a loss of credibility for NGOs’ and represents a critical issue since reputation directly impacts on their finance resources.[13]

The latter issue is that the Italy-Libya accord is jeopardizing the safety of NGOs’ vessels operating in the Mediterranean and leading to the death of numerous migrants.[14] In the present situation, on 14 November the UN itself defined EU support of Libyan Coast Guard ‘inhuman,’[15] this is both due to the condition of prisons in Libya and for the method that Libyan Coast Guard uses in SaR operations, often accomplished in International Waters. Moreover, three NGOs already had to suspend their operations in August, right after the accord was put into practice, as a consequence of the increasing number of clashes with the hostile Libyan authorities.[16]



The role and position of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean has changed throughout the last year. The migration emergency reached its peak in 2016 and the Italian authorities had to deal with the political and economic consequences of the inflow. The Italian Government, with the EU support, responded to this issue by taking accords with Libyan political actors and limiting the liberty of NGOs in SaR operations. Although a similar overturning appeared to be impossible when NGOs first started operating in this area, the government behaviour did not have to face a strong opposition from the public opinion and was strongly criticized only from the far-left.

NGOs’ presence in the Mediterranean is currently on the line. Different vessels already suspended their activities in the area since currently SaR operations are more dangerous and less useful as a consequence of Libyan management of migration.[17]

However, in the last months the Council of Europe asks the Italian authorities for clarifications about the content of the accords with Libya,[18] the UN accused the EU for the support provided to the Libyan authorities, even if it is not clear if this approach reflects a renewed support to NGOs in their clash with the Libyan Coast Guard. Conversely, further NGOs will abandon the Mediterranean, jeopardizing their role in SaR operations.

Tommaso Branzaglia

Bachelor’s degree in Political, Social and International Sciences (University of Bologna)

Notes and references

[1] Zandonini, G. (2017, May 22). How the humanitarian NGOs operate at sea. Open Migration. Retrieved from: http://openmigration.org/en/analyses/how-the-humanitarian-ngos-operate-at-sea/

[2] Operation Mare Nostrum was a year-long naval and air operation commenced by the Italian government on 18 October 2013 to tackle the increased immigration to Europe during the second half of 2013 and migratory ship wreckages off Lampedusa. The operation ended on 31 October 2014 and was superseded by Frontex’s Operation Triton.

[3] Collet, E. (2016, March). The paradox of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/paradox-eu-turkey-refugee-deal

[4] Comando Generale del Corpo delle Capitanerie di Porto Guardia Costiera (2017). Attività SaR nel Mediterraneo connesse al fenomeno migratorio. Retrieved from: http://www.guardiacostiera.gov.it/attivita/Documents/attivita-sar-immigrazione-2016/rapporto-sull-attivita-sar-nel-mediterraneo-centrale-anno-2016.pdf

[5] Médecins Sans Frontières (2017, August 17). Humanitarian NGOs conducting Search and Rescue operations at sea: A “pull factor”?. Retrieved from: http://searchandrescue.msf.org/assets/uploads/files/170831_Analysis_SAR_Issue_Brief_Final.pdf

[6] Pécoud, A., & Esperti, M. (2017, June 20). Are the NGOs responsible for the migration crisis in the Mediterranean?. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/are-ngos-responsible-for-the-migration-crisis-in-the-mediterranean-79699

[7] Pollice, A. (2017, April 26). “Migranti con l’acquascooter”. Di Maio sempre più Salvini. il manifesto. Retrieved from: https://ilmanifesto.it/migranti-con-lacquascooter-di-maio-sempre-piu-salvini/

[8] Anon. (2017, February 3). Accordo Italia-Libia sui migranti, i punti salienti. ANSA. Retrieved from: http://www.ansa.it/sito/notizie/politica/2017/02/03/accordo-italia-libia-sui-migranti-i-punti-salienti_f9d61c42-a6ba-4fcf-a6a5-ea7701461f44.html

[9] Ministero dell’Interno (2017). Codice di Condotta per le ONG Impegnate nelle operazioni di salvataggio dei migranti in mare. Retrieved from: http://www.interno.gov.it/sites/default/files/allegati/codice_condotta_ong.pdf

[10] Latza Nadeau, B. (2017, April 16). Mediterranean rescuers accuse Europe of ‘leaving migrants to drown.’ CNN. Retrieved from: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/16/europe/migrant-refugee-crisis-europe/index.html

[11] Biloslavo, F. (2017, August 13). “Segnali e bugie: così le ONG proteggevano i trafficanti.” il Giornale. Retrieved from: http://www.ilgiornale.it/news/politica/segnali-e-bugie-cos-ong-proteggevano-i-trafficanti-1430502.html

[12] Giorgiutti, A. (2017, August 7). L’esperta di Africa smonta le balle di Boldrini e ONG: “Ecco chi sono davvero gli immigrati che vengono in Italia.” Libero. Retrieved from: http://www.liberoquotidiano.it/news/italia/13214425/libero-intervista-anna-bono-esperta-africa-smonta-balle-boldrini-ong-immigrati-italia-.html

[13] Cajoly, M-G. (2017, February 8). Are the NGOs up to the reputation challenge?. Communication Director. Retrieved from: https://www.communication-director.com/issues/are-ngos-reputation-challenge#.WgszDXbSLIU

[14] Ziniti, A.(2017, November 10). Libici contro ONG: la battaglia navale mentre 50 migranti muoiono in mare. La Repubblica. Retrieved from: http://palermo.repubblica.it/cronaca/2017/11/10/news/libici_contro_ong_la_battaglia_navale_mentre_50_migranti_muoiono_in_mare-180706019/

[15] Anon. (2017, November 14). EU support of Libyan Coast Guard ‘inhuman’: U.N. rights chief. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-libya-un/eu-support-of-libyan-coast-guard-inhuman-u-n-rights-chief-idUSKBN1DE294?il=0

[16] Henley, J., & Giuffrida, A. (2017, August 14). Three NGOs halt Mediterranean migrants rescue after Libyan hostility. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/14/three-ngos-halt-mediterranean-migrant-rescues-after-libyan-hostility

[17] Nesticò, M. (2017,September 5). Migranti: ONG in fuga dal Mediterraneo, lascia anche Moas. ANSA. Retrieved from: http://www.ansamed.info/ansamed/it/notizie/rubriche/politica/2017/09/05/migranti-ong-in-fuga-dal-mediterraneo-lascia-anche-moas_e636ddc5-c716-4af6-b292-b749c484e77c.html

[18] D’Argenio, A. (2017, October 11). Migranti, il Consiglio d’Europa: “L’Italia chiarisca accordo con la Libia”. Minniti: “Mai fatto respingimenti.” La Repubblica. Retrieved from: http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2017/10/11/news/strasburgo_consiglio_d_europa_l_italia_chiarisca_accordo_con_la_libia_-177960481/

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