Despite claims, new study finds that search-and-rescue operations don’t increase migrant crossings in the central Mediterranean

Image source: Irish Defence Forces / Wikimedia Commons

Research by Julian Wucherpfennig, Professor of International Affairs and Security, and co-authors suggests that sea crossings are not incentivised by search-and-rescue operations.

In a modelling study published this week in Scientific Reports, Hertie School Professor Julian Wucherpfennig and his co-authors test the assertion that search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean lead to more crossing attempts and therefore more migrant deaths. Their findings contradict this claim, showing instead that “migration across the central Mediterranean Sea between 2011 and 2020 may have been driven by factors such as conflict or economic or environmental conditions, rather than search-and-rescue operations”.

To study Europe’s “most frequented and deadly irregular migration route”, Wucherpfennig and co-authors deployed an “innovative machine learning method in combination with causal inference”, using data on attempted crossings in the central Mediterranean between 2011 and 2020 to model changes in the numbers of crossing attempts, boats returned to Tunisia and Libya, and documented migrant deaths. This model was then used to perform simulations to test which factors best predicted changes in the number of crossing attempts.

Changes in the number of migrant crossings are better explained by other factors

The authors examined three periods in central Mediterranean migration between 2011 and 2020, respectively characterised by (1) state-led search-and-rescue operations, (2) privately led search-and-rescue operations, and (3) pushbacks by the Libyan Coast Guard. While neither state-led nor privately led search-and-rescue operations showed any influence on the number of crossing attempts, the Libyan Coast Guard’s involvement seemed to deter migration. However, this came “at the expense of well-documented human rights violations against prospective migrants” along the Libyan coast. In looking at other factors, the authors found that the frequency of sea crossings is better explained by “changes in conflict intensity, commodity prices and natural disasters, as well as weather conditions, currency exchanges and air traffic between North African and Middle Eastern countries and the EU”.

A step forward for understanding migration and search-and-rescue operations

Overall, Wucherpfennig’s research provides a valuable contribution both for research on migration and for the public discussion on migrant crossings in the central Mediterranean. On the research front, the cutting-edge methods developed by Wucherpfennig and his co-authors can be used by migration researchers to forecast migration flows and better understand what drives these flows. In terms of the public discourse, this study provides an argument against the idea that search-and-rescue operations encourage migration, highlighting that these operations “cannot explain…why people decide or are forced to move in the first place”.

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