There is a specter lurking over the debate about NGO ships: a confidential Frontex report that supposedly shows how they are a “pull-factor” — that is, an element that attracts migrants and entices them to start their journey. This idea has been touted in the past, without any proof. The new report supposedly covers the period between January 1 and May 18, 2021. We do not know its exact contents, only leaked rumors that surfaced on November 8 through the ADN Kronos agency, which claims to have seen it. The agency quotes this passage: “In the absence of NGO ships in the Mediterranean, many [migrants] refuse to leave.”
One of the most important systematic studies on the pull-factor theory was conducted on 2014-2019 data by Eugenio Cusumano and Matteo Villa for the European University Institute. The numbers disproved that there was any correlation during that period between departures from Libya and the presence of NGO ships in the relevant SAR, i.e. search and rescue, area.
“For the period cited by Frontex as well, there is no evidence for this. Quite the contrary. In the first four and a half months of 2021, the average number of migrants who departed daily from the Libyan coast is 125 with NGOs present in the SAR area of the North African country and 135 without,” says Villa, who works for the Institute for International Policy Studies (ISPI) and has access to official data.
“May 9, 2021 was the day with the most departures: 2,436 in at least 15 events. The last NGO mission had ended on April 30. The next one was supposed to leave on May 14,” Villa continues. He underlines how, in any case, the time span of the Frontex analysis is too limited to statistically demonstrate the presence of a pull-factor. It also coincides in part with the coldest months of the year, when bad weather limits both the departures of migrant boats and the navigation of humanitarian ships.
However, the Frontex report has been cited by several members of the government as irrefutable proof of the need to clamp down on NGOs. Most prominently by Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who on Sunday, in two different interviews, in Corriere della Sera and in Mezz’ora in più on RAI 3, claimed that “a report by the European agency Frontex says that the NGOs are meeting with the traffickers in the Mediterranean.” Until the text is public, there is no way to verify his claims. However, Tajani’s statements aren’t even talking about a pull-factor, but are accusing the NGOs of jointly coordinated transport of migrants. That is, of complicity in human trafficking.
“It has never been proven that there has been any agreement between traffickers and NGOs. If this were the case, it would obviously be illegal conduct, but although there have been a number of accusations, there isn’t even a shred of evidence. Neither in Italy nor in Europe. It is absurd to think of criminalizing the rightful rescue activity of humanitarian ships,” says former magistrate Armando Spataro.
On this issue, the government seems to be in confusion: while dusting off old theories disproved by data and judicial investigations, they seem to be looking for new regulatory tools to hinder the activities of rescue workers. On Sunday, Minister of Infrastructure Matteo Salvini spoke of “keeping a very close eye on them.” It remains to be seen if that would involve his ministry, and the inspections of the Coast Guard, or the Interior Ministry. It might involve a Minniti-style “code of conduct,” as Tajani hinted at on Monday from the sidelines of the meeting in Brussels with the president of the EU Parliament, Roberta Metsola. According to rumors leaked on Sunday, the new code would require ships to communicate with the authorities at every step of the rescue operation, demonstrate that the boats they rescued were in danger of shipwreck and no longer report their own position.
As all the NGOs have pointed out, they are already doing the first part, communicating with the authorities – but the Maltese and Italian authorities are failing to respond. Regarding the second, Admiral Vittorio Alessandro, retired from the Coast Guard, is clear: “All migrant boats are in danger from the moment they leave the coastal areas. It doesn’t go against a specific safety regulation, but the entire system of the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the regulations on the safety of navigation.”
The third point, NGOs no longer reporting their ships’ positions, seems impossible: it would require turning off the AIS (Automatic Identification System), a system that communicates where a ship is in real time. In 2004 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) established that, for safety reasons, the use of this system is mandatory on all ships making international voyages and exceeding 300 tons.
We will have to see the text that the government is working on, but these changes will not be enough to stop the humanitarian ships.
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