More than 4,500 people lost their lives off the Libyan coast last year. And yet, there have never been so many vessels carrying out rescue missions in the area — from Italian coast guard ships and European operation Eunavfor vessels to those from the border control agency Frontex and others chartered by NGOs.
This paradox is a source of concern for European authorities, so much so that some people are pointing fingers at certain NGOs for jeopardizing the rescue of migrants.
The humanitarian response coincided with a geographic relocation of rescue operations, which now take place far from the Italian coast, often fewer than 20 nautical miles off Libya. "One direct consequence of this has been a change in the business model of smugglers," the European Commission wrote in a recent report.
On board, there's no drinking water, and often no life jackets
There is evidence that smugglers increasingly use completely unseaworthy inflatable dinghies that have no prospect of ever reaching the Italian shores, assuming they will be picked up near or within Libyan territorial waters, the Commission found.
Even though the journey between the coasts only takes a few hours, fragile dinghies that are sometimes stuffed with as many as 140 migrants can sink easily. On board, there's no drinking water, and often no life jackets, for the desperate migrants.
There's another assessment of what's taking place. Earlier, a call to the Rome Maritime Rescue Coordination Center would trigger an operation coordinated by the Italian coast guard. Ships that were deployed would be called upon to act. But Frontex, in a confidential note, observes that these calls now only lead to 10% of all rescue operations. Meanwhile, the number of rescue operations carried out directly by humanitarian organizations has skyrocketed, accounting for one-third of such missions.
Frontex has different theories about why this happens: Either the NGOs use radars or smugglers inform migrants where NGOs are waiting, the agency suggests. Libyan coast guards note that some boats don't hesitate to aim powerful searchlights at the coast so they can easily be seen at night.
No officials agreed to talk about these issues on the record. One European diplomat, maintaining anonymity, offered this assessment: "Some NGOs go as far as entering Libyan territorial waters and others even communicate with the smugglers to guide them. It is a reality, even though it has limited scope for the time being."
Another person familiar with the issue described the current situation this way: "There are NGOs and NGOs," said the source. "Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross help us fight against smugglers. But there are new organizations, less known and created rather recently, which intervene with little conscience and can raise suspicions."
Even if the rescue operations stopped, it wouldn't change the minds of migrants
Frontex says that some vessels may be turning off their transponder devices so as not to get caught. Rescue procedures carried out by civilian ships aren't necessarily properly equipped, which can lead to tragedies, the border control agency notes.
What can authorities do when faced with this situation? Apparently, not much. "We're not going to start chasing NGOs," a senior source says. The European Union doesn't want to be accused of hampering the action of groups who are saving lives.
The EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says that even if the rescue operations stopped, it wouldn't change the minds of migrants. "Even if there were no more (rescue) boats, it still wouldn't deter those who want to come."