Terra Incognita: How ‘NGOnialism’ led to a Mediterranean migrant crisis

A disaster has been created in the Mediterranean. It is fueled by the relative wealth of NGOs who seek to help but who have created a cycle of chain migration and empowered smugglers.

Migrants wait at Italian checkpoint prior to processing  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Migrants wait at Italian checkpoint prior to processing
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Muhammed was one of the migrants from Nigeria who found himself at sea earlier this month, off the coast of Libya. He was seeking to leave Libya and get to Europe. “We had to go north to lean, we were told it would take us three to four hours to reach Europe” he told SOS Mediterranee, a European maritime and humanitarian organization on June 14.
Along with 135 others on a slowly sinking boat at sea he was rescued after 24 hours and told his story to staff on the Aquarius rescue vessel. His story was posted online. His name was changed so we won’t ever know his final fate, but he was likely one of those who disembarked in Spain this week after surviving the crises at sea. Italy and Malta had turned the Aquarius away until Spain agreed to welcome the more than 600 migrants aboard the ship.
In June, the Aquarius became a symbol of Europe’s dysfunctional immigration policies. According to its website SOS Mediterranee has teams in Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland “jointly financing and operating the rescue ship Aquarius, which has been in continuous operation since February 2016.” The NGO has “welcomed more than 28,000 refugees” on board since then. The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has surged in the last decade.
As of June 10, 2018 a total of 35,504 migrants crossed by sea to Europe, many of these crossing from Libya to Italy. In 2017, a total of 119,310 made the same journey and in 2016 a total of 181,436 did according to the International Organization for Migration. There were 170,000 in 2014 and 153,000 in 2015.  The IOM says that it has registered 400,000 migrants in Libya but estimates there may be 1 million more. In a country of only 6 million people that means that African migrants might make up more than ten percent of the population.
Understanding the migration crises affecting European shores, primarily Italy, is not a simple story. First of all it is a story of death. Since the Millennium, more than 30,000 migrants have died at sea. Overall some 2.5 million crossed between 1998 and 2017 with 280,000 arriving to Italy between 2003 and 2010. What that means is that in recent years the numbers arriving in just one year are as many as arrived in the whole of previous decades.
To deal with the crises, the EU and specific states have come up with different policies. The EU sought out a deal with Turkey to keep migrants in Turkey by paying Turkey billions of Euros. In March, the EU unlocked a new tranche of €3 billion to keep the migrants away.
With Libya the policy was more complex because of the breakdown of the Libyan state in 2011. Marco Minniti, the previous Italian interior minister, negotiated with tribes in the southern Sahara and with 14 cities in Libya to stop the flow of people. He alleged that trafficking of people had become an “industry” and that weaning Libyans from trafficking would stop the abuses of migrants and stop the migration.
The allegations that an industry is behind the growth in migration has emerged in recent years because of the growth in well-heeled NGOs operating large boats to bring migrants to Europe. An article about Minniti notes that in June of 2017 he once found that “in the space of 24 hours there had been 12,500 arrivals in 25 vessels operating across the Mediterranean.” An Italian court in 2017 even looked into allegations that smugglers were financing some of the NGOs. “Last summer we saw something we’d never seen before. At times there were 13 boats operated by NGOs working at once,” a local prosecutor said. A spokesman for the German NGO Sea-Watch said the allegation was “nonsense” and that his group was funded by small donations. SOS Mediterranee said that their donations “averaged about €170.”
But the financing isn’t so transparent. On the website of SOS Mediterranee I could find no financial statement or explanation of who pays for the chartering of the Aquarius except the claim that it is a “non-profit association and is financed exclusively through donations. Our partner Doctors Without Borders contributes to the monthly costs for the Aquarius and staffs the medical team on board.” So I went to the financial reports section on MSF’s website. They claim ‘transparency and accountability.” But the web page links for their Form 990 don’t work. Their 2016 financial statement says they had assets of $346 million for MSF USA. That includes $44 million spent on two floors of an office building in Manhattan. The overall financial picture for 2017-2018 and who contributes what to pay for operations of the 252-foot Aquarius is unclear.
The crises in the Mediterranean is underpinned by unintended consequences of good intentions. Frederic Wehrey, author of The Burning Shores: Inside the battle for the new Libya gives insight into how migrant smuggling has changed in Libya. Years ago “the smugglers had favored wooden fishing boats.”
But once European navies and humanitarian ships showed up “the smugglers shifted to even less seaworthy craft, huge inflatable Zodiacs with outboard motors.” These were bought online from China and the smugglers knew they only had to get the migrants out past the 12 mile limits of the country’s international waters “where the rescue boats awaited.” The smugglers would even provide just enough fuel to get the inflatable out here, or go “out to retrieve the motor, letting the migrants drift.” In short, the more NGOs showed up, the more the smugglers could make in a short amount of time using more deadly means. This helped become a pull for migrants and an incentive for the smuggling industry in Libya. A CNN investigation in 2017 found migrants sold as slaves. Good intentions might have helped fuel a new slave trade.
Another piece of the suffering puzzle is international law and the Libyan coast guard. The BBC provides a helpful primer on the various laws of the sea, including the 1974 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea and 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue. None of these conventions foresaw a time when smugglers would be purposely pushing rafts of people into international waters where modern NGO ships awaited to scoop them up.
There is an EU Border and Coastguard Agency called Frontex. If a ship in distress was a near a Frontex vessel it would take the boat to the nearest EU port, according to the BBC. But international law says that ships learning of boats in distress should move with all possible “speed to their assistance” and disembark the people “in a place of safety as soon as possible.” If you pick up migrants off of Tripoli in Libya, where many of them leave from the closest place of safety is actually Tunisia. So boats that are picking up migrants off the coast of Libya aren’t actually “forced” to bring the refugees to the EU, they are bringing them to the EU not purely to rescue them but because they are part of an EU industry, a kind of “NGOnialism” in which NGOs take the place of government policy and become part of foreign policy.
The EU has also helped fund the Libyan coast guard to keep migrants in Libya. In 2017, the EU and Italy sought to pay €285 million  to bolster the Libyan coast guard, even as Libya itself sinks deeper into poverty.
On June 8, the UN imposed sanctions on individuals accused of people trafficking who were also connected to the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard. Coast guard members were “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms.” Coastguard members were also accused of being smugglers themselves. Another man was even accused of smuggling 45,000 people in 2015. In another case, a smuggler arranged a journey for 800 people whose boat sank and they died.
In a bizarre incident in May, the Aquarius was “informed by the Italian coast guard of an overloaded [migrant] boat off the coast of Tripoli.” But Italy also told the Libyan coast guard, setting off a race for the migrants. The Libyans ordered the Aquarius to not approach, and the migrants “jumped into the water to avoid being picked up by the Libyans.” The Libyan coast guard accused the NGOs of “causing panic” as migrants “surge to reach the charter boats to a void being returned to Libya.”
A disaster has been created in the Mediterranean. It is fueled by the relative wealth of NGOs who seek to help but who have created a cycle of chain migration and empowered smugglers. It is fueled by the EU that seeks to pay off local authorities for short term measures to stop migration, rather than long term solution. It is fueled by the tragic dreams of naive people who think the crossing from places like Nigeria will be easy.