The inflow of migrants from North Africa has split Europe between those who think governments should do all they can to save human lives and those who fear rescue operations mainly benefit smugglers. A new study shows such concerns could be well-grounded.
Giovanni Mastrobuoni, one of Europe’s preeminent economists of crime based at the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin, worked with Claudio Deiana and Vikram Maheshri to look at how people smugglers change their behaviour in response to relief efforts in the Mediterranean Sea. Their findings: When such criminals anticipate there’s a greater chance their human cargo will be rescued, they react by using cheaper and less secure boats. As a result, the number of crossings increases — on craft more vulnerable to accidents — making it mission impossible for rescue crews to reduce the number of deaths.
This conclusion will be clearly unpalatable for those, especially on the left, who believe European governments have a moral duty to provide assistance at sea to crossing migrants. A number of terrible accidents — especially one in October 2013, which killed more than 360 people off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa — have led politicians in Italy and beyond to launch operations to preserve human life at sea.
The critique, typically from the right, is that these efforts risk doing more harm than good. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s League and former home affairs minister, has led efforts to limit such operations, especially those by non-governmental organisations such as Open Arms and Ocean Viking. When he was in government, he often referred to illegal immigration as a “business” which had to be stopped even if it meant taking a tough line.
Salvini will certainly feel vindicated by the work from the three economists.
But how can they be so sure? To test their hypothesis, they built a new data set, where they overlaid sea conditions from 2009-2017 on top of the number of irregular migrants arriving daily in Italy along the so-called “central route;” the tally of deaths in the central Mediterranean Sea; and logs of search and rescue activity. From 2013-2017, they were also able to add information on the types of vessels used.
When search and rescue operations were in place, they found that the number of crossings fell more quickly during stormy weather. This suggests that traffickers do indeed shift from more seaworthy wooden boats to cheaper inflatable rafts, which don’t take to the sea when the weather is rough. The record on the type of boats used, which is admittedly patchy, also confirms the trend toward using less expensive craft.
Adding in the sea conditions data is a neat trick because it helps rule out other human-driven impacts on migration patterns like political instability. The study is far more sophisticated than many others, which simply do a straight correlation between search and rescue operations and sea crossings. It’s one of those classic cases in economics where you have to take a convoluted path to prove causality.
The research is also not without limitations. For a start, it ends in 2017 — just before Salvini became home affairs minister in Italy. It would be interesting to see whether his efforts to hamper rescue efforts by NGOs show up the data since then. Also, the data sources — while more granular than most available study — are obviously fragile: It’d be better to have figures on the type of vessels used by the smugglers back to 2009. And more work needs to be done to understand the discrepancy with conclusions by others. For example, Matteo Villa at the Institute for International Political Studies has found that NGOs do not act as so-called “pull factors” for immigrants, and that search and rescue operations actually reduced the risk of death at sea.
However, the comprehensive study from Mastrobuoni, Deiana and Maheshri puts governments in front of an inexorable truth. While they can control their own behaviour, they cannot choose how criminals adapt. What’s disturbing is that the conclusion flies in the face of one’s most human instinct to reach out and help those who put themselves in harm’s way. It should be a wake-up call for the EU to acknowledge that search and rescue operations are an imperfect, second-best response to the issue of immigration from North Africa. Making it easier for immigrants to enter the EU legally would be a much better way forward.
Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times