In Depth

Fact Check: do charities help the refugee crisis or make it worse?

After 10,000 people have to be rescued in three days, do charities help the refugee crisis or make it worse?

With Italy threatening to turn away rescue vessels and calling for EU help, the migrant crisis has thrown up questions about whether charities encourage smuggling or offer a life-and-death service.

Italy has taken in 82,000 refugees and migrants so far this year, a third more than a year ago, reports Reuters, while more than 10,000 people have been rescued from the Meditteranean in three days.

The country is the main landing point for mostly African migrants, with boats sent out almost daily, says The Guardian. Migrants rescued off the coast of Libya are also brought to the country, it adds, often by private charities.

But after years at the frontline, "Italy is considering drastic action to force the hands of nations refusing to take redistributed migrants," reports The Independent.

An Italian government source told Reuters they had discussed "the idea of blocking humanitarian ships flying foreign flags from returning to Italian ports".

Adding that almost all the 200,000 beds for asylum seekers in government reception centres were full, the source said: "Italy has reached saturation point."

Non-governmental organisations "now account for a big part of the rescue missions and have at times been criticised by politicians," adds Reuters.

Fabrice Leggeri, head of the European Union's border agency and aid organisations, said earlier this year that charities such as Medecins Sans Frontieres encourage people smuggling along the most popular migrant route into Europe.

But the charity says hundreds more will die at sea if rescue operations are not carried out.

What are the facts behind this emotive debate?

Who says what?

In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt, Leggeri claimed rescue missions near the Libyan coast cause traffickers to "force even more migrants on to unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years".

He also criticised charities for failing to cooperate with the security agencies, which made it "more difficult" to gain information on trafficking networks and establish the origins of migrants and refugees, he said.

MSF called the accusations "extremely serious and damaging" and denied that its actions encouraged people trafficking.

"What is the alternative but to let even more people die?" said humanitarian adviser Aurelie Ponthieu. "We are a humanitarian agency and we carry out proactive search and rescue operations because the alternative is that hundreds of people will die from drowning, asphyxiation and dehydration."

Critics of rescue methods, who include the UK government, say they encourage more people to make the dangerous sea crossing to Europe, knowing help is available if they get into trouble.

However, UN migration expert Francois Crepeau argues not taking action amounts to saying: "Let [the refugees] die because this is good deterrence."

What are the facts?

In 2014, the EU scrapped the Mare Nostrum rescue mission it set up after the Lampedusa tragedy, when more than 300 people drowned after their boat caught fire and sank off the coast of Italy. Instead, it scaled down rescue operations and prioritised border security. Fewer boats were deployed and patrols were limited to going 30 miles off the Italian coast.

The number of people crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa did drop slightly after Mare Nostrum was scrapped, from 170,000 in 2014 to around 150,000 in 2015, according to the UN's refugee agency, but the number of people dying at sea soared 50-fold in the first six months and reached record highs in 2016.

For refugees and migrants travelling between Libya and Italy, the likelihood of dying is the highest of any route into Europe, at one death for every 47 arrivals.

"But with so many lost at sea or along the way, the real figure could be far higher," Heaven Crawley, a research professor at Coventry University, writes in The Conversation.

She added that "my own research" found most refugees fleeing warzones and conflict were "aware of the risks before they travel but decide to continue because they feel that they have no alternative."The expectation, it seems, is that the (future) fear of drowning will outweigh the (immediate) fear of violence and persecution. For many this is clearly not the case."

Who is right?

While the number of crossings dropped, the huge increase in deaths that occurred as a result of ending Mare Nostrum cannot be ignored.

Whether that is an acceptable price to pay is a political and moral decision.


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