Free DP Download 27 May 2021 - MIGRANTS AT SEA: Unintended Consequences of Search and Rescue Operations

Thursday, May 27, 2021

MIGRANTS AT SEA: How search and rescue operations cause smugglers to undertake more dangerous crossings
Claudio Deiana, Vikram Maheshri, Giovanni Mastrobuoni
CEPR DP No. 16173 May 2021

The Central Mediterranean Sea is the world's most dangerous crossing for migrants. Between 2009 and 2017, roughly 11,500 people are believed to have perished attempting the journey. In response to mounting deaths, European nations intensified search and rescue operations in 2013. However, smugglers responded by sending boats in adverse weather and shifting from seaworthy boats to flimsy rafts. In doing so, these operations induced more crossings, ultimately offsetting their intended safety benefits.

These are the main findings of a new CEPR study by Claudio Deiana, Vikram Maheshri and Giovanni Mastrobuoni, which studies the unintended consequences of increased search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Among the findings: 

  • While search and rescue (SAR) has no doubt saved lives directly, it may have had adverse unintended consequences that must be considered.
  • First, by reducing the risk of crossing, SAR likely induced more migrants to attempt to cross, and in doing so, exposed more people to the risk of death along the passage. 
  • Second, by reducing the costs to traffickers of using unsafe boats, SAR induced a large substitution away from seaworthy wooden vessels and towards flimsy, inflatable boats.
  • Thus, the benefits of SAR have been, to some extent, captured by human smugglers.
  • By failing to act, it is likely crossings would continue and deaths would continue to mount. But by intervening along the route, it is likely that more migrants would attempt an extremely dangerous undertaking. Saving a migrant at sea seems to be an obvious decision; weighing that action against the many potential migrants who might be encouraged to undertake such a treacherous passage in the future complicates this immensely.
  • It does provide clear evidence that migration and smuggling are strategic choices that are made by thoughtful agents in a fraught environment.
  • The analysis suggests that a major policy goal of SAR operations should be to limit substitution from seaworthy boats to inflatable ones. 
    • One way to do so would be by interceding in the trade of such items to Libya. The EU's ban on inflatable craft exports to Libya is a step in the right direction, though most craft are produced in China and may still enter Libya through Egypt and Turkey.

Ultimately, addressing this issue will require interventions that reduce demand for irregular migration. There are two clear margins on which policymakers could act. First, the EU could reduce demand for immigration out of migrants home countries. This would require not only encouraging economic activity in these countries, but also improving their security and political environments. Second the EU could facilitate safe, legal migration from home countries to the EU so such a vital activity would be taken away from the hands of smugglers and into a rules-based order.

Figure 2: Types of Vessels Used, 2013-2017

Notes: Data provided by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency known as Frontex. The information is disclosed by Frontex for the period from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2017. Vertical dotted lines display the start of SAR Operations: Hermes, Mare Nostrum, Triton I and II.


Download for free



About CEPR Discussion Papers

Research by CEPR Research Fellows and Affiliates appears initially in the CEPR Discussion Paper series. These Discussion Papers are circulated widely to other specialists in the research and policy community so that the results of the research receive prompt and thorough professional scrutiny. The Centre produces more than 800 Discussion Papers each year and has an archive of over 13,000 of them. Find out more here.