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Debunking the 'pull factor': How many deaths will it take for a humanitarian migration policy?


Operation Mare Nostrum demonstrated the possibilities of an EU wide humanitarian response. Now, in the wake of further tragedies and countless deaths, will EU policy finally change for the better?


Europe’s Migrant Crisis


On the 3rd of October 2013 a migrant ship travelling from Libya capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, killing 368 people. The passage from North Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean has become a major migration route for migrants fleeing violent conflict. Those who undertake such a journey do so as they feel that they have no other option. The desperation required to make such a journey is hardly surprising, as one in one out of every fourteen who make the crossing will die according to some stats.


The tragedy received international attention. Many saw it as a wake-up call for Europe to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis. Pope Francis shamed political idleness on the issue, describing the tragedy as resulting from a “lack of respect for the human person”. His was one of many voices urging European leaders to mobilise a solution and ensure that such a loss of life didn’t happen again.

Sadly, the crisis remains far from resolved. Since the 2013 tragedy a further 19,000 people are thought to have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Awaiting rescue by Italian Search and Rescue Operation Mare Nostrum, now ceased due to the reluctance of EU states to provide support.


Why have EU nations failed to stop migrant deaths?

The initial response to the tragedy showed promise. Just a week after the tragedy, Italy began the Search and Rescue (SAR) Operation Mare Nostrum in the hope of preventing further tragedies at Europe’s borders. The project saved 150,000 lives over its duration.

Unfortunately, a reluctance by EU nations to support the project resulted in it ending just a year later. Central to this reluctance was the ‘pull factor’ hypothesis. European leaders feared that SAR operations would encourage migrants to make the crossing, exacerbating the crisis and thus burdening EU nations with the responsibility to care for new arrivals. These fears fuelled criticism of operation Mare Nostrum, leading to its replacement with a new operation called Triton, run by the EU’s border agency. Primarily a “border security and surveillance” operation, Triton acted as the hand of Europe’s stance on immigration; one of deterrence.


Recent research has contradicted the ‘pull factor’ hypothesis, showing that there were significantly more migrant crossings and subsequent deaths during operation Triton’s policies of deterrence than during Mare Nostrums SAR campaign.

This promising research shows that governments can employ a humanitarian approach to channel crossings which values human life, without creating a so called ‘pull factor’. This removes any credibility of deterrence as an effective or morally defensible approach to migration policy.


Iuventa crew are facing criminal charges for rescuing migrants at sea.


#GuiltyOfSolidarity: state sanction of humanitarian response


However, this hasn’t stopped EU states’ aggressive pursuit of policies of deterrence. Rather, the Italian state has begun an active campaign to criminalise both migrants and humanitarian workers. Under operation Triton, the response to the crisis was overturned, categorising migrant crossings as illegal migration rather than a humanitarian crisis. This narrative reflects wider attitudes in Europe towards migrants, demonstrated by media portrayals of migrants as dangerous criminals.


Criminalisation has been extended to those who have gone against the EU consensus of deterrence.

Humanitarian SAR campaigns such as Iuventa 10 and Sea Watch 3, responsible for saving 14,000 and 37,000 lives consecutively, have been charged by Italian courts with abetting illegal migration.

Those involved face up to 20 years in prison. This has resulted in the #GuiltyOfSolidarity campaign which is currently fighting the charges brought by the Italian state.


EU policy poses a direct challenge to compassionate response to the migration crisis. Playing on migrant’s legal status, states have reframed the crisis as a matter of national security rather than an urgent need to protect human life, and an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with those fleeing war and famine. In such an ‘us and them’ paradigm, migrants become a threat to nationalism and humanitarian workers are complicit in their plot to reach EU borders.


The criminalisation of both migrants and SAR operations has become a tool EU states have used to negate a humanitarian responsibility to protect life. A responsibility arguably born of Europe’s colonial history and ongoing involvement in geo-political issues, including the violent conflicts which are driving displacement.


The Door of Lampedusa.

The memorial pays homage to those who have lost their lives searching for a better life, by offering a glimpse of hope for future generations – a gateway to Europe.


From Memory to Change”: Reimagining migration policy


Clearly, there is need for a new approach. While the tragedy is clear to those on the front line of the migrant crisis, back at home narratives of fear too often become the consensus, putting borders before people. As a result, humanitarian groups responsible for saving thousands of lives face criminalisation. However, across Europe activists are thinking new ways to challenge the xenophobia driving EU migration policy, by calling for humanitarianism to be placed at the centre of EU policy making.


Snapshots from the Border (SFTB) is doing this by campaigning to make the 3rd October the anniversary of the 2013 Lampedusa Tragedy, the European Day of Memory and Welcome. By establishing this day of remembrance across the EU, SFTB hopes to raise awareness and promote solidarity, flipping the narrative.


This campaign has been promoted by partners of SFTB across Europe. One such organisation, Leeds Development Education Centre, organised a screening of the film Revenir which was open to the general public. Revenir (to return) retraces the journey Kumut embarked on from his home in Cote D’Ivoire to Italy as he was forced to flee civil war.

Filmed by Kumut himself, Revenir puts storytelling into the hands of the migrant rather than foreign journalists. By providing migrants a platform to share their stories and putting people at the centre of the debate, we can begin to challenge the ‘us and them’ narrative driving xenophobic migration policy.


About the Author

Corin has worked with a number of community organisations on a variety of social justice issues such as equality and diversity and environmental sustainability. He is currently working as a mental health support worker alongside volunteering as a tutor with Conversation over Borders and Action Tutoring, which provides academic support for school children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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