November 16, 2022 - 5:15pm

Ocean Viking, an NGO boat carrying 234 migrants from Africa, was denied entry into Italian ports on 10th November, forcing the ship to disembark in Toulon, France. The French government granted the ship safe harbour, but not before threatening Italy’s new Right-wing government with “very serious consequences”. French officials said the country would suspend its participation in a redistribution plan to take at least 3,000 migrants from Italy, calling Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni a “big loser” in the process.  

Meloni responded firmly, saying she was “very surprised by the aggressive reaction from the French government, which is incomprehensible and unjustifiable.” She countered the statements from French officials by asking: “Is Italy supposed to be the only port for migrants in the Mediterranean to disembark? This isn’t written in any agreement.” The only common solution Meloni envisions is “the defence of the EU’s borders, blocking departures of migrant boats and opening hotspots. We spent millions of euros to help Turkey: now we need a European solution.” 

Despite the two countries committing to full cooperation on the migrant issue, Malta, Cyprus and Greece all supported Italy in declaring that “NGO boats need to respect the law,” adding, “we are disappointed about the refusal to relocate”. These comments speak to the level of frustration among most Mediterranean countries over the disproportionate number of migrants arriving on their shores. By virtue of their geographical proximity to Africa and the Middle East, they argue that the rest of Europe is showing a lack of solidarity.

Migrants are often persuaded by human traffickers into believing Europe can provide them with a better life. The majority of the migrants are men, according to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), a UN agency. They often come from middle-class African backgrounds, as the journey to reach Europe is an expensive one requiring payment to various traffickers and militias. Arrivals decreased temporarily with the pandemic, but numbers are now on the rise once again.   

Italy’s prominent Right-wing politicians, including Meloni and Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, have for years lamented how NGO boats have incentivised human trafficking, facilitated a slave trade in Libya and increased the number of deaths at sea. Their argument is that, with an end to illegal migration in the Mediterranean, human traffickers would be denied the means to operate and migrants wouldn’t risk the perilous journey. NGO boats, as well as French authorities, have argued the opposite: that rescue operations are vital to save lives.   

But there is data confirming the theory that securing borders saves lives, and it comes from the UN itself: deaths and disappearances recorded in the Mediterranean more than halved when Italy sought to halt mass migration. To be specific, 5,136 deaths and disappearances were recorded in 2016, when Italy was led by the liberal Democratic Party (PD) government under Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, in contrast to 2,337 recorded in 2018, when Salvini became Interior Minister and made halting migration his priority.  

Even the PD government at the time understood the failure of their permissive policy. In 2017, after seeing the party’s polling slide over this issue, then Interior Minister Marco Minniti desperately looked for a solution. He negotiated the memorandum of understanding between Italy and Libya to “fight illegal immigration”, which led to a significant decrease in deaths recorded at sea, 1,1997 fewer in 2017 than the previous year.   

While the well-intentioned altruism of the NGO boats appears to be saving lives at sea in the short-term, it introduces perverse incentives. Ultimately, this will result in far greater loss of life down the line.

Alessandra Bocchi is a journalist.