Innovative ways to tackle humanitarian crises: the case of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station

Migration10 Dec 2015Eugenio Cusumano

The conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have dramatically increased refugee flows across the Mediterranean Sea. As a consequence, humanitarian search and rescue has become an increasingly important component of conflict management. The establishment of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) suggests that the combination of activism, new technologies, new funding opportunities and partnerships between NGOs has created a more proactive role for the non governmental sector in tackling international crises. Eugenio Cusumano of Leiden University addresses this case in relation to the interactive brainstorm ‘Innovative thinking on strategic approaches to conflict management’ organized by the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law in The Hague on 7 October.

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As long held by globalization scholars, the complex and multifaceted nature of today’s international crises has fundamentally challenged states’ ability to respond to conflict and humanitarian emergencies. At the same time however, the diffusion of new technologies, new media, new funding opportunities and types of expertise that were previously available only within state law enforcement and military organizations has created new opportunities for private sector involvement. Consequently, both commercial firms and non governmental organizations have been increasingly active in the provision of security and humanitarian relief.

The migration crisis in the Mediterranean

Today’s migration crisis forcefully epitomizes this argument. While migrations are not a new phenomenon, the movement of people across the Mediterranean has mainly been driven and increased by civil wars in Syria and Libya, sectarian violence, unaccomplished state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, regressive authoritarianism, underdevelopment and societal fragility in Sub-Saharan Africa. This social, political and humanitarian emergency has revealed the friction between the humanitarian imperative to save migrants lives at sea and states’ commitment to protect their sovereignty by controlling access to their territory. This has been further complicated by the principle of free movement of people across European states enshrined in the Schengen Treaty.

In October 2013, the Italian government launched operation Mare Nostrum and used its Navy and Air Force to conduct far-reaching humanitarian search and rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean Sea. While Mare Nostrum saved thousands of lives, the call for European Union solidarity and the concern that far-reaching search and rescue operations could further increase migratory flows eventually led to the replacement Operation Triton, a much narrower sea borders patrol mission launched by the European Border Agency FRONTEX in October 2014. Due to its narrower mandate however, Operation Triton proved unable to counter the humanitarian crisis. In June 2015, Operation Triton was replaced by a European Union Common Security and Defence (CSDP) mission called EUNAVFOR Med – Sophia.

The fear that proactive search and rescue operations may encourage further migrations has often surfaced the public debate. Figures however suggest that no correlation exists between search and rescue operations and variations in numbers of migrants and refugees in particular. Moreover, the legal and ethical imperative to host refugees and asylum seekers and save the lives of those in distress at sea requires states and civil society alike to take action. Organizations like MOAS provide an important contribution to fulfilling this imperative by operating in close cooperation with the Italian and Maltese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres and acting in accordance with the legal obligation to assist those in immediate danger at sea enshrined by the 1979 Search and Rescue Convention.

Drones, former coastguards and a fishing vessel: MOAS in Action

Since October 2014, MOAS has directly participated in search and rescue operations alongside the Italian and other European navies by purchasing a fishing ship, the M.Y. Phoenix, and converting it into a search and rescue vessel. The Phoenix has therefore been equipped with two leased unmanned aerial vehicles, inflatable boats and a 20-person strong crew comprising of former Maltese Navy and Coast Guard personnel, and doctors and paramedics initially provided by Médecins Sans Frontières. As the first privately-funded provider of humanitarian search and rescue and starting off through the initiatives and personal funds of its funders, MOAS now covers most of its running costs through crowdfunding and other private donations. Running costs have been kept low thanks to different arrangements with the private sector and other NGOs.

Initially only patrolling the waters between Sicily and Libya, MOAS has eventually also enlarged its activities to the Aegean Sea. Moreover, the scope of MOAS’ humanitarian search and rescue operations has further expanded to provide humanitarian support to migrants boats in the Andaman Sea.

Replication of the MOAS model

In spite of being a small organization with a limited budget and few personnel, MOAS offers an example that has been and will increasingly be replicated and adapted to new challenges. For instance, other charities are now considering to follow MOAS’ lead in entering the sea search and rescue domain. Progress in surveillance technology (such as with drones) and partnerships with the private sector and other NGOs have exposed the role NGOs can play in humanitarian emergencies. While they cannot replace states and international organizations in tackling the root causes of conflict and migration, encouraging innovative solutions such as those provided by MOAS can provide an important contribution to migratory emergencies and beyond.

This blog post was originally published on the website of the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law.