It goes without saying that the refugee crisis is one of the biggest social and political problems facing Europe. In the past few years there have been a lot of statements made and discussions conducted about the impact of refugees. However, this has not led to any clarity in regards to the number of refugees crossing, and failing to cross the Mediterranean. We researched a claim by NGO Open Arms, a rescue organization operating in the Mediterranean, which only shows us the uncertainties when it comes to documenting refugees.
On the Facebook page of NGO Open Arms you can see a video which claims ‘they have already let 361 people die in the Mediterranean.’ ‘They’ probably refers to the national governments that denied Open Arms access to their ports. How did they come to the number of the 361 deaths?
Italy and Malta refused to let Open Arms’ ship enter their ports. This made it impossible for the organization to do their job, which is rescuing people crossing the Mediterranean. By their own estimate, 361 people died because their ship was not allowed to set sail. We asked ourselves what Open Arms’ estimate is based on in order to establish whether their claim is in any way accurate.
Open Arms is an NGO based in Barcelona. It is part of the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF), an organization that unites and represents maritime rescue services worldwide. In their 4 years of their existence, Open Arms have received a number of awards for their work: the list of prizes on their website reveals that their contribution to rescuing migrants is notable.
The documentation around refugees, saved and drowned, is far from transparent. Some reasons for the figures not being dependable are that refugees often travel without a passport, and that, in some cases, sunken boats in the Mediterranean can not be located. So we looked at figures provided by Open Arms. A look at their website reveals that, in the past few years, the organization cooperated with other parties on their rescue missions. In the period from September 2015 until August 2018 (36 months), Open Arms saved 5619 people.
365 + 366 (leap year) + 365 adds up to 1096 days. That would mean that each day, 5619 : 1096 = 5,13 refugees were saved. January 14th to February 10th (28 days) is the period of time that Open Arms refers to in their claim. When they stopped counting the counter had reached 361 deaths. 361 : 28= 12,89 refugees a day. Based on the figures Open Arms provides themselves this means they were expecting to save twice as many refugees as they did on average for the last few years. That would mean the stated number of 361 ‘unnecessary deaths’ is greatly exaggerated.
Uncertainties and reflections
However, it is impossible to draw a conclusion based on these calculations. This has multiple reasons. First of all, the flow of refugees is not constant. Al Jazeera reports, quoting figures of the IOM (International Organization for Migration), that in the first sixteen days of 2019, 4612 migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean. In 2018 there were only 2365. If you factor these numbers into the calculation, you actually near the figure of 12,89 a day.
The frequency of rescue missions also needs to be accounted for, as well as the number of rescue workers available at a certain point in time. One thing impedes this factcheck more than the aforementioned variables: as this article mentioned earlier, the documentation on refugees is not reliable. Apart from the IOM, the United Nations and various academics and journalists also try to get a grip on the numbers surrounding refugees.
On the Facebook page of NGO Open Arms you can see a video which claims ‘they have already let 361 people die in the Mediterranean.’ ‘They’ probably refers to the national governments that denied Open Arms access to their ports. How did they come to the number of the 361 deaths?This seems to be near to impossible as Dutch journalistic platform De Correspondent exposed in an extensive article. Among other things, this has to do with the following obstacles: not every migrant carries a passport and it is a near impossible task to count all the sunken boats and bodies on the bottom of the sea. Apart from that: an unknown number of migrants disappear into illegality immediately after reaching a European border. IOM reports that in 2018 2297 people went ‘dead or missing’ during their crossing. How many of them ‘anonymously’ reached Europe nobody knows.
Reaction Open Arms
In a written response mission leader Anabel Montes explains how Open Arms came to their estimate: “It is based on the average number of bodies that was removed from the Mediterranean in the last three years. It is impossible to find out how high the actual number of deaths is, but it is an estimate of eight deaths a day.” This means Open Arms based their estimate on the total number of bodies found, instead of their own ‘rescue numbers’, which is worth noting. Their Facebook video suggests that the ‘unwillingness’ of national governments regarding the work of Open Arms is responsible for 361 deaths. It seems that Open Arms holds the European powers responsible for all lives that were lost while crossing the Mediterranean.
It is doubtful if every death could have been prevented, even if Open Arms and every other rescue organization were given full permission to do their job. And even then: using the number of (preventing) eight deaths, you still would not get to the number of 361 used in the claim. Because it is impossible make any sort of watertight statement about numbers of refugees, the claim that ‘they already let 361 people die on the Mediterranean’ is uncheckable. However, there is reason to assume that the claim is (at least slightly) exaggerated.
A long road ahead
If the research on this factcheck shows us anything, it is that uncertainty predominates the reporting surrounding refugees. Researchers determined to find out the truth behind these numbers, have a long road ahead of them. This raises the question if it is desirable for rescue organizations like Open Arms to make statements regarding the loss of lives in the Mediterranean. One could argue that it is better to be cautious when making remarks about human life. On the other hand, it might be logical for NGO’s to want to raise awareness to the tragedy that is taking place at Europe’s southern border. Confronting people with the large number of deaths might be an effective way to do so.
Either way, the fact that people are dying anonymously in European waters, should be reason enough for researchers worldwide to try and join forces in order to get a grip on the facts. That way, these lost lives may finally have a name and a face, which might help us get a better understanding of the tragedy that is the refugee crisis.
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