Migrants at Sea: Unintended Consequences of Search and Rescue Operations


The Central Mediterranean is the most dangerous crossing for irregular migrants in the world. At any given point in time, over half a million potential migrants wait in Libya to travel to Italy with the aid of human smugglers. In response to high profile shipwrecks and mounting deaths, Europe intensified search and rescue operations beginning in 2013. We develop a model of irregular migration in order to identify the effects of these operations on activity along this smuggling route. Leveraging plausibly exogenous variation from rapidly varying weather and sea conditions, we find that smugglers responded to these operations by shifting from seaworthy wooden boats to flimsy inflatable rafts. By doing so, these operations induced more crossings despite occurring during a period when overall crossings were on a downward trend. We show that this had the ultimate effect of entirely offsetting the intended safety benefits of search and rescue operations, which were captured at least in part by smugglers.