Epistemic status: Uncertain. I made some quick calculations and was surprised of what I found. I would be happy about feedback.

Yesterday I read a newspaper article about people picking up distress calls from refugee boats in the mediterranean sea (It was about this organisation). Together with some stories I heard in the past few weeks, this made me very sad and I was asking myself how much it costs to save the lives of these people. A friend recommended the organisation Sea-Watch. It is a civil sea rescue organisation, which means that they have their own boats to save people from distress at sea and lead them to a save haven. I looked on their website and their annual reports from 2017/2018.

In this report they stated that their whole budget in 2017 was about 1.900.000€ and about 1.400.000€ 2018. On their website they claim that they helped to save 37.000 lives since 2015.

My calculation was the following:

I assumed that they would save about the same amount of lives every year (which is most certainly not true, but easier to calculate) that would be 7.400 lives per year saved. If we assume that actually every single person would have died otherwise that would be roughly 270€ per life saved with a budget of 2 Million per year.

Even if we assume (as I do) that the term "helping to save the lives" means that not everyone would have died otherwise and let's say about 10% of the 37.000 are actually saved from death (keeping in mind, that sea rescue of small refugee boats in the mediterranean sea is not a very competetive market) that would be a life saved for under 3000 euros.

Thanks to JasperGeh, who made a guesstimate model with some parameter ranges such as fraction of counterfactual deaths, which is probably more precise and better to understand as my description above and comes to a slightly lower cost per life saved due to lower budget estimates and a slightly higher estimate of actual lives saved.

I know very well that these calculations are very rough estimates and that they might only apply for this organisation or for certain years (although it might get easier and cheaper for an organisation after they have already payed for some acquisions like their boats). Nevertheless I was surprised of the result because my intuition was, that the costs would be much higher.

I found it nearly impossible to quantifiy the possible unintended negative consequences (or possible other positive/negative downstream effects). The whole matter is extremly complex due to so many legal factors, quick changing situations in different countries and uncertainty about how many people try to make their way over the sea, how many don't survive and how many are brought not to save havens, but for example work camps in Lybia, where their fate is uncertain. This Wikipedia-Article provides some informations and numbers (it is in German), mostly from the UNHCR and IMO. In 2020 less people are in distress compared to the years before, but a higher fraction of them died. (686 deaths in 2020 compared to 2000 - 3000 deaths in the years before and a peak of 5000 deaths in 2016). So it is possible, that the calculations above do only account for the years with more tried crossings.

If you notice some flaws in my estimates or if you have further information about other organisations and institutions and the current situation, I would be happy to learn about them.





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After I plugged the raw numbers into guesstimate I started to look into the data a bit more and came out a bit more confused.

I was not sure how much the numbers were influenced by 2015, which had more refugees combined than all following years until now ('15: 1M, '16: 360k, '17: 170k, '18: 140k, '19: 125k) but also fewer deaths than the following years ('15: 3.7k total, following years: ~2–5k total, so way higher fraction). I also found little data on the fraction of refugees being saved by NGOs (data for 2015 and 2016 is 14 % and 20 % respectively).

So many of Sea-Watch's lives could've been saved during peak migration 2015 when empathy on the Mediterranean sea was still higher and the counterfactual impact is less clear. To check that I updated the Guesstimate to try to model a post-2015 year with refugee numbers and deaths more similar to 2016/17/18 and yielded similar numbers of saved refugees as Sea-Watch claims, so 2015 was likely not an extraordinary year for Sea-Watch (They also only operated in the second half of 2015 with just one ship).

It really hinges on the question of whether the removal of an NGO would result in the refugees they would've interacted with dying or being saved by other ships. I tried to bound this "counterfactual death rate" by calculating how high the total death rate would be without NGOs operating and how big Sea-Watch's share of total NGO-activity plausibly is. Again, see the model. Under these assumptions, cost-effectiveness for a 2016/18-like year would be around 5000€. Which is still very surprising IMHO! But data is spotty and I made the Guesstimate at 1 am, so I apologise for potential errors.

Incentives might be a problem, see here.

Might, yes, but this question of NGOs being a "Pull-Factors" is still very disputed:

The NGO flotilla thus responded to trends in smuggling practices that had been spurred by the anti-smuggling operation, as well as endogenous dynamics in Libya, and the increasing presence of NGO SAR vessels did in fact make the crossing less dangerous. […] While the practices of SAR NGOs may thus have inadvertently contributed to consolidating the shifts in smugglers’ practices, there has so far been no evidence of the criminal collaboration with smugglers alluded to by several actors, and as such, we cannot engage with these claims in details.

Both your post and this report mention changed practices such as using cheaper, more dangerous boats but does this also lead to more refugees or just higher revenues for the smugglers?

Interesting idea. Are you trying to evaluate how cost-effective they have been historically, or how cost-effective they might be in the future with additional funding? Presumably they latter will be lower, due to mean reversion. Additionally, the easiest to save people will probably already have been saved, leaving people who are more difficult to access.

I thought the two other comments about downsides were interesting (incentivising a larger number and more risky crossings, and negative reactions from people in Europe), but it seems that there is an easy solution - they could return the rescued people to Africa, instead of taking them to Europe. This would mean the incentives to attempt the journey were not increased, and European voters should also be happier.

Just skimmed the FAQ from the discussed organization about returning rescued people to Africa:

  • Sea rescue conventions and international human rights law: People rescued at sea must be brought to a safe place, and African countries clearly disqualify (at least they say so about Tunisia and Libya)
  • African countries refuse to accept the rescued people, at least Tunisia did that repeatedly
  • African countries not having a procedure for taking asylum seekers, at least Tunisia doesn't
  • In Lybia they'd be put in detention centers where they'd lose their money and will return to the Mediterranean again afterwards

Thanks for the hyperlink! I'm a bit surprised at the argument that these countries are not safe. Obviously all places have some risk, but both Tunisia and Libya have much lower murder rates than the US does, and I wouldn't accept 'it is too dangerous here' as a reason for why the US shouldn't take refugees.

Hm, I'm surprised you're surprised. It's noteworthy and sad that the murder rate in the US is so high. I'd also guess the overall murder rate is not representative of the safety of refugees, and the murder rates might be underestimations in countries like Libya, a country that is literally in a civil war right now. Have you read the FAQ? Quoting:

Libya is known as a “failed state”, particularly since the start of the civil war. The German Federal Foreign Office writes (as of March 2019) of Libya: “The population and foreign refugees and migrants suffer criminality, kidnappings, irregular detention, arbitrary executions, torture and oppression of freedom of speech by the various actors due to the prevailing lack of rights.”

I unfortunately haven't found numbers when googling "murder rates in refugee camps", but here some more quotes from a DW article last year that gave me a strong impression that those places clearly are not safe:

According to Amnesty, the already calamitous conditions in Libyan camps worsened since the outbreak of fighting in early April; those detained were caught between the warring fronts and were left without food for days. On July 3, more than 50 refugees and migrants were killed during an airstrike on the Tajoura prison camp in Tripoli.
According to Julien Raickmann, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Libya, people in the camps continue to die from hunger and disease and the situation is "catastrophic."
Amnesty has reported instances of torture, serious violence and exploitation — including through sexual means — and forced labor. Amnesty also documented cases of people being murdered while trying to escape. Primarily, however, militias and traffickers are using refugees to make money by threatening them with violence or death — in some cases by making torture videos to send to their families.

This situation is such a tragedy and I appreciate that you looked at it with an EA eye. I found it surprising that the cost per saved life might be that low, thanks for sharing your calculation.

I find the political implications complicated here. In an 80,000Hours interview, talking about open borders, Peter Singer seemed to be very worried that a nations sense of controlling their border might strongly determine support for right-wing parties and politicians. I wonder if refugee boats in the mediterranean sea also contribute to this, and how this would be properly weighed in. If this indeed would be a significant problem, are there options that avoid this effect?

Peter Singer: Well, it’s not numbers, I agree it’s not [the numbers of immigrants that count]. But it is the sense of losing control of the borders. I think that’s the common thing [that leads to catastrophic events like Brexit and the vote of Trump]. And the Syrian refugee crisis has had an effect in Europe. It had no effect on the United States. It was minuscule numbers. And it wasn’t the focus. The focus there was people coming across the Mexican border, and that’s why Trump wants to build a wall, et cetera.
And it was the sense that we are losing control of our nation. And going back to a little earlier, Australia went through this as well with the boat people, the so called ‘asylum seekers’ coming across in small boats from Indonesia, which again helped to elect a conservative government in the 90s, the Howard government, rather than labor governments during that era, and maybe even contributed to the re-election of the Morrison government just recently which is also a very bad government on climate change.
So you’re right that it’s perceptions and the perceptions don’t depend on numbers, but they do depend on, do we have control of our borders, right? That’s the issue. And of course, if you really advocate open borders, you’re saying there should be no control of the borders, and that’s going to frighten people.
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