The patrols put in place by Italy and the European Union to rescue migrants from the Mediterranean Sea are also helping human traffickers get substantially richer, researchers at Italy's Palermo University have concluded.
Professors Carlo Amenta and Paolo Di Betta, aided by Palermo Prosecutor Gery Ferrara - a lead investigator into the migrant smuggling trade - set out to probe the phenomenon from an econometric point of view.
"Military patrol operations in the Mediterranean [...] have increased [migrant] arrivals, thus representing an incentive and an outside positive factor for the business of migrant traffickers," the academics say in a written presentation of their work, seen by dpa.
By increasing the safety of sea crossings, the rescue missions make the services offered by traffickers more attractive, thus boosting their business, the researchers found, offering a precise estimate of this so called "pull factor."
They said that since naval patrols started in late 2013, there have been in Italy an average of about 900 extra migrant arrivals per month from a selected database of countries: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan.
Assuming that each migrant paid an average of 1,430 dollars, that allowed smugglers managing the trade to make an extra 1.3 million dollars per month, or just under 15 million dollars per year, the researchers said.
That figure represents a quarter of traffickers' estimated yearly gross earnings: more than 60 million dollars. Net profits amounted to roughly 40 million dollars, researchers said, adding that all their calculations were "very prudential."
Amenta, Di Betta and Ferrara have yet to publish their research in an academic journal, but Amenta presented preliminary findings at a Cambridge University seminar last week, and shared material from it with dpa.
"If we are speaking about the central Mediterranean route, as far as we know this is the first research of its kind," the professor said, adding that economists have in the past studied migrant smuggling across the Mexico-US border.
Amenta said the research offered no policy recommendations, least of all stopping rescues at sea, but he personally thinks that the EU should offer migrants legal entry ways in order to undercut human traffickers.
"Economic theory says that this is the most sensible option," the professor said, adding that he would draw similar conclusions about narco-trafficking: legalizing drugs would be the best way of stamping out the illegal business.
The first migrant rescue mission in the Mediterranean was Italy's Mare Nostrum, launched in the wake of the October 2013 shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa in which 366 people died. It has since been replaced by several operations run by the EU and private NGOs.
It is not the first time that these sea missions have been blamed for encouraging migrant departures from Africa. Humanitarian organizations and EU institutions have always defended them, insisting that saving migrants' lives was a moral imperative.