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.