A ship chartered by far-right anti-immigrant activists was stopped yesterday in the Turkish part of Cyprus and the crew arrested after police discovered the ship was allegedly transporting asylum seekers.
The C-Star, whose anti-immigration mission of disrupting NGOs' search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, was to include far-right YouTube personalities Lauren Southern—Canadian who used to work for the Rebel—and Brittany Pettibone. Police in Northern Cyprus, where the ship was refueling, arrested nine people involved with the ship on suspicion of people smuggling and falsifying documents after five people on the boat declared asylum.
It's an ironic start for the project given that their main intent was to quell the movement of migrants.
The ship's mission was dubbed "Defend Europe" and the crew behind it was able to charter the C-Star after it raised about $150,000 on the far-right crowd-funding site wesearchr. The goal was to take the boat to the Mediterranean Sea where they would then "document the doings of the NGOs, expose their collaboration with the human smugglers, and intervene if they do something illegal." In further interviews, they also said they wanted to sink abandoned migrant boats and make sure the asylum seekers "go back to Africa where they belong to."
The group is made up of people who identify as identitarians, a youth-driven extreme right political movement—essentially, it's a nationalistic movement that wants to preserve "Western" culture. The movement is focused heavily upon immigration into Europe and, in recent years, has focused upon the flood of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. To combat this movement of asylum seekers, the team crowdfunded the Defend Europe mission. The fundraising really took off when the popular far-right YouTube vlogger Southern lent her weight to the effort—earlier in the year she joined the crew on a smaller boat in an attempt to use flares to stop a boat associated with the NGO Save The Children in the Mediterranean earlier in the year.
Flush with crowd-sourced cash, Defend Europe chartered the C-Star, which flew under the Mongolian flag. The boat left the small country of Djibouti for Catania in Sicily in early July—Catania is where a lot of the search and rescue NGOs are based. That's when it all started going wrong for the crew. The C-Star was first detained in the Egyptian stretch of the Suez Canal after the captain couldn't produce a suitable crew list. Around this time, Patreon (not wesearchr) pulled the funding for Southern and Martin Sellner, one of the main Defend Europe organizers. Southern said in a vlog that her funding was pulled because they believed her funds were being raised so she could "take part in activities that were likely to cause loss of life"—a notion Southern disagrees with.
After about a week in Egypt, the ship finally made its way to the sea but was then stopped in Famagusta on the Turkish portion of Cyprus where it was set to refuel. According to the local media in Cyprus, the ship was stopped in port by immigration authorities while it was docked, and the captain, deputy Captain, and ship owner were arrested alongside six other crew members. The Kibris Postasi reported that Famagusta police did a detailed search the boat, seized all documents related to it, and did not let the crew move the ship.
According to the Cyprus papers the arrests were for forged documents relating to asylum seekers, and the crew was escorted to a police station. The Guardian was told by a local human rights activist that there were 20 Sri Lankan refugees on the boat. The activist told the British paper that some had paid up to €10,000 to be migrants on the anti-migrant boats and that while 15 have been flown back, five have declared asylum. Famagusta Police have said the ship's owner and the crew appeared in court on Thursday.
In a Facebook post posted Wednesday, the Defend Europe page stated that on board were also "20 apprentice sailors" which were supposed to disembark in Egypt but didn't. These sailors got out off the boat in Cyprus where they applied for asylum. "Pathetic NGOs are peddling fake accusations that the C-Star was trafficking weapons, drugs and now migrants," tweeted Brittany Pettibone, another far right YouTuber on the trip.
"We were reported that at the airport, as the apprentices were about to return to their country of origin, NGOs offered them to stay in Europe and apply for asylum, in exchange for promises and money," reads Defend Europe's Facebook post.
"Fifteen apprentices refused, five accepted this act of bribery and are now making false accusations against the owner of the ship."
Requests by VICE for Defend Europe to clear up some of the allegations in the statement went unanswered. The crew has been unusually silent on social media but Martin Sellner—one of the main minds behind the mission—tweeted out a screenshot from a translated Greek story citing outdated local media which said the crew will be leaving on Thursday and everything is fine.
The crew also stated they "intend to follow the rules, wait for the outcome of the investigations and will take all the necessary time to start the mission properly." On vesselfinder the ship's location is still indicated as being in Famagusta but it has not been updated since Wednesday at 7:24 AM EST.
Since the start of the year, more than 2,207 migrants have died trying to make the journey across from Libya to Italy. During that time over 85,000 migrants have completed the journey to Italy. Some in Italy have said this has started to put a strain on the country and the prime minister has even considered closing the ports to migrant boats after 11,000 refugees landed on their shores in late June.
A large portion of the debate is focused upon the fact that no small percentage of those migrants came over on search and rescue missions run by these NGOs just outside of Libyan waters. Essentially, the Defend Europe movement, and some in Italy, believes that the humanitarian efforts have become a "ferry service"— a notion that the people who run these organizations strongly disagree with.
"Activities of far-right groups planning to disrupt search and rescue operations aimed at saving lives are deeply concerning," a spokeswoman for Save the Children previously told VICE News.
"They ignore the moral and legal obligation to save lives at sea. Without NGOs and other search and rescue actors, many more lives, like the men, women and children we have rescued, would be lost. These activists wish to disrupt efforts to bring these people to safety."
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