A European alt-right group is taking to the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to stop illegal migrants crossing from Libya – a move NGOs fear could start a dangerous game of cat and mouse with humanitarian rescue teams.
The mission, known as “Defend Europe,” is the project of the Identitarians, a right-wing pan-European movement opposed to immigration – particularly Muslim immigration – on the continent. Founded in France in 2002, the youth-dominated Identitarians have developed a reputation as the hipsters of the far right, noted for their slick social media campaigns and attention-grabbing political stunts, such as occupying a French mosque.
For their latest campaign, the group has crowd-funded more than $100,000 to charter a 40-meter ship, the “C-Star,” to take direct action against humanitarian NGOs operating search-and-rescue missions for migrants in the Mediterranean.
“A ferry service”
The Identitarians blame the rescue boats for encouraging the rising numbers of illegal migrants arriving from Libya into Italy, which has overtaken Greece as the main arrival point into Europe. So far tis year more than 85,000 illegal migrants, the majority from sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived on Italy’s shores – 20 percent more than the same period in 2016.
About 40 percent of arrivals are brought to Italy through search-and-rescue missions run by humanitarian organizations. This has prompted accusations – particularly in Italy, carrying the burden of the migration wave – that the NGOs are creating a pull factor by effectively offering a “ferry service” to Europe once the smugglers’ boats founder.
Italian prosecutors have opened investigations into whether there is cooperation between NGOs and human traffickers, and Rome has just drafted a code of conduct for charities operating in the Mediterranean, banning them from contacting smugglers by phone or firing flares, which might function as a signal to the smugglers.
Documenting the journey
Humanitarian organizations reject such allegations, insisting they are doing vital work to save lives on a stretch of sea that has become one of the world’s biggest unmarked graves. More than 5,000 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year, and more than 2,150 have perished so far in 2017.
Defend Europe says its mission is to document the activities of the NGOs, expose any collusion with the traffickers, and intervene if they act illegally. Eleonora Cassella, a member of Defend Europe based at the mission’s headquarters in Catania, Italy, told VICE News that the crew would try to gather evidence to prove their suspicions that NGOs collude with the human traffickers.
“The more people try to go, more boats from Europe come to take the people, so even more people try to get to sea because they know that even with small boats, they’ll come to help them,” she said.
During the group’s fundraising efforts, Defend Europe pledged to “block” the rescue boats – something they attempted during an earlier mission in May, when a group of flag-waving activists in a dinghy tried to harass a much larger rescue boat leaving Catania for Libya. But the group has now walked back its vow to block the boats, saying that although it would tail the vessels, it won’t try to interfere with their activities.
“For now, we want to understand how they do it, how they talk with human traffickers, how they react when they see human smugglers,” said Cassella.
But humanitarian organizations operating in the Mediterranean remain concerned about their mission. “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, which has rescued nearly 4,000 people in the Mediterranean this year, told VICE News.
“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.”
She said her organization was “not a ferry service.” “We do not communicate with traffickers or people smugglers. We work under the coordination of the Italian Coast Guard and respond to distress calls only if instructed by them,” she said. She also said it wasn’t true that the activities of the NGOs created a pull factor. “When you cut the rescue ships, the death toll spikes, but people keep coming.”
Nick Lowles, chief executive of the British anti-racism group Hope Not Hate, said Defend Europe posed “a serious risk to life on the high seas.” The group represented “an increasingly international threat,” he explained, drawing support from far-right activists and networks around the world.
Although the mission comprises only a couple of dozen activists, Defend Europe has managed to generate a lot of attention – and raise substantial funds – through its social media campaigns. When its initial crowdfunding attempt on PayPal was thwarted after protests from NGOs, it simply relaunched the campaign on another platform and swiftly exceeded its goals.
The group has drawn international attention from conservative media, with Canadian alt-right blogger Lauren Southern and right-wing British journalist Katie Hopkins joining the mission in Catania. “These rescue boats are as easy to hail as an Uber after a big night out in Birmingham,” Hopkins tweeted Wednesday.