Mark Townsend, The Guardian, June 3, 2017
Far-right activists are planning a sea campaign this summer to disrupt vessels saving refugees in the Mediterranean, after successfully intercepting a rescue mission last month.
Members of the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant “Identitarian” movement – largely twentysomethings often described as Europe’s answer to the American alt-right – have raised £56,489 in less than three weeks to enable them to target boats run by aid charities helping to rescue refugees.
The money was raised through an anonymous crowdfunding campaign with an initial goal of €50,000 (about £44,000) to pay for ships, travel costs and film equipment. On Saturday the group confirmed they had reached their target but were still accepting donations. A French far-right group hired a boat for a trial run last month, disrupting a search-and-rescue vessel as it left the Sicilian port of Catania. They claimed they had slowed the NGO ship until the Italian coastguard intervened.
Figures from the UN’s migration agency, the IOM, reveal that 1,650 refugees have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year with a further 6,453 migrants rescued off Libya and 228 bodies pulled from the waters. Humanitarian charities operating in the Mediterranean have helped save the lives of thousands of refugees, with women and children making up almost half of those making the crossing.
The threat from the far right infuriates charities operating in the Mediterranean. One senior official, who requested anonymity, said politicians had helped create a climate where supporters of the far right felt emboldened to act in such a way. “When the British government and its European counterparts talk about ‘swarms’ of migrants, or perpetuate the myth that rescue operations are a ‘pull factor’ or a ‘taxi service’, that gives fuel to extreme groups such as this. The simple reality is that without rescue operations many more would drown, but people would still attempt the crossing,” the official said.
Simon Murdoch, a researcher at the London-based anti-racist organization Hope not Hate, which is monitoring the Identitarian movement, said: “While these actions are appalling, unfortunately they don’t shock us. The fact that these far-right activists are seeking to prevent a humanitarian mission, helping some of the most vulnerable people in the world today – including women and children at risk of drowning – speaks volumes about them and where their compassion lies.”
The crowdfunding campaign began in the middle of last month when a French faction, Génération Identitaire, set up a “defend Europe” website to target refugee rescue boats, mimicking the direct action tactics of groups such as Greenpeace. Its mission statement says: “Ships packed with illegal immigrants are flooding the European borders. An invasion is taking place. This massive immigration is changing the face of our continent. We are losing our safety, our way of life, and there is a danger we Europeans will become a minority in our own European homelands.”
An accompanying video, filmed on the Sicilian coastline, features a far-right activist saying: “We want to get a crew, equip a boat and set sail to the Mediterranean ocean to chase down the enemies of Europe.”
Alongside raising funds for ships, it also requests funds for “research” above the logo of the favourite alt-right message board, 4chan. One recent 4chan thread encourages users to track NGO ships in the Mediterranean, then report them to the navy and police to investigate, particularly “ships idling near the coast of north Africa”. Although not specified, the operation will almost certainly be based in Sicily, most likely operating from the island’s ports of Pozzallo or Catania.
Powerful rigid inflatable boats able to travel faster than 20 knots can sell for less than £10,000 and would be sufficient to slow down and obstruct ships leaving port. An Italian far-right group claims it has been offered ships and support from people with boat driving licences.
Last month three young members of a French Identitarian group targeted a search-and-rescue vessel belonging to the charity SOS Méditerranée as it left Catania. Italian coastguards intercepted the far-right supporters and briefly detained them. The SOS Méditerranée website says that the charity was created because of the “dramatic increase of boats in distress and the insufficiency of existing measures” to the Mediterranean crisis.
The efforts of humanitarian organisations have been credited with saving huge numbers of refugees. Médecins Sans Frontières began operations in the Med in May 2015 and rescued more than 22,500 people, many off the Libyan coast, over the next seven months.
During the first five months of 2015, no European or NGO search-and-rescue operations took place with 1,800 people drowning trying to make the crossing. In April alone 1,000 lives were lost. All search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean are coordinated by the official Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome in accordance with international maritime law.
Yet the European far-right groups have accused NGOs of working with traffickers to bring migrants to Europe and claim that search-and-rescue boats are not carrying out a humanitarian intervention. The central aim of the new wave of far-right groups is preserving national differences in the belief that white Europeans will be replaced by immigrants, a stance that is articulated with anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-media sentiments but repackaged for a younger audience.
The number of far-right groups is difficult to establish, but Génération Identitaire has held demonstrations in France that drew around 500 people, while its Facebook page has 122,662 likes. Its Austrian counterpart, Identitäre Bewegung Österreich, has 37,628 likes on Facebook, although critics warn of increasing links with the US alt-right which helped to propel Donald Trump to the White House.
Also on the boat that attempted to obstruct SOS Méditerranée’s vessel last month was the Canadian alt-right journalist Lauren Southern, who has 278,000 Twitter followers and whose presence confirms a transatlantic convergence. Breitbart, the favourite website of the US alt-right, frequently praises Europe’s pro-Trump Identitarian movement.
“The whole project is emblematic of an increasingly confident international far right which is willing to hinder lifesaving efforts to advance their xenophobic politics,” said Murdoch.
One of Europe’s most prominent Identitarians, Martin Sellner, hosted a pro-Trump party in Vienna on election night. But there are tensions within Europe’s young far-right activists. London-based Paul Joseph Watson, described as “editor, staff writer” for the conspiracy website InfoWars – and who has 946,942 subscribers on YouTube – recently attacked the Identitarians for their “futile stunts”. Last week Sellner released a message criticising Watson as being wrong to condemn “activism”.
- So far this year, 71,029 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea.
- Of these, 80% arrived in Italy, with the remainder in Greece, Cyprus and Spain.
- Forty migrants died of thirst in northern Niger when their vehicle broke down during an attempt to reach Europe via Libya last week.
- About 1,650 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year.
- Worldwide, 2,300 migrants have died this year, with the Mediterranean region accounting for the largest proportion, about two-thirds of the global total.
Sources: IOM, UN Migration Agency