Angela Giuffrida, The Guardian, July 21, 2017
A Sicilian mayor is seeking to block a ship chartered by a group of far-right activists attempting to disrupt migrant rescues in the Mediterranean.
Enzo Bianco, the mayor of Catania, has urged authorities in the port city on the island’s east coast to deny docking rights to C-Star, a 40-metre vessel hired by Generation Identity, a movement made up of young, anti-Islam and anti-immigration activists from across Europe, for its sea mission to stop migrants entering Europe from Libya.
The ship is expected to arrive on Saturday, and the group intends to launch its mission next week.
“I’ve told [the relevant] authorities that allowing the ship to dock in our port would be very dangerous for public order,” Bianco said in a statement to the Guardian.
“I also consider it to be a provocation by those involved, with their sole purpose being to fuel conflict by pouring fuel on the fire.”
Under a vigilante scheme called “Defend Europe”, the activists crowdfunded more than €75,000 (£67,000) to hire the boat. In a “trial run” two months ago, the ship successfully intercepted a charity rescue ship off Sicily.
The activists’ aim is to expose what they claim to be wrongdoing by “criminal” NGO search and rescue vessels, which they accuse of working with people smugglers to transport illegal immigrants to Europe. They also plan to disrupt the work of the crews by calling the Libyan coastguard and asking them to take migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean back to war-torn Libya.
Anti-racism groups across Sicily have also urged authorities to take action against the group, to prevent them interfering in the life-saving missions.
“Sicily is a place where every family has an emigration story,” Bianco said. “In recent years we have welcomed thousands of people fleeing from war and hunger, people who were saved from dying in the Mediterranean by European vessels, and those who have lost one or more family members crossing the sea. Talking about ‘defending Europe’ is not just demagogic, it’s unworthy.”
The activist movement’s leaders, who call themselves ‘Identitarians’, are in Catania awaiting the arrival of C-Star, which left Djibouti earlier this month.
They say they are determined to stick to their plan despite the potential setback at the port, and are preparing to leave for international waters close to Libya next week.
“The mayor can do what he wants within the limits of his city but the water is not his territory,” Lorenzo Fiato, who leads the Italian faction of Generation Identity, told the Guardian. “It’s up to the coastguard and we haven’t received any information about this. The mayor doesn’t have the power to do anything.”
Their initiative comes amid mounting tensions between Italy and the rest of the EU over how to manage the perennial influx of migrants and refugees arriving in the country by sea, mainly from sub-Saharan African and Bangladesh.
This year so far, an estimated 93,357 people reach southern Italian shores from Libya – 17% higher than within the first seven months of 2016. In the same period, an estimated 2,207 people have died while trying to cross what is described as the deadliest stretch of sea in the world.
The 10 humanitarian ships patrolling the Mediterranean have saved thousands of lives since coming into operation in 2015. But they have also been accused of being a “pull factor”, encouraging migrants to risk their lives to cross the sea.
“The polemics created around NGOs, undermining their urgently needed and life-saving work, has shifted the focus away from the real problem, which is the lack of a serious and sustainable response by European leaders to the ongoing tragedy in the central Med,” SOS Méditerranée, the French-German charity, said in a statement.
Generation Identity was established in France in 2002 and has attracted members, mostly in their 20s, from Germany, Austria, Italy and, more recently, the UK. Their mission is mainly driven by a fear of Islam and what they see as negative consequences of mass migration to Europe.
“There are places across Europe … in France, in the UK … which are suffering the consequences of this already,” said Fiato, a 24-year-old political science graduate from Milan. “The Islamic religion risks provoking danger, of disturbing public order and upsetting social and cultural values. Natural Europeans are being substituted.”
One of the movement’s most prominent members is Martin Sellner, an Austrian who hosted a pro-Donald Trump party in Vienna on US election night last year.
In April 2016, he and about 30 other members disrupted a theatre production of the play Die Schutzbefohlenen, by the Nobel prize-winning writer Elfriede Jelinek, starring refugees. They sprayed fake blood on stage, claiming it symbolised “the blood of the Bataclan and Brussels”, the Paris concert venue and Belgian capital where terrorist attacks had taken place.
Sellner, 28, argued the sea mission was justified despite the danger activists could face. “It is worth it if we can expose what is actually happening and support the Libyan coastguard,” he said.
“The Libyan coastguard is trying to end immigration from the Libyan coast. Only by preventing it can you stop people from drowning.”
Aid agencies tell a different story of the situation in lawless Libya. The EU has given millions of euros to the Libyan coastguard to stem the flow of migrants and refugees from its shores. The system is flawed, with allegations that those taken back to Libya are kept in detention centres for a week or so before being released to attempt the journey again.
There have also been reports of horrific abuses in Libya, with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) saying in April that thousands of Africans are being sold in “slave markets”.
“Libya is a vortex of chaos that is getting worse all the time,” Marcella Kraay, a coordinator with Doctors Without Borders, told the Guardian onboard the Aquarius, a ship chartered by SOS Méditerranée, last month.
“People talk to me about fleeing Libya, not necessarily wanting to come to Europe.”