A pan-European far-right group with a history of violent direct action has charted a 422-ton ship and says it plans to confront people-smugglers and turn back migrants it finds in the waters off Libya.
Humanitarian organizations say the planned intervention is a "PR provocation" by the Defend Europe group, which is part of the continent-wide, anti-Islam identitarian movement. Identitarians advocate the preservation of national identity and a return to "traditional Western values."
They warn lives could be endangered, if the far-right activists impede refugee-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, something some of the group’s leaders have vowed they will do.
Humanitarian groups are highlighting the shadowy background of the owner of the ship the far-right activists have chartered, 49-year-old Swedish businessman Sven Tomas Egerstrom, who has provided private maritime security services in Africa.
In 2015, a court in the Seychelles ordered the seizure of a cargo of automatic weapons worth $2 million found on one of Egerstrom’s ships in a case brought by the crew of the vessel, Ocean Bounty, who accused him of abandoning them.
Defend Europe leaders have been contradictory about what they intend to do with chartered ship, the C-Star.
Lorenzo Fiato, head of Defend Europe’s Italian branch, told VOA the activists will coordinate their actions with "Libyan authorities and coast guards in Tripoli." But he admitted Defend Europe has been unable to establish firm contacts in Libya and he appeared unknowledgeable about the militia and trafficker connections of Libya’s coast guards.
"I don’t think there are any legal problems as we are going to cooperate with the authorities. We want to make everything legal. We are protecting our countries from illegal immigration," he says.
Martin Sellner, co-leader of the Austrian identitarian branch and a key figure in Defend Europe, vowed in an online video the group would block NGO "ships from going to the Libyan coast."
Europe’s identitarian movement, which is often dubbed "the hipster right," is a network of social media-savvy young activists mainly operating in France, Germany, Austria and Italy. It has a record of mounting provocative direct-action campaigns and then using the publicity generated to win more recruits and attract donations from crowd-funding appeals.
Identitarians have occupied mosques, and in March 2016 they clashed with French police after burning tires and blocking bridges leading from a makeshift migrant camp known as "the jungle" in Calais.
"Although they may parade and cloak themselves with this 'far right hipster' mantle, something quite disturbing lies underneath their slick rhetoric, with mention of 'remigrating' people from Europe and claims to somehow deport people back to Libya in coordination with the Libyan coast guard. Naive in the extreme, when different factions, militias and rival governments plus people smugglers actually control the coastline," said a spokesman for the British advocacy group Hope Not Hate.
Breach of humanitarian, maritime laws
Human Rights Watch warned Tuesday if Defend Europe activists return migrants to Libya against their will they would be in breach of international humanitarian law and if they impede rescue missions they would be breaking maritime law, which obliges seafarers to save lives at sea.
"My personal response to what they want to do is probably unprintable," says Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch, who warns Defend Europe could end up "handing people over to militias that collude with the smugglers and traffickers."
She accused the Identitarian group of aiming to stoke anti-migrant sentiment in Italy, which in recent weeks has mounted and is buffeting the government of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
More than 86,000 migrants have reached Italy this year from Libya, a 10 percent increase on the same period last year, according to the International Office for Migration. Italy’s migrant detention centers and temporary shelters have reached their capacity of 200,000 and Italian officials have warned neighboring European countries that they are considering granting migrants European Union visas, which would allow them to travel legally to other EU states.
In May, Defend Europe tried unsuccessfully to use a dinghy to block in Italian waters a refugee-rescue vessel chartered by the international NGO Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym, MSF). The action generated international media coverage and nearly $170,000 in donations from two crowd-funding appeals. Fiato says Defend Europe was able to charter the C-Star at "a big discount" as the owner supports "what we’re trying to do."
Originally Defend Europe planned to dock the vessel at the Sicilian port of Catania, but now the activists say they plan to keep it anchored 40 kilometers off the coast, as they fear Italian authorities may decide to impound the ship.