This week saw an ironic development in the tragedy of Europe's refugee crisis; a rescue organization vessel was sent to help anti-immigration activists whose ship had run into trouble and sent out an SOS in the Mediterranean sea.
The Making of the Migration Crisis
The German charity Sea Eye, which has been saving refugees and others if they get into difficulty while trying to cross from Africa to Europe, was told it was not needed when it reached the C-Star ship carrying members of the so-called Identitarian group.
The far-right activists later said on Twitter that the boat had "developed a minor technical problem during the night".
This episode was only the latest of a series of failures since the controversial group launched their campaign using the title “Defend Europe” but they have managed to secure considerable international media coverage in the process.
The 40-metre long C-Star ship, which is flying under a Mongolian flag, was leased by the far-right group "Generation Identity" with Austrian, French, German and Italian activists on board.
Their crowd-funding operation was a massive success, with donations of more than US$70,000 collected on PayPal — before it was shut down following pressure from human rights activists. They then received more than US$200,000 in only a few days on WeSearchr, founded by a former Breitbart journalist, Chuck Johnson.
Jack Posobiec, another prominent figure in the U.S. white nationalist movement, as well as the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, have called on people to send their donations to the European initiative.
Officially, the far-right activists have vowed to expose what they describe as "collaboration" between privately-funded rescue ships and people traffickers — allegations thrown out after an investigation by an Italian court in May.
They also provocatively claimed an affiliation with Greenpeace's star fleet operator: "Our boat is the new 'Rainbow Warrior of the European peoples...And it seems to cause as much concern as its predecessor" tweeted a French member of the crew.
The activists have hung banners on their boat, making clear their demands to “Stop human trafficking”, while another warns “You will not make Europe home! NO WAY” — a reference to Australia's policy against migrants implemented since the beginning of 2014.
The ship's crew was arrested in Cyprus on human trafficking charges, after authorities found at least 20 Sri Lankan nationals on board. They were later released, after the organizers said the Sri Lankans were “apprentice sailors undergoing training.”
Another hurdle in the trip came from the anti-racist resistance exerted by residents in the ports where the C-Star planned to dock.
It was refused permission to do so in Greece, Siciliy and Tunisia.
But the success of the operation can be measured by the amount of media coverage they have gained. And their expertise on social media, with Twitter accounts in four languages — English, French, German and Italian as well as more than 18,000 followers.
The French far-right expert Stephane Francois told Les Inrocks,"With 'Defend Europe', the scale of radicalism is much stronger....the far-right had abandoned collective violence, officially condemning initiatives of individuals."
"But there is a shift here, this can mark the beginning of new forms of violent activism,” he warned.
Francois's prediction could turn out to be correct. French far-right publications have welcomed the campaign as a new era in the fight against immigration: "the naval battle against immigration has begun," said online outlet Breizh-info in May 2017, when "Defend Europe" was launched.
Another media outlet called Riposte Laique also praised the project: "Are they opposing themselves physically to the crafts coming from Libya? The answer is yes. As unimaginable may be their fight, these young boys and girls attempt by any available mean (smoke grenades, destabilization of the craft...) to protect our shores from the invaders. A small drop? True. But small brooks make big rivers."
The C-Star even gained the official support of the controversial British columnist Katie Hopkins who went to Sicily to meet the crew, along with the Swedish U.K.-based journalist Peter Sweden.
Sweden has previously used Twitter to question the fact that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust as well as expressing some sympathies for the policies of Adolf Hitler. But he recently released a statement claiming he has “grown older and learnt more about life” and therefore is no longer a Holocaust denier and doesn’t stand by the tweets.
Hopkins is now confined to promoting her views at the Mail Online and on her Twitter account, after she was fired from LBC Radio for promoting “a final solution” to after the Manchester concert attack. This was not her first controversial statement: in 2015, she said she wanted to “use gunships to stop migrants.”
“What Katie Hopkins did, posing next to Italian fascist graffiti, having pictures taken with Holocaust deniers and right-wing extremists, and openly sharing content from Defend Europe, has moved from being a journalist or even a commentator, into a full-on propaganda/PR machine for an extremist operation,” commented the anti-racism group Hope not Hate to The Independent.
More than 83,000 people have been rescued and brought to Italy so far this year after attempting the crossing from Libya, while more than 2,160 have died trying, according to the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration.