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Opinion Europe’s far-right pirates of the Mediterranean are targeting refugee rescue missions

Refugees and migrants are transferred from the Migrant Offshore Aid Station Phoenix vessel to an Italian coast guard ship on June 10 off Lampedusa, Italy. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Rossalyn Warren is a freelance foreign affairs journalist. She lives in London and tweets at @RossalynWarren.

Europe is about to be “saved.”

Or rather, that’s what a group of far-right activists believe they’ll be doing in the coming days when they plan to set off in a 422-ton vessel with a 25-member crew from Sicily, hoping to block rescue boats saving the lives of migrants on the Mediterranean Sea.

In recent months, European far-right groups have targeted the nongovernmental organization rescue efforts between Italy and Libya. At least 90,000 migrants and refugees — mostly from sub-Saharan Africa — have crossed the route, and at least 2,300 have died, in 2017 so far. In May, far-right activists disrupted a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) search-and-rescue boat from disembarking at the Sicilian port of Catania. Then, on June 26, the activists announced they had obtained a vessel (called C-Star) and headed to Catania, where they hoped to “intervene” in NGO search-and-rescue missions during what they said would be a “summer of disturbances.”

Generation Identity — part of the Identitarian Movement, — is an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration youth wing of a French nationalist group that has led the attack under the mission name “Defend Europe” and raised more than $150,000 to fund its anti-rescue work. Its members say charity rescue missions are a “pull factor, meaning more and more migrants subscribe to the the [sic] illusion that the passage to Europe is safe,” so they say they plan to send boats to the African coast to “expose” the work of NGOs operating off Libya. They believe — and want to ‘prove’ — NGOs are colluding with human traffickers to fuel the migration flow.

The group is known for its publicity stunts and creepy promotional videos showing white Europeans playing sports in what looks like summer camp for fascists. Their reach hasn’t just been limited to Europe either. Though the group is small — around 400 to 500 members in several countries including Austria, France and Germany — they’ve since been joined in Sicily by high-profile, far-right activists from Canada and the United States. They’ve also been supported by neo-Nazi leaders, including former KKK head David Duke, a vocal supporter of the Defend Europe mission.

Last Wednesday, Defend Europe activists were photographed spending time with Katie Hopkins, the British Mail Online columnist. Hopkins is best known for once describing refugees as “cockroaches” in a national newspaper and for being fired from her LBC radio show after calling for a “final solution.” In Catania, she was photographed posing with the activists, including Swedish journalist Peter Sweden, who once tweeted: “The claim that 6 million jews were gassed seem highly improbable. The concentration camps didn’t have the facilities for that,” followed up by, “by the way just so you know i am not a nazi : ) I think hitler had some good points.”

The Generation Identity group and its supporters pride themselves on their youth. “The government desperately don’t want a rag tag team of 20yr olds investigating activities in the Med. What are they afraid of?,” Lauren Southern, one of the activists, tweeted Monday evening. They’re also tech-savvy, documenting their views in YouTube vlog video diary entries, and live streaming their ‘activism’ on Facebook and Twitter. Many also have tens to hundreds of thousands of supporters and subscribers on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, who often help financially support their activities through donation pages. On Twitter, their legions of supporters embolden their work, praising them for helping defend Europe from the “plague of Muslim migration.”

But let’s be clear: Their aim to interfere with boats is completely illegal. The Defend Europe activists are paranoid, embroiled in chaos and have no real plan. They’re disguising themselves by wearing wigs because they believe the police are trailing them. What’s more, their boat has been held up in Cyprus, where its captain was arrested, allegedly over false documents.

In June, I boarded a rescue mission with MSF, one of the same boats the activists are hoping to stop. On board, many of the people who had been rescued had escaped indefinite detention in Libya, where conditions are described as “inhumane.” Others had fled forced labor, sexual violence and even modern-day slave markets. A few weeks earlier, activists had blocked one of MSF’s boats in Catania — the rescue team was not amused, but nor were its members threatened. Instead, they’ve grown weary: They want to get on with their work, not play games with people who are putting vulnerable people’s lives at risk.

In response to the Defend Europe mission, Lauren Southern (a Canadian) and Brittany Pettibone (an American) uploaded a YouTube video in which they said they’re in Sicily because they believe their countries “share the same fate” as Europe. In the video, they also repeatedly stress how millennials “like them” want change and position themselves as saviors doing good.

But Southern and her ilk do not speak for my generation. What Europe needs right now are long-term, constructive, legal solutions to the migration situation — what we don’t have time for is far-right vloggers who offer nothing more to offer than fear-mongering hate in a desperate attempt to build up their fascist fan base.