A few weeks ago, a far-right group of millennials from Europe and North America decided to set sail on the Mediterranean. These so-called Identitarian activists rented a ship under the "Defend Europe" moniker to — as they put it — monitor migrant rescue organizations who they claimed were actually trafficking people to Europe. But Defend Europe's ship, the C-Star, recently encountered technical difficulties off the coast of Libya, and ironically, refugee rescue ship came to this anti-migrant vessel's aid.
According to reports, Defend Europe chartered the C-Star in Djibouti after raising €75,000 (almost $89,000) through crowdfunding. The extremist organization — which operates on white nationalist "Generation Identity" principles of preserving national identity and reclaiming purportedly Western values — originally promised to block migrant boats and prevent a migrant "invasion" of Europe. They later scaled this pledge back to "monitoring" rescue organizations.
But their monitoring activities hit a snag; the Italian coastguard received a distress signal from the C-Star. As fate would have it, the German NGO Sea Eye, which has rescued hundreds of migrants traversing the Mediterranean, deployed a search and rescue boat to help the stranded vessel.
Sea Eye's founder, Michael Buschheuer, told The Guardian that everyone at sea has a duty “to help those in distress, irrespective of their origin, color, religion or beliefs." However, Buschheuer subsequently told Reuters that the C-Star declined Sea Eye's help. Defend Europe tweeted that although the C-Star had encountered "a minor technical problem," it was not actually in distress. "The problem is about to resolved," Defend Europe tweeted in a statement.
This is certainly not the first rough patch that the C-Star has encountered on its voyage. First, it was stopped in the Suez Canal, where Egyptian officials searched for weapons. Then, C-Star crew members were arrested in Cyprus on allegations of people-smuggling.
At least 20 Sri Lankan refugees were sailing on the C-Star when it arrived in Famagusta, in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, and they were permitted to get back on the vessel after claiming to be trainees or "apprentice sailors." Later on, however, some of these refugees requested asylum and others flew back to Sri Lanka after admitting to paying steep fees to smuggling rings.
Robert Timm, a German member of Defend Europe, denied that the group was a far-right organization, instead describing it to The Independent as a "democratic movement." He added, "You can be against net immigration to Europe and on the other hand you can be compassionate with the people that drown."
Despite this claim, NGOs that operate migrant rescue ships in the region have expressed concern that Defend Europe's actions could put lives in danger by disrupting rescue operations in an already precarious region. In 2017 alone, the International Organization for Migration has recorded the deaths of 2,385 migrants on the central Mediterranean route.