A group of young people has taken to the seas to stop what they call an “invasion” of immigrants from Libya to the shores of Europe. The fledgling “Defend Europe” organization describes itself as a European identitiarian group composed of about a dozen young people from Italy, Germany, Prague, Austria and other countries.
The group’s main goal is to close the Mediterranean Sea migration route currently used by those fleeing war-torn Libya. Defend Europe asserts that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean are actually facilitating human trafficking and that without them, migrants wouldn’t be dying as they attempt to flee their home countries.
“The so-called Mediterranean rescue NGOs, in our eyes, are no rescuers,” Thorsten Schmidt, head of press for Defend Europe, told International Business Times.
Onboard a 130-foot ship named the C-Star, the group aims to observe and document the work of NGOs in the Mediterranean Sea. Their working hypothesis, promoted in a YouTube video, is that NGOs are essentially operating as “water taxis, ferrying migrants.” Instead of going out and searching for migrants, Schmidt said, NGOs have unintentionally standardized a meeting place with smugglers in certain spots in the ocean, creating what has become a predetermined transport route for human trafficking.
“They call it SAR — search and rescue,” Schmidt told IBT. “But this is completely wrong. There is no search.”
Defend Europe does not argue that NGOs are operating in conjunction with human traffickers, only that their routine pickups of migrants at certain spots have effectively put them in cahoots with traffickers.
“There’s a rumor that NGOs and smugglers are collaborating and may be arranging meetings,” Schmidt said. “I think all these rumors about concrete collaboration are wrong. But here’s the point: The NGOs are acting like human traffickers. They have no meetings and no collaboration because there is no need for collaboration. It is enough that the NGOs are waiting for migrants in front of the shores and that the human traffickers expect the NGOs to be waiting there.”
The operation has been funded entirely by private donations. An active fundraising page on the crowdfunding website WeSearchr raised more than $170,000 from 2,260 contributors as of Monday afternoon. By observing and documenting the activity of NGOs on the open seas, the group said it hoped to take its cause back to politicians in their home countries.
“We want to raise political pressure to force the European border control to raise more awareness, to shut down the complete Mediterranean border for European migrants and to establish migrant centers in North Africa,” said Schmidt.
Thousands of migrants are currently fleeing from Libya. Upon rescue, NGOs take migrants to Italy instead of back to Libya. Defend Europe does not oppose the rescue of migrants but says they should be taken to a safe haven in North Africa. The United Nations and NGOs have agreed, however, that returning to Libya and many parts of North Africa is too dangerous for those attempting to escape. The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) called the potential for return to Libya “minimal.” The UN IOM did not respond to IBT's requests for comment.
“If we see that the rubber boat is damaged, if we see people in the sea swimming with no life vest, of course, we will take them on board,” Schmidt said, but Defend Europe would take them to the “nearest safe harbor” and not all the way to Italy.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is one of the organizations that takes part in search and rescue missions on the Mediterranean.
“At this point, it is unclear what impact this group [Defend Europe] and its activities will have on the work of MSF or other search and rescue actors,” a spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders told IBT. “We have taken the decision not to comment on this group at this point as we do not know enough about them yet or the possible implications on our humanitarian work.”
Thousands of migrants have been rescued this year alone. An estimated 90,000 were brought to Italy this year, while around 500,000 were brought to Italy in the three preceding years. More than 2,000 others have died in an attempt to cross.
Amid heightened political pressure, the Italian government conducted an emergency meeting with France and Germany earlier in July to discuss the role of NGOs in rescue operations. A new code of conduct for NGOs was drafted, but at least five organizations refused to sign, stating that it would lead to more deaths.
“Proposals, in particular the one stating that vessels engaged in rescue must disembark survivors to a place of safety as a rule instead of transferring to other ships, present unnecessary limitations to the means at our disposal today,” Doctors Without Borders, one of the organizations that refused to sign the new conduct code, said in a statement Monday.
Defend Europe, however, holds that taking migrants to Europe instead of to safety in Africa is a disservice to both sides.
“The ongoing exodus from Africa will damage not only Europe but Africa,” Schmidt told IBT. “They are needed in their countries of origin. When they come to Europe they are missed in Africa, in their home country.”