ROME—The mission statement for the so-called Identitarians’ “Defend Europe” project doesn’t leave a lot open to interpretation. The group’s members, sometimes described as right-wing hipsters, are hate-mates with American alt-right white nationalists and often fly the same flag with the Greek letter lambda in a circle.
Before they went into action they wrote, “It’s a mission to rescue Europe by defending the Mediterranean Sea by stopping illegal immigration,” they said of their plan to take to the sea to stop refugees and migrants from crossing into Italy. “We want to get a crew, equip a boat and set sails to the Mediterranean to chase down these enemies of Europe.”
Those “enemies” are the thousands of migrants and refugees who arrive in Italy from Libya every week, and the dozen or more charity boats that rescue them. They promise to stop at nothing to stop the influx they say is threatening their culture.
“When the governments fail, we step in because this land is ours,” they promise in a YouTube video shot on the shores of Sicily with sampled images of terrorist attacks and sea rescues, apparently to prove that the two are connected. “It starts here and it has to end here,” the men who narrate the video say in a variety of European languages.
In mid-May the Defend Europe activists managed to nudge up against the Aquarius rescue vessel in the middle of the night and interfere with its departure. The ship, run by the French organization SOS Méditerrenée, was headed out toward the search and rescue zone near Libyan waters. The Identitarians shot flares and yelled hate slogans at the big red vessel and then posted a video of the incident on YouTube and throughout their social networks.
It remains to be discovered just how the tiny boat of activists was able to gain access to the highly protected port of Catania, but it just might have something to do with Carmelo Zuccaro, the Sicilian prosecutor who is hell-bent on stopping the NGO rescue vessels at any cost. Zuccaro has petitioned the Italian parliament, calling for it to stop and investigate the rescue boats, but he has repeatedly come up short on evidence that they are doing anything illegal or in any way colluding with human traffickers.
The Identitarian movement began in France but has spread through Europe’s wealthier nations where anti-immigration sentiments are strongest, and has managed to find footing in Germany and Austria.
The movement, which shares ideology and members with the French group known as Generation Identity, has some important voices in the world of anti-Islam and anti-immigration hate activism. Conservative Canadian activist Lauren Southern, who tweets hate speech she does endorse by the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump and others, was apparently on the Defend Europe boat when it confronted the SOS Méditerranée rescue ship in Italy.
SOS Méditerranée put out an official statement about the May confrontation, but, like the other NGOs that operate in the search and rescue zone in the central Mediterranean, they have chosen not to engage in a media war with activists who clearly revel in publicity.
“During the last weeks, we were confronted with two incidents in which far-right activists have expressed their resentment with the life-saving work that SOS Méditerrenée is carrying out in the Central Mediterranean for more than one year now,” the charity said in a statement. “We regard these incidents as part of the enormous challenges that we and other humanitarian organizations are currently confronted with. Saving lives is a moral and legal duty. SOS Méditerrenée will continue its works as long as people fleeing war, torture and poverty, have to risk their lives on perilous journeys.”
Defend Europe, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, insists it will protect Europe’s borders at sea at any cost, even if most of its actions are little more than seaborne selfies. The Defend Europe project organizers have hinted through social media that they will officially launch their next active phase to stop the rescue boats in Catania on June 9, although nodetails are yet available.
They say they have raised around $60,000 so far through a crowd-funding drive to buy boats and film equipment and to pay for travel expenses to Italy. “We’ll be back,” they say. And no doubt they will.
What that means for the already perilous situation at sea remains to be seen. So far, more than 71,000 migrants and refugees have made it to Europe across Med this year and more than 1,700 have died trying. A battle at sea between activists and rescuers is the last thing anyone needs.