When a far-right European group named Defend Europe announced its crowdfunding campaign to take a ship and disrupt rescue missions of migrant boats, human rights groups and concerned citizens burst out in anger. But the campaign was successful and achieved its goal: the C-Star was launched as the epitome of nativist European groups trying to keep Europe “migrant-free”. While the official stance was simply to aid the patrol of Libyan waters and stop the activities of smugglers, the rhetoric was deeply anti-immigration, racist and xenophobic.
Were the far-right groups in Europe about to declare war on migrants in the seas? Were they ready to completely disregard the rule of law and take up the role of vigilantes, putting lives at risk and shamelessly violating human rights?
Supposedly yes. In practice, not quite.
There are two ways to look at this story. One is to lament the amount of people who mobilized to crowdfund the anti-migrant ship and be frightened that the idea actually materialized, a mirror of anti-migrant sentiment present in Europe. The other way is to consider the spectacular failure this idea has been, despite the media hype, and revel in the ridiculousness of it all.
A journey of mishaps
Perhaps we can start by noting the irony that a ship supposed to defend Europe against invaders was actually circulating from the beginning under a Mongolian flag of convenience, after being bought by a businessman convicted of fraud and connected to private security companies operating in the Gulf of Aden, according to FIDH. The ship left Djibouti on the 7th of July and commenced its eventful journey. On July 16th, while on their way to Catania, the troubles started: it was stopped in the Suez Canal by Egyptian authorities after its captain failed to provide all the needed documentation regarding the crew.
Once they reached the Italian coast, the mayor of Catania strongly opposed their activities and urged authorities to block the ship from docking. A few days after, in Turkish-occupied Cyprus, the commander, second in command, the owner of the ship and seven crew members were detained over forgery and at least twenty Sri Lankan were found working illegally on the ship. Fifteen were soon deported back to their home country while five asked for asylum. This episode led some people to wonder whether the C-Star itself was possibly being used as vessel for smugglers or human trafficking and the Sri Lankans made contradictory statements on that regard.
The mission went forward regardless. Defend Europe’s supporters apparently did not think it was strange to have Sri Lankan citizens doing the hard work and have the entire ship under suspicion of being corrupt.
But others were not willing to put up with their racism and be passive supporters of the entire enterprise. In an impressive move by Tunisian civil society, the ship was completely blocked from docking in the country. Fishermen, labor unions and anti-fascist activist joined to protest the C-Star, which was by then already in need of supplies. The C-Star was apparently uniting all of the mediterranean against them. What remains unclear is whether or not they had any impact whatsoever in the migrant rescue missions or in patrolling the waters.
Some “minor technical errors” (their words) ensued, which led the C-Star to be basically rescued by NGO vessel, the same kind of ships the C-Star had been launched to fight in the first place. It was then barred from docking in yet another country, this time Malta. The mission, which was programmed to last about a month, was over.
So, there you have it: a ship led by a corrupt businessman, devoid of all the necessary documentation, whose crew partly fled and asked for asylum, and that ended up being rescued by the same NGOs it was fighting against. Was this the biggest threat for rescue missions on mediterranean waters?
Truth be told
In fact, it was only a caricature, and an unnecessary one, given what was really happening during high level negotiations during the summer. The number of migrants has fallen as the EU collaborates with (and funds) Libyan coastguard operations. Amnesty International has already warned Italy of the dangers of outsourcing the fight against trafficking to Libya, a country where slavery and exploitation is reaching dramatic proportions. European and African leaders had a summit where they discussed replicating the EU-Turkey deal to stem the flow of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa by increasing aid to Chad and Niger. And NGOs engaging in rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been increasingly targeted by groups much more dangerous than Defend Europe. In general, had their supporters been better informed, they would have known the tide is not turning on the favor of migrants and most of the rhetoric used to attack “migrant loving, traitor” politicians is completely devoid of meaning.
In this context, what is the importance of Defend Europe’s actions? Things are changing for migrants in the Mediterranean in a way it is hard to fight against. Still, the fact the ship was actually at sea and the amount of support and money it was capable of mobilizing is indeed frightening. The possibility it might inspire others to do the same is cause for concern and if the C-Star was even mildly successful in botching up just one rescue mission, that is unforgivable. But the C-Star’s failures only show how their black-and-white view of the world does not hold up to scrutiny and how faible their principles are in practice. It also showed us how many people around the mediterranean are not willing to collaborate with racist ideals that put people’s lives at risk.