Fishermen at a Tunisian port have prevented a ship carrying far-right activists from docking, dealing the latest blow to a controversial mission aimed at disrupting the flow of migrant boats from North Africa to Europe.
Chartered by extremist group "Generation Identity", and registered in Mongolia, the 40-metre (130ft) "C-Star" arrived over the weekend in an area where tens of thousands of migrants have been rescued from rickety boats over recent months and years.
The vessel headed straight from Cyprus to Libyan waters after being discouraged from attempting to dock in Greece and Sicily, where the authorities were concerned about the prospect of protests.
It now needs to land in Tunisia for supplies but appears to have been caught off guard by the strength of opposition among local fishermen, as well as rights groups.
"If they come here we'll close the refuelling channel," Chamseddine Bourassine, the head of the local fishermen's organisation, told AFP. "It is the least we can do given what is happening out in the Mediterranean," he added. "Muslims and Africans are dying."
An official at the port, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "What? Us letting in racists here? Never!"
Their C-Star venture was financed by a crowd-funding initiative organised by young anti-immigration campaigners from France, Italy and Germany. The crew say their main goal is to expose collaboration between NGO rescue ships and the traffickers who launch boats from Libya packed with migrants.
On its website, the self-styled “Defend Europe” alliance accuses NGOs of "smuggling hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants to Europe, [and] endangering the security and future of our continent." It vows to "do something against it".
On Saturday, the C-Star briefly stalked an NGO boat, the Aquarius, off the coast of Libya, in what looked like an attempt at intimidation.
Humanitarian groups say “Generation Identity” is engaged in a dangerous publicity stunt. They point out that any attempt to turn migrant boats back to Libya would be illegal under international law, as well as putting lives at risk.
The C-Star crew have denied they plan to forcefully push back migrants. On August 1, French activist Clément Galant posted a video from the boat in which he says the C-Star will “accompany” any migrant boat it comes across back to the African coast.
NGOs in stand-off with Rome
The "Defend Europe" mission has not got off to the best of starts. The boat was held up for a week in the Suez Canal by Egyptian authorities looking for weapons. Then, after it landed in the Cypriot port of Famagusta last month, several of its crew jumped ship and asked for asylum in Europe – exactly the kind of thing the mission was set up to prevent.
But their arrival on the scene comes at a delicate time for NGOs involved in rescue operations, amid increasing scrutiny of their activities and claims some are colluding – directly or indirectly – with traffickers.
NGO-chartered boats have rescued over a third of the nearly 100,000 people who have been picked up from distressed vessels off Libya this year and taken to Italy. But their relations with Italian authorities have become strained as pressure to stem the flow of migrants has mounted.
Italian authorities last week impounded one NGO boat, the Iuventa, which is operated by German association Jugend Rettet, and accused its crew of being in direct contact with traffickers to organise pick-ups of boatloads of migrants close to the Libyan coast.
Some organisations, like Doctors Without Borders, have rejected new rules set by the Italian authorities that require armed police officers to monitor operations on board their vessels. Others have said they are happy to comply but insist they will not give up their missions, saying thousands more people would have drowned but for their presence.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2017-08-07