Migrant rescue ship rushes to aid anti-migrant boat in the Med
A faltering campaign by far-right activists to turn back migrants in the Mediterranean Sea took a farcical turn on Friday when their own stricken vessel was “rescued” by a humanitarian ship.
A ship operated by a German NGO went to the aid of the activists’ C-Star vessel after it reportedly sent out a distress signal, only to be told upon arrival that their help was not needed.
The Sea-Eye charity's founder Michael Buschheuer said the Italian coastguard had asked his ship to set course for the C-Star, but that the “Nazi boat” had refused assistance.
"We had radio contact. They said they don't need or want our help," Buschheuer told Reuters news agency.
The crew of the C-Star had earlier denied that the boat was in distress, posting on Twitter that it had alerted other vessels because its main engine had stopped due to “a minor technical problem”.
Chartered by extremist group "Generation Identity", and registered in Mongolia, the 40-metre (130ft) C-Star is financed through a crowd-funding initiative organised by anti-immigration campaigners from France, Italy and Germany.
Their stated mission is to expose collaboration between NGO rescue ships and the traffickers who launch boats packed with migrants from the coast of Libya.
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."
But the venture hasn’t 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 Sri Lankan crew jumped ship and asked for asylum in Europe – exactly the kind of thing the mission was set up to prevent.
The C-Star has since been sailing off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia, where angry fishermen have prevented it from docking. It is now believed to be running low on supplies.
NGOs under fire
Humanitarian groups say the anti-migrant boat 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.
But the C-Star’s 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 the Italian government have become strained as pressure to stem the flow of migrants has mounted.
Last month, Italian officials impounded a boat operated by a German NGO, accusing its crew of being in direct contact with traffickers to organise pick-ups of boatloads of migrants, a claim the activist group has vehemently denied.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)