The latest endeavor in the Mediterranean will be the group’s biggest stunt yet. This month, Defend Europe crowd-funded more than $100,000 on WeSearchr to purchase a 40-meter (130-foot) ship for its sea campaign. The ship, named “C-star”, sets sail on Sunday (July 18) from Djibouti (where the ship was docked) to pick up its crew in Catania, Italy. From there it will rove the seas in search of refugee activity.

There will be 12 activists on board from Italy, Austria, Germany, and France, according to Fiato, some who are full-time students such as himself (Fiato studies political science in Milan). Members of the press will also be on board, including right-wing British columnist Katie Hopkins, and a professional crew, who are sympathetic to Defend Europe’s aims.

Fiato explains that Defend Europe will help “the Libyan coastguard finding the human traffickers ships before the NGOs do [sic].” The group says it will help the Libyan coastguard arrest the human traffickers and return the migrants to Libya. Once the migrants are returned, Defend Europe will then destroy the dingy boats migrants are often forced into to ensure they can’t be used again.

Fiato was keen to stress that Defend Europe was not “going to interrupt any kind of rescue mission,” but anti-racist groups argue that was its original mission. A spokesperson for Hope Not Hate, an anti-racist UK advocacy group, points out that “originally on their funding material part of their messaging was about blocking ships.” In one video, one of the leaders of Defend Europe and identitarianism, Martin Sellner, said in May that the group would “block those ships from going to the Libyan coast.”

Defend Europe will, according to Fiato, help to rescue migrants if it receives an SOS request and is the only ship around. The ship doesn’t have a crew of doctors, he says, but will try to provide migrants with support, call the Libyan coastguard to step in, and assist in returning migrants to Libya. Fiato adds that “if the Libyan coastguards do not come, then we will take them on board and we will bring them to Tripoli.”

The fallout

Refugee advocates say Defend Europe’s actions will only worsen what has become a particularly deadly year for migrants. More than 2,000 people have died in 2017 trying to get to Europe through the Mediterranean, according to Amnesty International. The human rights group blames EU governments for the death toll, criticizing the decision to shift the EU’s focus from providing search-and-rescue vessels to supporting the Libyan coastguard to intercept and return migrants to Libya.

The Libyan coastguard, which receive vast sums from the EU, has been accused of widespread human rights abuses (paywall) regarding refugees. A rescue by the Libyan coastguard can lead to more abuse and incarceration in Libya, where an armed conflict and humanitarian crisis have raged on since 2014. The country currently has three rival authorities competing for legitimacy and territorial control.

Italy, the country most affected by Europe’s migrant crisis, has asked for help in coping with the influx of migrants—the number increased by nearly 20% in first six months of this year, compared to the same period a year ago. The country has threatened to close its ports, but other European countries have yet to step in to relocate migrants.

A new EU code of conduct for humanitarian vessels is pending, which would ban NGOs from entering Libyan territorial waters and communicating with smugglers by phone. NGOs would also have to allow police officers on board and wouldn’t be allowed to transfer refugees to other ships, but instead return immediately to port.

Defend Europe supports the draft rules. Human rights group fiercely oppose them, arguing they will only put migrants in more danger.

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