An international group of alt-right hipsters who hired a boat to prevent migrants and refugees from crossing the Mediterranean to claim asylum in Europe has reportedly run into trouble after crowdfunding website Patreon closed down its campaign page. Defend Europe, an organisation put together by members of the so-called Identitarian movement, claims that ships operated by charities and NGOs off the coast of Libya are working in collusion with human traffickers to smuggle migrants into Europe. After raising enough money to charter an aging vessel of its own that has reportedly been beset by technical problems, the group had hoped to document the activities of “criminal” NGOs it claims are helping smuggling gangs ferry their human cargo to Italy, and intervene if its members saw any evidence that recuse boats were indeed working with traffickers.
While Italian officials have made similar claims about charities and NGOs working in the Mediterranean, Defend Europe has been widely dismissed as a far-right group of crackpots who are driven more by racism and cultural supremacy than a desire to crush the businesses of evil people traffickers who profit from the misery of migrants. The fact that the group has enjoyed the support of divisive figures on the right such as MailOnline columnist Katie Hopkins and Canadian provocateur Lauren Southern has done little to dispel this assumption. But while groups on the left such as Hope not Hate have been quick to campaign against Defend Europe, which has launched an alternative fundraising campaign on WeSearchr, they seem oblivious to the fact that the organisation exists solely as a consequence of Europe’s inability to tackle the problem of trafficking gangs and the wider migrant crisis.
It may well be the case that Defend Europe and its supporters are little more than a group of racist attention seekers more interested in creating headlines for themselves and their cause than disrupting people smugglers’ businesses. But racist or not, the group has only been able to exploit the migrant crisis and garner such a high level of support from thousands of backers as a direct result of politicians’ failure to take the action required to stop people smugglers making millions of euros from cramming migrants onto unseaworthy dinghies in the knowledge they will be picked up just off the Libyan coast by rescue boats.
Italy last month threatened to turn away ships suspected of aiding people traffickers, but has so far taken no real action against charities and NGOs accused of colluding with smugglers, apart from seizing one boat suspected of aiding illegal immigration. Meanwhile, traffickers’ businesses thrive, both on the Mediterranean route and further west in Morocco, where smuggling gangs are enjoying a thriving trade from migrants willing to pay handsomely to be sneaked into Spain via the Strait of Gibraltar. While migrant drownings have become a weekly if not daily occurrence, almost doubling over the course of the past year, arrests of people smugglers seem far less common, suggesting that Europe’s law enforcement authorities and border control agencies simply are not doing enough to stop the traffickers.
As undesirable as Defend Europe and its supporters may be, the group is a symptom of European governments’ inability to stop people smugglers taking advantage of one of largest movements of people in recent history. While Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières and Germany’s Sea Eye have suspended operations in the Med after clashes with Libyan coastguard vessels, other charities and NGOs are still picking up migrants from people smugglers’ boats and giving them a lift to Italy, effectively acting as a taxi service. Even if these organisations are not acting in direct collusion with smuggling gangs, there can be little doubt that their rescue missions are acting as a significant pull factor for migrants who might otherwise be concerned about travelling to Europe in a boat that stands little chance of surviving the journey.
In much the same way as western governments’ reaction to the threat posed by Islamist terrorism has contributed to a surge in support for far-right groups across Europe and the US, a total failure on the part of the EU to prevent people smugglers from sending thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean has resulted in activists from that side of the political spectrum taking matters into their own hands. All the while EU politicians continue to procrastinate over the migrant crisis when they should be passing laws to stop people making the journey to Europe, the popularity of groups such as Defend Europe and the wider far right will continue to grow.
The effects of Defend Europe’s mission have so far proved fairly benign, but more sinister anti-migrant groups are popping up all over Europe. In Bulgaria, armed Donald Trump-supporting vigilantes are patrolling the Turkish border to keep migrants out, while in Germany anti-migrant mobs are taking to the street with sometimes deadly effect. If Europe’s leaders continue to fail to properly address people’s genuine concerns over the rate at which refugees and economic migrants are pouring into their countries, a group of alt-right hipsters shouting through a megaphone will be the least of their worries.