Fash at Sea

The end of Defend Europe’s fascistic campaign to block migrants’ boats in the Mediterranean doesn’t mean the threat is over

The racist transnational campaign known as Defend Europe, whose signature tactic has been attempts to physically block ships transporting refugees across the Mediterranean, recently ended in a series of setbacks ranging from the hysterical to the logistical in the last few months. In late August, it halted its seaborne campaign. The captain, Kibris Postasi reported, and other aboard the “C-Star” were arrested in July of this year for allegedly falsifying documents and for themselves hosting people without legal documentation. But while it is happy news that Defend Europe’s immediate campaign ended in failure, the group’s enduring successes, including its propaganda and celebrity networking, should be examined closely by all anti-fascists. The wins of Defend Europe in these instances show that the dangerous linkages between vigilante fascists and their enablers embedded within European institutions can, and often do, snowball into lasting material consequences.

In May of this year, the Far Right activist campaign by Lauren Southern, a Canadian "alt-right" media personality formerly of Rebel Media, and Martin Sellner, an Austrian working with the neofascist Génération Identitaire group, began a sustained effort to malign the nongovernmental organizations conducting refugee rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The group pounced on a false narrative originating with a leaked memo from FRONTEX, a Polish for-profit company with a €330 million budget that has been tasked by the European Parliament with patrolling E.U. borders and seas. In the memo, FRONTEX claimed that NGOs conducting search and rescue missions off European coasts were acting as a "pull factor" attracting both migrants and smugglers from Africa to Europe.

The spread of disinformation from the FRONTEX memo is part of a broader global trend where white nationalist propagandists disseminate false narratives favorable to Far Right politicians and damaging to their enemies. In the U.S., the tendency of President Trump and his associates to retweet bogus but affirming news stories has raised red flags among free-press advocates, but the reach of the FRONTEX memo shows that a similar phenomenon is occurring in Europe and specifically Italy, where it was picked up by politicians from both the Left and the Right. It was also taken up by Italian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, who admitted in May to having "no evidence" backing his claims that NGOs were creating a “pull factor” for refugees. That didn’t stop Sellner and other neofascists from exaggerating the already false allegations from the FRONTEX memo, further alleging that the NGOs were colluding directly with smugglers to pick up refugees in Mediterranean Sea. 

Along with other groups affiliated with the Far Right and identitarian movements in Europe and North America, Defend Europe and its allies took to social media to call for action, globally, against an “Islamic refugee invasion.” They pointed to the fact that young African men and boys comprise many of the asylum seekers who continue to be rescued off the coasts of Italy, alluding to medieval anti-Islamic imagery to argue that white Christians had a moral duty to purify Europe of dark or Muslim bodies—especially and specifically Black Africans.

The charges against NGOs were thoroughly debunked in June by researchers Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani of the University of London's Centre for Research Architecture in a detailed report. They write that “accusations have been founded on biased analysis which has deliberately singled out SAR [search-and-rescue] NGOs from the broader web of interactions that together shape the dynamics and conditions of maritime crossings.” But for all its rigor, the report wasn’t able to compete with widespread anti-refugee sentiment. It was released just after Italy’s municipal elections, where politicians from across the political spectrum glided into office by slamming refugees during their campaigns. Throughout the campaign, politicians dragged NGO workers in front of the Italian parliament to answer false allegations, all as they continued to approve new anti-refugee laws, build more detention facilities, and increase deportations.

The conspiracy theory’s penetration into mainstream Italian politics shows how successful subterfuge waged by an organized alt-right can be, in spite of Defend Europe’s comical blunders. The campaign to stop migrant boats and spread disinformation is the alt-right’s version of direct action, and it has received support online from racists worldwide including David Duke, the former "Grand Wizard" of the Klu Klux Klan, as well as celebrity racist and journalist Katie Hopkins.

Aggressive policies that normalize the brutalization of migrants are emboldening groups like Defend Europe. The fire-breathing of the latter reinforces the former, leading to a world with higher and thicker walls.

As of August 2017, Austria was threatening to send military troops to its borders to stop any flow of refugees from entering the country. Extremists in Hungary and Bulgaria were hunting for refugees in their national forests, and in Germany, considered one of the more "refugee-friendly" countries in the E.U., there were at least 3,700 recorded attacks on asylum seekers and refugees in 2016, a 200 percent increase of violence against refugees in the past year.
In Italy, however, the disposition against refugees has been particularly nasty, and has infected a large swath of the political spectrum.

Anti-refugee opportunists and politicians like Matteo Salvini, of the Far Right Lega Nord (Northern League), as well as "soft left" politician Marco Minniti of the PD (Democratic Party), helped spread false anti-refugee conspiracies. In a recent speech given at Genoa's Piazza De Ferrari, cofounder of Far Right political party Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) Giorgia Meloni stood before the crowd of hundreds and proclaimed: "We have to keep our culture alive! We can't become the only nation in the world to pay for its own invasion!" Such rhetoric echoes President Trump’s call to arms to “defend Western civilization” in Poland, as well as the coded warnings about “white genocide” that have spread from a niche slogan among hardcore white supremacists to mainstream politicians.

The rhetoric has altered Italy’s political landscape. During municipal elections in June, the unthinkable happened in Genoa. Historically considered the backbone of anti-fascism since it became the first and only city in Italy to free itself from fascist rule in 1945 without outside help, Genoa’s residents recently voted into power a right-wing coalition led by the Far Right Marco Bucci, a member of Lega Nord and now Genoa's mayor. Bucci based his campaign on "cleaning the streets of filth,” a thinly veiled threat to immigrants and the poor.

"The left here has been in a state of slumber, and now we're paying for it,” says Amalia Rossi, an anti-fascist activist based in Genoa. “It has only been a couple weeks since Bucci of Lega Nord became mayor of the city, and we (pro-refugee activists) are being flooded with calls from refugees who have been arrested, detained, harassed, and fined up to €100 for begging." A fine for begging is the standard anti-poor disposition of capitalist nations, but the tactic is more sinister than that: Refugees in the area typically do not have work visas, meaning it’s illegal for them to get a job. If they’re not begging, they’re pushed into the black market. That makes it all the more likely that refugees will pick up a record, which makes them candidates for deportation. The system works as intended.

In order to stop the flow of migration from southern to northern Europe, E.U. leaders enforce the Dublin Regulations, or "first entry" laws, which trap asylum seekers in the first European country they enter until their legal cases are complete. For the most part, this means asylum seekers have been stuck anywhere from six months to several years in Greece and Italy with little to no institutional support for housing or working. By holding asylum seekers in "first entry" countries, most of which already resentfully operate under the thumb of richer nations like Germany and France, northern European states provide scapegoats for fomenting fascism and racism in southern European states such as Italy and Greece. Defend Europe isn’t just a boat of racists trying to kill migrants at sea; as a propaganda project, it also acts as an accelerant for increasingly deadly policy.

Leftists haven’t been the only side to oppose Defend Europe. Local and international activists, along with some refugees, responded to the news of C-Star’s scheduled arrival at the Catania port on the coast of Sicily with a protest flotilla of small boats, rafts, and canoes carrying banners reading, “CLOSED FOR RACISTS” and “STOP THE ATTACK ON REFUGEES,” to "symbolically block" the port. While such symbolic actions can garner media attention, the broader panoply of anti-immigrant policies indicates Defend Europe’s cachet isn’t necessarily ebbing. The fact that it can successfully fundraise large amounts of money in a short time while also normalizing fascistic policy in mainstream discourse and law is a dangerous and urgent matter, especially because anti-fascists don’t enjoy the same access to state power as our enemies.

In May, the U.K.-based publication Searchlight, which gathers and analyzes intelligence on Far Right extremism, released a report titled “The growing Nazi axis,” a 200-page research dossier that sheds light on the growing "alt-right" white-supremacist phenomenon and the international far-right’s institutional power by revealing financial ties between high-level executives and aristocrats in Europe and fascist organizing. The report describes how organizations like the Traditional Britain Group (TBG), Génération Identitaire, and Nazi Forum groups are loosely coordinating their messaging through a National Socialist publishing group called Arktos Media, whose leadership is well-connected in the continent’s business world. "The extensive international connections of the alt-right and extreme right, reaching right up to the seat of power in both the USA and Russia,” the report concludes, “mean that the threat from the extreme right is now at its highest since 1945."

Without the access to state power and global institutions that the Far Right enjoys, Amalia Rossi, the anti-fascist in Genoa, believes the left and anti-fascist movement across Europe and globally are going to have to do more than fist fight. “It’s not just about meeting them with force,” she says. “We can definitely challenge them in the streets and beat them miserably, but then they have the police to protect them. As we all know of course, many of these fascists are connected to the Far Right parties so they also have the support and protection of the politicians. And with the right and even center-left repeating anti-refugee rhetoric to stir up hate and gain votes, the media is mostly repeating this garbage," Rossi says, adding that she believes it is similar for the U.S.

Beyond brawling with Nazis in the streets, research and exposure of the networks backing fash at sea and their ilk must continue being a critical component of anti-fascist struggle. The information revealed by such research—namely, the breadth of the Far Right’s reach—is dangerous, because the inescapable truth is that those of us who can must do more. As Europe becomes increasingly desperate to deal with the influx of refugees by disregarding and breaking international laws, a principled approach for anti-fascists would be to inflict consequences on those who have orchestrated and turned a blind eye to the deaths of the at least 2,400 people so far this year who have drowned trying to cross from Libya to Italy.