Migrant crisis: ‘We’re not neo-Nazis any more’, say Defend Europe activists

London: A group of far-right activists soon to set sail on the Mediterranean to “turn back the boats” say they shouldn’t be judged on youthful links to extremist and neo-Nazi groups, because they’ve grown out of it.

Next week the activists begin a ten-day sea mission they have dubbed Defend Europe, which they hope will expose humanitarian groups acting as a ‘taxi service’ helping people smugglers transport migrants north from Africa.

And they told Fairfax Media they intend to return rescued migrants back to Africa – even Libya, which “can’t be that bad” a place, a spokesman for the group said.

Robert Timm is a 26-year-old Berlin architecture student and an activist with Germany’s “identitarians”, who joined similar groups in France, Austria and Italy to set up the Defend Europe mission.He spoke with Fairfax Media on Thursday from Catania in Sicily, where he and his colleagues are waiting for their boat to arrive from Djibouti.

On Thursday the boat, named the C-Star, was seized by security authorities in the Suez Canal because of “a matter of security due to the lack of documentation and papers”, Huffington Post reported.

However Defend Europe posted on its Facebook page that “after a false claim by a leftist organisation our ship was controlled and as nothing was found, our mission to defend Europe goes on,” they said. “We need to implement an Australian ‘No Way’ Policy to save Europe and to save lives.”

The boat would arrive in Catania within days and would set off for its first ten-day mission early next week.

The crew of about 10 would take videos and photographs of NGO and migrant boats, Timm said.

About a dozen boats crewed by humanitarian groups are currently working in the areato help with rescues.

Around 85,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat in the first six months of 2017, 21 per cent more than in the same period in 2016.

More than 2200 people have died attempting the crossing this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Rescues are happening much closer to Libyan waters, prompting accusations the NGOs are encouraging people smugglers.

“Our first objective is to just look how the other NGOs are working, if [there are] signs that they are actually cooperating with the human traffickers,” Timm said.

They will track NGO boats using radar, to check if they stray into Libyan waters, and monitor radio channels to see if they were communicating with people smugglers.

“This is something we want to see and document,” Timm said. “The more evidence we collect the better.”

NGOs may also be picking migrants up from boats that were intact and not in danger, he said.

“There are rumours that the traffickers themselves are still on the boat, then the people are brought to an NGO ship then the guy brings the ship back [to Libya].”

He said the mission was “already a success” because of new scrutiny of the actions of humanitarian NGOs. If somebody genuinely needed rescuing during their mission Defend Europe would come to their aid, Timm said.

“But we will make sure that we are not making ourselves also responsible for bringing migrants to Europe. If we have to take people on board we will make sure they go back somewhere to Tunisia or somewhere else close by.”

Timm denied that the human rights principle of non-refoulement required them to take rescued migrants to the safety of an Italian port.

Tunisia was safe enough to take rescued migrants as a first choice. If Tunisia rejected them then Libya was an option, he said.

“Libya is definitely not a cosy place, but … they took the risk of being in Libya in the first place so it can’t be that bad actually,” Timm said. “If your life is really in danger you don’t really complain that you are being brought back to Africa, you should be happy that you are still alive.”

He suggested Defend Europe may join in rescues with other NGOs and offer to take the migrants back to Africa.

“That tells a lot about the actual motives they have” if they refuse the Defend Europe option, Timm said.

If their mission is successful they will try to repeat it.

In Germany the identitarians are registered as “a kind of club” but they were trying to become a professional NGO, Timm said.

He said they admired Australia for “dealing pretty well” with migrants arriving by boat.

“This is something we should establish in Europe as well,” he said.

Nick Lowles, director of the anti-extremist Hope Not Hate group, said Defend Europe were “anything but cuddly”.

He wrote for the Huffington Post on Thursday that “they hold deeply anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views and, in many cases, have links to notorious far-right groups as well as being actively supported by white supremacists worldwide”.

But Timm said his colleagues were not racist.

“Europe is pretty small and we are very few people and if we now take in a certain amount of migrants and we become a minority within our own territory then our culture will vanish and that is something we just want to prevent,” he said.

He said there was “nobody that is actively a neo-Nazi” in the group.

“There are people that have a right-wing past” but “they usually were at the age of 14 to 18”, he said.

Timm used to be “very radical left”, he said. “Nobody is judging me for my past but they are judging these people and I think this is kind of insane.

“When you grow older and you start reflecting on your past you will figure out that radicalism is not the way it works.”

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