Desperate refugees and migrants making the treacherous and often deadly trip across the Mediterranean bound for Europe on flimsy rafts and boats this summer may face a new obstacle: the European alt-right.
A group of European 20-somethings who call themselves “Generation Identity” and work under the banner “Defend Europe” want to stop migrants from coming to Europe by intercepting the humanitarian ships working to rescue migrants in distress. Modeled after the actions leftist groups like Greenpeace have taken to obstruct whaling ships and nuclear submarines, this new form of anti-immigrant protest isn’t merely symbolic; it could have literal life-or-death consequences for people fleeing war zones, political chaos, and economic privation.
That’s because the “Defend Europe” Identitarians want to explicitly target humanitarian boats that race against time to save the lives of refugees.
This summer the United Nations has confirmed some 2,357 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean — a number that rises continually in warm months. In 2016, 5,000 died making the voyage. A recent Amnesty International report showed that 2017 is on track to be the worst year on record for migrant loss.
“We are blaming those NGOS for luring people into the sea,” Martin Sellner, a founder of the Austrian branch of the Identitarian movement, told me in a Skype interview. We spoke in early June when the group was first beginning to make international headlines. “We think those NGOs need to be stopped.” He and his colleagues believe the NGOs are, in essence, enabling the human traffickers by meeting the boats that capsize or break apart on the sea.
Sellner explained that the group wanted to hire a boat to trawl the coast of Italy, thwarting the NGO ships. This week they got a boat to begin their mission.
They promise to then pick up anyone in distress — a requirement of international maritime law — but say they will then bring them to the African coast rather than escorting them to Europe. It is “not likely at all that we could actually prevent someone from rescuing someone in distress from the sea,” he insisted to me.
Yet that’s exactly what those involved in rescuing migrants are concerned about.
“Saving people’s lives appears to be an afterthought to [their] primary goal of preventing people from entering Europe,” says Simon Murdoch, a researcher at the UK-based group HOPE Not Hate. “In fact, by delaying or impeding rescue missions, it seems far more likely that [they’re] putting more lives at risk on the high seas, particularly vulnerable women, children, and the elderly.”
In May, the group, whose members are known as “Identitarians,” held a trial sea protest, in a stunt used to gin up financial support for future forays. It worked. The group raised about $80,000 using crowdfunding, with the goal of hiring ships and crews to trawl the Mediterranean. But in mid-June, PayPal refunded the money after protests from the NGO community and others. The group created another video, and started fundraising again.
As of Sunday, they had raised more than $100,000. They now claim to have a ship ready to sail. As of their last Twitter post, the group was awaiting the ship in Sicily’s Catania harbor, ready to set out this week.
Identitarians use art and social media to protest Muslims and immigrants
Generation Identity is a pan-European, youth-based right-wing movement that has, until now, been largely known for massive anti-immigrant art exploits.
Caterina Froio, a political scientist at Oxford, says the Identitarians have long created media-friendly protests meant to shock — including a protest in 2010 where they attempted to serve wine and pork in a Parisian neighborhood filled with Muslim immigrants. “It was an indirect way for them to target the Muslim population of that neighborhood without violence being involved,” she explains.
More recently, they’ve pulled off stunts with high visual impact. In Austria they scaled the city’s famous Burgtheater and unfurled a banner that read, “Heuchler!” (“Hypocrite!” in German); disrupted a performance of a play about refugees, featuring refugee actors; and covered a statue of Maria Theresa, the former Austro-Hungarian empress, with a burqa.
In France, they took over a mosque in Poitiers, a city that was the setting of an eighth-century battle between Muslims and Christians, and demanded a referendum on immigration and the building of mosques.
Last summer, a German branch of the group protesting German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s asylum policies climbed the Brandenburg Gate and dropped a banner that read, "Secure Borders — Secure Future.”
And on June 17 in Berlin, hundreds of Identitarians marched against immigration. Austria’s Martin Sellner spoke at the event, leading a chant calling for “Motherland, Freedom, and Tradition.” In the street, demonstrators spoke of “defending our future” and protesting mass immigration — particularly Muslim immigration. (Hundreds of counter-demonstrators came out as well.)
Nearly every time they stage one of these events, the Identitarians also create multi-camera mini documentaries about their efforts. They fill these YouTube-friendly short films with pounding music and a sense of danger — plus a healthy dose of self-satisfied triumph.
But street protest and YouTube cinematography apparently only go so far, and the group now wants to try to physically impede rescue missions. The move is sending alarm bells ringing in NGOs and authorities in an array of European countries, who worry that might put lives at risk.
The group’s first water protest was on May 12, in Sicily’s Catania harbor. That night the ship Aquarius, helmed by the pan-European humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée and with a medical team from Doctors Without Borders on board, was setting out to sea, looking for refugees who have cast off from Africa in boats scarcely worthy of bathtubs.
As they set sail, they were briefly waylaid by a handful of activists aboard a tiny skiff who hoisted a yellow flag emblazoned with the Identitarians’ mark — the Greek letter Lambda, a symbol used by the ancient Spartan warriors who battled Persians in 480 BC — and then threw flares off the ship into the air and sea. The anti-immigrant activists chanted, “No more illegal immigration,” before being briefly detained by the Italian Coast Guard.
“Every day, every hour, ships packed with illegal immigrants are flooding the European border, an invasion is taking place,” one activist said in a video describing their Mediterranean aspirations that included footage of the trial run. They headlined the short film “Defend Europe.” “We are losing our safety, our way of life, and we will become a minority in our country!” said another man, staring deeply into the camera.
The video included a bank account number, and a means of wiring the group cash. Though it was later taken down by YouTube for violating its terms of service, it has since been reposted by supporters.
Identitarians have a very specific idea of who is European. Hint: not Muslims.
“The Identitarians are not a 'movement,' they are an extreme, radical and racist minority," German Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the German newspaper Tagesspiegel in mid-June.
But the group’s activists are actually very careful about how they describe their motivations.
Their videos are slick, packed with clean-cut, white Europeans speaking about preserving their homeland. They very consciously eschew violence. They claim to be protecting women, and the values of Europe, from assault at the hands of immigrants.
“We are not racist,” Sellner tells me earnestly.
“We believe all cultures and all people are equal, have a right to preserve and maintain their cultural identity. And by securing our borders ... we want to preserve the real cultural diversity of the world. Because when Europe becomes Islamized, in fact it is a loss of diversity and a loss of culture.”
He continues, “So we are not racists, those people who deny us a right for an identity are in fact the real racists. ”
(When Sellner is not helping plan anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant protests, he is also crowdfunding for an app he calls “Patriot Peer,” which he hopes will become akin to Tinder for finding like-minded “patriots.” The app uses Pepe the Frog, the favorite meme of the American alt-right, as an avatar.)
Froio, the political scientist, notes that Identitarians focus on cultural differences rather than biological ones. “Their idea is that different cultures are entitled to exist, but everyone in a different country,” she said.
The group is very clear about skirting the European taboo associated with (not to mention, in Austria and Germany, illegality of) Nazism and 1930s-style fascism and as a result has been careful not to fall into the racist linguistic traps of the past. “The Identitarians stay clear of neo-Nazi language and symbols,” says Bernhard Weidinger, a political scientist at the Documentation Center for Austrian Resistance.
“This is the central theme: neo-racism and cultural racism. They talk less about blood,” a theme of the 1930s, and more about “the culture of people,” says Judith Götz, a researcher with the blog Stoppt Die Rechten (“Stop the Right”).
Indeed, the group has a vocabulary tailored to their beliefs. They don’t use words like “deportation” — instead, they talk of “remigration.” Sellner told me, “We need to start a remigration of illegals and to fight radical Islam in Europe.”
He points to the Cologne sexual assaults, in which some 1,500 men — a group that included recent migrants and asylum applicants — sexually assaulted hundreds of women on New Year’s Eve 2016 in this West German city. Sellner believes closed-door migrant policies would have prevented the events of that night.
He opines that there have been “almost daily rapes and almost weekly terrorist strikes in Europe — those were the consequences of failed immigration and integration policy. They were the consequences of the policies of multiculturalism.”
But while the story of Cologne caused tremendous soul searching in Germany, less attention has been paid to attacks on refugees and asylum seekers in Germany.
The Funke Media Group in Germany reported earlier this year there were nearly 3,600 attacks on refugees in Germany alone in 2016, almost 10 per day, including against children. And on June 29, the New York Times reported on a “surge” in right-wing extremism and violence in Germany since the migrant crisis began.
But those kinds of numbers and stories don’t fit Sellner’s narrative. “The Muslim immigrants of today, who will not integrate or assimilate into society, could and will be the terrorists of tomorrow,” Sellner told me. “That's why we have to stop non-European Islamic immigration.”
Social media plays a crucial role in the Identitarian movement. On board the night of their trial run was Lauren Southern, an alt-right Canadian blogger. The stunt was filmed from several angles and was up on YouTube immediately. Even the mainstream media is seen as an equal-opportunity means of getting out their message. It makes writing about them all the more complicated.
Sellner now makes half of his video posts in English. He’s been interviewed by the BBC’s Newsnight, CNN, and Australia’s SBC. Southern herself has done a number of YouTube videos traveling to meet the Identitarians across Europe.
All this social media has an impact; its reach magnifies what is actually a very small group. Their numbers are not enormous — between 400 and 500 per country, with branches in Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and beyond. Some of the countries — Austria and France, for example — have far more visible movements than the others.
Weidinger at the Documentation Center for Austrian Resistance explains that most, if not all, of the group’s protests take place in such a way as to be easily, and immediately, disseminated online.
“I think the media has blown this phenomenon out of proportion,” he cautions.
That said, he says, “Something that is new is that they have a media policy which is, ‘We will talk to anyone, at any time. And we will show our faces and give them our names.’”
“They are basically far-right hipsters”
The group prides itself on its youth.
“No one is over 30,” Sellner tells me. They speak of their Facebook likes — in the tens of thousands — as though that calculates reach and impact, though it is not clear it does.
Each summer for the past six years or so, the group has hosted a training camp for like-minded Europeans in France.
In promotional videos, you see a few hundred fit men and women jogging through the forest and working on their pushups. They wear T-shirts with slogans like “Defend Europe.”
There are other such bucolic messages of European identity and camaraderie, and back-to-the-land bonhomie, coming out of the German Identitarian movement as well. Videos from the German wing of the movement show rolling fields and apple-cheeked adherents to the cause.
“We stand against the Great Replacement,” intones the voiceover in one German video. The phrase is a reference to the work of French philosopher Renaud Camus, who writes warning essays about how Europeans and European culture will be “replaced” by migrants (and Islam, more specifically).
“They are basically far-right hipsters,” says Weidinger.
The French arm of the group created a video a few years ago that explained what they see as a generational shift against multiculturalism, and called it “a declaration of war.”
“We are the generation of ethnic fracture, total failure of coexistence, and forced mixing of races,” says one serious-looking man into the camera, all grainy and textured in black and white, as orchestral strings swell behind him. Yet another 20-something guy says, “We reject your history books to regather our memories.”
Martin Sellner, too, feels Europeans have been made to feel guilty for too long for their recent history. “In Austria and in other Western countries we have been bad at dealing with their own past,” he says. “It turns into ideology of your own guilt. ... In every Western European country, what we get in school, we see movies of our own past only consists of feeling guilty. And I think that has been the roots and sources of the political disaster we face today.”
He adds, “We should be able to be proud of our heritage again.”
“What is alarming is the rhetoric they have of ‘last chance,’ as in, ‘We are the last generation that can prevent Europe from irreversible deterioration,’” says Weidinger, the Austrian researcher of the far right.
He also notes that many of the Identitarian sentiments and ideas on refugees and migrants have filtered into mainstream political culture. The current Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, for example, just this year floated the idea of enclaves for refugees to be created outside of Europe.
“Our approach must be to protect the external borders and to tell whoever tries to come to Europe illegally, ‘You won’t get through,’” Kurz said in an interview with Politico in December. And in a statement after a trip to Libya, he curtly stated, “A rescue in the Mediterranean should not be linked to a ticket to Central Europe.”
In early July, Italy tried to close off ports to those NGO ships that monitor the Libyan coast for rescues. 11,000 refugees had arrived in the space of days, and Italy said the numbers were too high. They later backed off.
But sentiments like these are ones with which the Identitarians would likely heartily agree.