CATANIA - Sicily: The crew of a boat chartered by a far-right group to monitor people-trafficking in the Mediterranean has been arrested - for people-trafficking.
The C-Star, hired by the ‘identitarian’ group, Defend Europe, was stopped yesterday in the port of Famagusta, Cyprus, after at least 20 Sri Lankan nationals were found on board.
Today the ship’s crew and owner, Sven Tomas Egerstrom, appeared in court charged with preparing and circulating false documents.
The Kibris Postasi reports the crew was released on Thursday afternoon.
Speaking to the Guardian, local human rights activist, Faika Pasa, said: “Some said they had paid €10,000 to smuggling rings to get on the ship and be taken to Italy.
“Five have since requested asylum. The other fifteen have now flown back to Sri Lanka.”
Defend Europe refused to elaborate on the developments when questioned by HuffPost UK and instead referred back to a statement issued on Wednesday which accuses NGOs of “bribing” the crew with offers of asylum.
The group insists the Sri Lankans in question were “apprentice sailors undergoing training” to further their maritime diplomas, something it said is a “perfectly trite and legal practice”.
This defence was echoed in court today by the C-Star’s Captain and owner who said the Sri Lankans were “mariners apprentices who paid to do miles on the ship in order to validate their diploma. A common and completely legal practice”.
Satellite-tracking shows the vessel currently moored in Famagusta on the east coast of the Mediterranean island where it has been “awaiting instructions” for the last few days.
Defend Europe has accused reports of its detention in Cyprus of being “fake news”.
One of the group’s leaders, Martin Sellner, tweeted a Cypriot report which seemed to counter the news coming out of Famagusta.
Defend Europe has accused charities such as Save the Children of effectively acting as human traffickers by rescuing migrants from peril. It chartered the C-Star to “document the doings of the NGOs, expose their collaboration with the human smugglers, and intervene if they do something illegal”.
The C-Star’s intended destination is the port of Catania, Sicily, where many of the NGOs operate from under the guidance of the Italian Coastguard.
But a sustained campaign by anti-extremism group Hope Not Hate and increased media attention has meant every move by Defend Europe has been scrutinised.
The mission got off to a rocky start last week when the C-Star was briefly detained near to the Suez Canal.
Defend Europe’s trip is being financed by a crowdfunding campaign which raised £118,000.
Save the Children which operates one of the boats rescuing people in the Mediterranean has denied the claims made by such groups.
A spokesperson told HuffPost UK:
“Activities of far-right groups planning to disrupt search and rescue operations aimed at saving lives are deeply concerning.
“They ignore the moral and legal obligation to save lives at sea. Without NGOs and other search and rescue actors, many more lives, like the men, women and children we have rescued, would be lost. These activists wish to disrupt efforts to bring these people to safety.
“2016 was the deadliest year on record in the Mediterranean with more than 5,000 deaths at sea, and 2017 could be worse still. As things stand, the Mediterranean Sea is one of the largest unmarked mass graves in recent times. As a humanitarian organisation, our mission is to save lives and we go where children face the greatest risks.
“During 2016 Save the Children assisted in the rescue of 2,700 refugees and migrants. So far this year the total stands at almost 4,000, including more than 625 children.”