CATANIA, Sicily - Protestors including African migrants symbolically blockaded Catania Port in Sicily this morning in protest at the imminent arrival of the ship chartered by the far-right group, Defend Europe.
A flotilla of kayaks, canoes, boats and dinghies adorned with banners proclaiming “CLOSED FOR RACISTS” and “STOP THE ATTACK ON REFUGEES” converged just off the Sicilian shoreline, hoping to pressure Italian authorities to block the vessel’s arrival.
Defend Europe’s ship, the C-Star, is currently just off the coast of Cyprus after being detained for the second time in its short mission.
A spokesman for the group told HuffPost UK today it is due to arrive in Catania in five days.
The symbolic blockade, a colourful and lively affair, was organised by global activist group, Avaaz and attracted around 150 activists.
The group’s Senior Campaigner, Luca Nicotra, told HuffPost UK from aboard a boat observing the flotilla: “We’re sending a signal to the Port Authority and the city that [Defend Europe] are not welcome.
“They also have a legal responsibility to stop this ship and stop them interfering with the work of NGOs who are saving lives at sea.”
Defend Europe are part of the young, media-savvy Identitarian movement which says it wants to preserve Europe’s identity and calls for an end to immigration and multiculturalism.
Rather than saving the lives of desperate migrants setting sail from war-torn Libya, the group sees NGOs as enabling people-traffickers by “acting as a taxi service”.
Through crowd-funding the group has raised £122,000 to charter the C-Star in order to “document and observe of the doings of those NGOs”.
Simon Wald, a spokesperson for Defend Europe, told HuffPost UK: “Of course by now there is no definite proof of direct collaboration between NGOs and people-traffickers and but this [mission] is deemed necessary because the business of human traffickers is based on the fact that they expect an NGO boat to be waiting for those migrants.
“This means when the human-traffickers are expecting the NGO boat to be there, even more migrants will come.”
While the group claims it will simply observe and, if necessary, come to the rescue of any vessel in distress including those carrying migrants, a number of individuals and groups have expressed concerns to HuffPost UK that they will endanger lives by trying to disrupt search and rescue missions.
These fears are not unfounded - a similar mission by another Identitarian group in May actively tried to sail a boat into the path of the same NGO rescue ship that is currently docked in Catania.
Lauren Southern, a Canadian Identitarian, says in video of the incident: “If the politicians won’t stop the boats, we’ll stop the boats.”
Ironically, the anti-people trafficking mission was itself accused of people-trafficking before being released.
Meanwhile NGOs and the Italian government are currently locked in negotiations over a new code of conduct for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
They argue this would breach their neutrality and place further stress on the rescued.
Other points of contention include a total ban on entering Libyan waters and transferring migrants from one rescue ship to another, something they say is necessary when operating at sea in vessels with limited capacity.
It is hoped an agreement can be reached and signed on Monday.