By Michael Birnbaum
A group of anti-migrant activists chartered a ship to help turn people back to northern Africa. This week, part of its own crew claimed asylum along the way.
The Wednesday asylum claim in Cyprus' breakaway north by five Sri Lankans who were on the ship was a setback for the activists, members of the far-right Generation Identity movement, who hired the Djibouti-flagged C-Star to take them off the coast of Libya to try to disrupt the flow of migrants. More than 94,000 people have come to Italy in 2017 by setting sail from Libya in rickety dinghies and small boats, then getting picked up by naval vessels and ships run by charities.
The flow has enraged anti-immigrant activists and increasingly many ordinary Italians, who say that the aid organisations are playing into smugglers' hands by functioning as a crucial link in the transport process to Italy. The Italian government has put new pressure on the aid groups and is seeking to send more migrants back to Libya. Critics say that is a violation of international law, because migrants face abuse, exploitation and war once back on Libyan shores.
The ship has been making its way to Sicily to pick up the activists, who are waiting in the port city of Catania as part of an operation they call "Defend Europe."
But when the ship docked in north Cyprus on the way to Italy, 20 Sri Lankan men hopped out, and five of them claimed asylum, according to the activists. The activists said the men were "apprentice sailors" who were always planning to return home.
But a northern Cypriot asylum advocate who is assisting the men quoted them as saying that they had actually paid to be smuggled into Europe.
"They called us saying their documents were fake, they're not really sailors, and they paid smugglers in Sri Lanka something more than $10,000 to be taken to Italy," said Faika Deniz Pasha, an associate at the Refugee Rights Organisation. "And they flew from Sri Lanka to Djibouti to join this ship."
The claim led northern Cypriot authorities to detain the rest of the crew on Wednesday to investigate whether they had forged parts of the ship's manifest, then deport them Thursday, Pasha said. Northern Cypriot police did not respond to a request for comment. They have not gotten very far in the investigation, probably because document verification is difficult given that the breakaway northern part of Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey and does not have diplomatic relations with other nations.
The anti-immigrant activists disputed that the Sri Lankans were trying to be smuggled into Europe and said the five asylum seekers had been bribed by the refugee organisation into filing a claim.
On board, "there were also 20 apprentice sailors," the activists said in a statement. "They pay to make miles on this ship in order to validate their diplomas.
"As the apprentices were about to return to their country of origin, NGOs offered them to stay in Europe and apply for asylum, in exchange for promises and money," the activists said. They said the 20 men had already tried to disembark in Egypt but were unable to do so. They offered no explanation why.
Pasha laughed at the accusation that her organisation was bribing the asylum seekers to stay.
"Any sensible person would know that we really don't have much money to bribe people," she said, noting that as a human rights organisation in a small enclave recognised only by Turkey, it doesn't have much spare cash.
The Generation Identity movement is a collection of pan-European anti-immigration youth groups that say they want to defend their European identities against migration from outside Europe's borders. They have been joined by a handful of anti-immigrant youth activists from the United States.