The current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean region has drawn out a new kind of Europe. After five years of swiftly escalating immigration to Europe – mostly Germany, Italy, France and Greece – the continent has responded both with welcome and intense hostility.
In the most recent migration-related fiasco, the NGO search-and-rescue ship Aquarius was denied the right to dock at Italian ports while carrying over 600 migrants who had been rescued at sea between Libya and Italy. The rejection was issued by Italy’s new interior minister, the right-wing hardliner Matteo Salvini, who champions an “Italians First” motto and once called for a “mass ethnic cleansing” of Italy. Italy, he cried, “cannot be Europe’s refugee camp.”
In response, the new socialist Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, allowed the Aquarius to dock in Valencia, citing human empathy and obligation to international law. A few days later, after some issues, it did. France, for its part, denounced Italy’s coldness but rebuffed the government of French Corsica for offering its ports. The island nation of Malta also denied the ship entry.
In response to this incident, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. Secretary General, lamented that the “space for refugee protection in Europe might be shrinking.” Observing the rise of European populist politics, one might agree. Salvini’s rhetoric echoes that of Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, both of who vilify immigrants and refugees – particularly Muslims – as the source of their country’s problems.
Hungary agreed, at least enough to re-elect its virulently anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has called immigration a “Trojan Horse for terrorism.” Hungary recently passed legislation that criminalizes giving aid to asylum seekers. Slovenia, Poland and Austria have also seen their far-right parties gain power.
People seeking asylum or better lives in Europe have become unwanted data points in political transactions or helpful targets towards whom populist leaders direct people’s fears.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the thousands of volunteers working on search-and-rescue ships and in refugee camps around the Mediterranean, from Spain to Syria. Volunteers are coming from around the world to better the current realities of people stuck in refugee camps and to better their futures beyond the camps. But in a refugee camp in Lebanon, there is one group that is trying to keep refugees there.
As European nations lean to the right and close their borders, AHA! (Alternative Help Association), a white nationalist, anti-immigration organization from Germany, has taken it upon itself to enforce the border overseas. Founded in 2017, the group – seemingly just a handful of people at this point – has set up in Lebanon with a stated intent to “help people to help themselves locally, so that they see a future at home.” In other words, to provide enough comfort in the refugee camps – where they have unwillingly made temporary homes – to discourage them from seeking asylum in Germany. It is refugee aid for the sake of keeping the refugees away.
In a promotional video, two young German men in AHA! t-shirts walk through a Lebanese refugee camp with a few residents as emotional music plays. Later, they explain to the camera that it would be better for these people, who fled war and poverty, to stay there and build lives for themselves within the camps, rather than come to Europe.
Their project emerges out of the same rhetoric that feeds anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and European identitarian groups gaining ground in Europe. They seek cultural homogeneity, or in other words, a “preserved” ethno-cultural identity in Germany and other European countries.
Races, ethnicities and religions, they believe, should be kept separate and “where they belong.” White Christian Germans in Germany, Syrian Muslims somewhere in the Middle East. (Both Lebanon and Syria have significant Christian populations and ethnic diversity.) Echoing the rhetoric of the American government, exclusionary efforts based on race, religion and nationality are framed as being for security and defense of a homeland.
The AHA! project was born out of Identitäre Bewegung, a hostile German identitarian organization, which last year crowdfunded nearly $75,000 to interfere with search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean. They operate in direct antipathy to Angela Merkel’s open border policy. In April of this year, Austrian authorities placed financial sanctions on Identitäre Bewegung, under accusations of incitement of violence and criminal activity.
AHA! is more careful with their image. They frame the work as the same kind of charitable goodwill as any refugee aid NGO. Their website uses the kind of emotionally touching personal refugee stories that is common amongst fund-seeking aid organizations. Pictures of smiling Syrian children with one AHA! representative, Nils Altmieks, adorn their Facebook page. They write that AHA!’s project is rooted in the culture of the “natives” and avoids imposing western thought, thus “preserving the identity of the people in need.” It’s anti-immigration, identitarian ideology dressed up as cultural sensitivity.
To further deflect critique, AHA! and Identitäre Bewegung have rebranded their rhetoric from “Migrants Out” to “#DefendEurope” and even “Reconquista.” The latter references the Catholic expulsion of Muslim rulers from the Iberian Peninsula in the late Middle Ages.
Responses to the group on Facebook have ranged from excited support to blunt statements of comparison to Nazis. One, written in Arabic, reads simply, “This is a racist and fascist organization.” AHA! uses Facebook to aggressively deny accusations of fascism, calling themselves “identitarian visionaries.” “Left is wrong and right is right,” they write, accusing their accusers of inaction and myopia. Facebook’s suggested “related pages” include a right-wing, white nationalist book publisher and a German identitarian group that organizes book discussions and martial arts workshops.
Funded by private donations from within and beyond Identitäre Bewegung’s network, AHA!’s current efforts appear to be limited to paying campsite rental fees for several families living in the refugee camp ($50 per month). They hope to help finance a teacher for the refugee camp and set up a volunteer program for like-minded Germans to stay with refugee families, help in an undefined way and get to know Syria (“Not for nothing,” they say, “was Syria a popular tourist destination before the war.”) In an interview, AHA!’s Nils Altmieks (who is also active in Identitäre Bewegung), declined to discuss further projects out of concern for leftist disruption.
AHA! accuses all other refugee aid NGOs of fighting only symptoms of the refugee crisis. The German government, they say, is wasting billions of dollars every year on integration of immigrants into German society. In their view, Germany should not spend money to help children adapt to German schools or on providing food support for families. Rather, it should help refugee families settle where they are. They trumpet the idea of “international development projects in crisis countries,” giving “financial and conceptual” support, with the goal of offering “people a future in their home country.”
The Syrians and Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon are not in their home countries. Nor are they there, nor in Germany, because they want to be. A brutal civil war has displaced five million Syrians outside of their home country. Nearly 1.5 million of these refugees are in Lebanon, a country of six million. Altmieks himself acknowledges that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are also facing tension and enmity from the Lebanese.
“The displacement from the Syrian war is a massive global challenge – and tragedy,” said Catherine Woollard, secretary-general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “It requires refugees to be hosted in the region and in Europe.”
AHA! does not want to permanently establish themselves in Lebanon, but rather, to help “people on the ground and give them perspective.” Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that rent money and a reminder that Germany is not a utopia will resolve the Syrian Civil War and bring stability to Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan (the largest groups of asylum-seekers in Germany).
Focusing on changing refugees’ perceptions suggests that they are responsible for their situation, rather than the panoply of warring factions in Syria. AHA! writes that they “respect the incumbent government and President [Bashar al-Assad] of Syria – do not judge us in this regard.”
AHA’s work is intended to keep people in need at bay, like Italy’s blockade of would-be migrants in Libya or Denmark’s chillingly actuarial pledge to fund contraception in developing countries to “limit migration pressure.” AHA’s project amounts to border enforcement, extending the German border to Lebanon and using money and persuasion to stop migration, rather than walls. Although they write that they are “free of denominational or political aspirations,” their intent and the identitarian ideology behind it are clear.