Dueling NGOs on the Seas: ‘What Ships Are For’

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Today’s ideological battles are not simply confined to land or cyberspace. Nor is conflict at sea reserved for state-sponsored navies. The high seas are increasingly a battlespace for non-government organizations (NGOs). Although organizations such as Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been conducting maritime operations in support of their environmental missions for four decades, in recent years other maritime NGOs have emerged for a variety of causes.

The recent wave of migration from Africa and the Middle East into Europe – often by boat – has encouraged both state and non-state navies to begin rescue and interdiction operations in the Mediterranean. The thousands of people fleeing growing instability in North Africa and the Near East have set the stage for competing political positions.

Search-and-rescue organizations seeking to help migrants have found themselves in conflict not with the government, but with a competing NGO, Defend Europe. The dispute highlights that future maritime battles may not be restricted to governments or to militant groups on the seas, especially as government resources shrink and NGOs see increasing political incentives to enter this space.

An NGO Battle in the Mediterranean

Whether it is considered legitimate, illicit, or irregular migration, the numbers are staggering. One former U.K. official said earlier this year that as many one million African migrants may be heading to Libya, with Europe as their eventual destination. As many as 30 million Africans may migrate to Europe in the next decade.

The first of the new maritime NGOs were focused on rescuing migrants amid the highly publicized loss of life as boats failed to make it to southern Europe. Search-and-rescue NGOs such as Migrant Officer Aid Station, Jugend Rettet and others have been chartering or otherwise operating ships to enable these rescues. Meanwhile, a counter-movement emerged under the name Defend Europe that is attempting to preserve what the group views as European identity by stopping migrants from reaching the shore. Defend Europe – apparently composed of European Identitarians in their twenties – recently chartered a ship, the Djibouti-flagged Suunta, and renamed it the C-Star under a new Mongolian registry. The NGO intended to send the ship to Sicily and conduct interdiction operations from there. The ship was delayed as it transited the Suez Canal because of “the lack of documentation and papers” and again when it reached Cyprus, where its captain was briefly detained. The ship again got underway and could reach Sicily mid-week. (Defend Europe did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, except for one brief acknowledgment.)

What Are the Roles of Government and of NGOs?

The competing groups in the Mediterranean are both responding to a perception that the government has failed in its duties. For the search-and-rescue NGOs, the role of government (or collective of governments under the auspices of the European Union) is to provide humanitarian assistance for refugees. In the view of Defend Europe, the role of government is maintaining the security of state borders and preventing illicit trafficking. Both sides see the government as having failed in its role, necessitating individual action.

Governments have focused more on smuggling and human trafficking than on rescues at sea. For example, the European Union’s Operation Sophia has addressed migrant smuggling and trafficking since 2015. Since irregular migration has increased nearly 20 percent in each of the past two years, the effort has been criticized as “a failed mission,” despite the fact that 110 suspected smugglers and traffickers have been transferred to Italian authorities.

The perceived or real failure of the state to address an issue often gives rise to organizations or individuals attempting to fill a gap or vacuum. In a free market economy, this is an opportunity for private businesses to provide a product or service. The same rings true with non-profits or volunteer groups. Opportunities arise in the maritime environment because of the difficulty of enforcing actions in largely unpatrolled international waters. With the failed nation-state of Somalia unable to field an effective coast guard, pirates emerged to take advantages of the lawlessness. With the inability of the global community to effectively address this maritime crime, private maritime security companies emerged to provide the armed security on ships that played a major role in deterring modern pirates. As illegal or overfishing has affected fish stocks, organizations such as Sea Shepherd Conservation purchased and later built ships to patrol regions, and in one case chased an illegal trawler for 10,000 nautical miles and worked with authorities to hold it accountable.

Both Defend Europe and the search-and-rescue NGOs have taken action, to various degrees, to assume the deficiencies of their or other governments. Given reductions in investments in navies, coast guard platforms, and other maritime constabulary functions in the Western Hemisphere, we can expect to see an increase in maritime NGOs in the 21st century conducting a variety of missions. In the case of Mediterranean migration, at least fifteen converted yachts, tugs, and rescue vessels, manned and unmanned aircraft, and hundreds of paid crew and volunteers have participated in search-and-rescue operations since 2014.

21st Century NGO Warfare

Kinetic force – like collisions at sea — may no longer be the most effective method in inter-NGO warfare. Disrupting funding, removing credentials, and using lawfare may help an NGO win battles before it even puts to sea. On May 31, 2010, the first “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” was boarded by Israeli forces, resulting in the deaths of ten activists. Pro-Palestine groups claimed the flotilla was on a humanitarian mission, while Israel argued the ships may have been transporting arms. A second flotilla failed to get underway in July 2011 because the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center targeted insurers and Inmarsat for potentially aiding and abetting terrorist activity.

Similarly, Defend Europe claims the search-and-rescue NGOs convinced the online donation platform Paypal to freeze Defend Europe’s account. Reached for comment, Paypal stated its “policy is to prevent our services being used by companies whose activities promote hatred, violence or racial intolerance. We base our reviews of accounts on these parameters, taking action when we deem that individuals or organizations have violated this policy.” (Asked specifically about Defend Europe, Paypal responded that it cannot comment on the details of any specific account.) Another recent example occurred when HopeNotHate lobbied the crowdfunding platform Patreon to terminate the account of a Canadian journalist who supports Defend Europe and called for newspapers to ban another columnist in the United Kingdom.

New York Times reporter Ian Urbina summarized some of what occurs in the maritime environment as “the Outlaw Ocean.” Part of this has to do with unregulated shipping, especially a ship’s registration and flags of convenience. “If you respect the rule of law,” Human Rights at Sea CEO David Hammond argues, “you respect the flag state and the state of jurisdiction.” Local media in Cyprus reported that the Defend Europe ship was detained for forging false documents. Another source stated that Sri Lankan “‘apprentice sailors’ told authorities when they disembarked that they had been trainees aboard the ship, but at the airport some of them changed their story, claiming instead that they had paid to be smuggled to Italy.” A statement by Defend Europe refutes this account, saying the multi-national crew was offered asylum for money.

This, then, may be the new model. Just as cyber-attacks may replace or augment conventional forces in some military actions, states and NGOs may find it is most effective to threaten actions against private firms that directly enable the opposing NGO, or to engage in other types of lawfare. An NGO could have the most impressive ship, but without the ability to fund it, fuel it, feed its crew, or obtain the technologies needed to navigate or communicate, it will not achieve whatever objective it had. Logistics matter. 

Gray Zones

The situation in the Mediterranean — as with most issues at sea where accurate information is scarce — remains muddled. While each side of the migration issue claims the moral high ground — whether through securing national borders or saving lives at sea — both have been criticized. In the case of the search-and-rescue NGOs, a prosecutor in Sicily claims some of the groups are colluding with human traffickers, although he provided no direct evidence. Others claim that some Africans are paying 1,500 Euros for passage with some NGOs. Nevertheless, weapons and human trafficking do exist in the Mediterranean and a mass migration of boats may provide an opportunity for smugglers to hide in plain sight near legitimate refugee boats.

There is also a nexus with private maritime security companies, which often operate in the ocean’s gray zones of sovereignty. Defend Europe’s ship is a former Red Sea floating armory – one of about three dozen that operated in the greater Indian Ocean during the height of Somali piracy. Hope Not Hate has suggested that an armed private security team may be aboard the C-Star. While possible, it is unlikely given the nature of private maritime security companies, which primarily operate off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere – far from the cameras and media attention they would likely encounter in the central Mediterranean. In addition, armed teams – even those on the lower end – could be cost-restrictive to a nascent NGO trying to keep a ship operational.


One the one side are the search-and-rescue NGOs who are well-organized, well-funded, able to communicate with one another, and extremely adept at conveying their mission and message. In fact, as Hammond notes, “the NGOs can determine the true narrative, and do so in an objective and responsible way.” Like grassroots politics, the organizations have a ground game (or in this case, sea game) for coordinating a variety of groups to fund, staff, and employ ships to carry out their mission. In addition, they have successfully countered some of the opposition’s funding methods. The search-and-rescue NGOs, like other maritime organizations, fund their operations from a variety of sources including individual crowd-funded donors, corporate donations, affiliate purchase programs, and celebrity music royalties.

Defend Europe, thus far, has proven less effective. As of July 29, it had raised $163,000 from more than 2,000 individual donors. But it will need far more than that since the cost for fuel and labor on a ship the size of C-Star can run from USD $3,000-10,000 a day, including other fees. Depending on the number of paid crew, C-Star may only have enough funding for less than two weeks. A full seasonal campaign for a maritime NGO can run into the millions. In addition, with only one ship, Defend Europe may be sailing into the wind against an armada.

If Defend Europe is to be effective in accomplishing its stated goals, it will need more than one ship, more people, and better fundraising and communications efforts. But the same could be said of any start-up business or NGO. It will either evolve into a larger, better organization or it will go the way of many start-ups and die. The ship is still en route to the central Mediterranean and how it conducts itself will determine the group’s future. In addition, if any future terror attacks in Europe are carried out by refugees who crossed the Mediterranean, then Defend Europe could enlist wider support, especially financially.

The number of individuals and groups dissatisfied with government policies who use the ocean to take direct action will increase in the coming decades. If an organization can find a unifying, popular message, it can find support across state borders, crowd-fund, and attract the attention of the media especially when a ship puts to sea. That is “what ships are for.” As the founder of Women on Waves told one of us in 2010, “The ship is a visual…with the ship we are making the problem that exists visible.”

Claude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy and is an officer in the Navy Reserve. He has published three non-fiction books and two novels. Follow him on Twitter @cgberube. Chris Rawley is a Navy Reserve surface warfare officer and entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter @navaldronesRawley and Berube frequently write and speak on maritime organizations. The views expressed are theirs alone and not of any organization with which they are affiliated.


Image: Defend Europe