Beirut, Lebanon – The video shows a toddler walking by a tent in one of Lebanon’s refugee camps near the Syrian border. The laundry sways on a clothesline to the child’s right. In the next scene, Arab boys play football on rough soil. The snow-topped hills of the Bekaa valley fill the background.
“War, natural disasters, poverty and violence. There are many reasons why people flee their homeland,” a young white man in a grey t-shirt says to camera, standing in front of a camp.
He speaks with calm compassion. A typical promotional video of a humanitarian NGO, one may think.
But later in the video, displaced people are discouraged from travelling to Europe and the clip ends with one of the white NGO workers walking into the distance with a rucksack on his back, somewhere in nature.
This organisation is the only one of its kind in the Middle East that provides assistance to refugees to keep them out of Europe.
In May, it took on its first trip to Lebanon to connect with local partners.
Alternative Help Association, or AHA!, was founded in the summer of 2017 by the German Identitare Bewegung (German Identity Movement) – a local branch of the far-right identitarian movement.
It is now not to keep people out by letting them drown, but keep people out by helping them in their home countries.
Under the slogan of “Homeland – Freedom – Tradition”, identitarians have sought to halt mass migration to Europe, secure national borders and preserve Europe’s ethnocultural identity.
“Mass emigration kills Africa and the Middle East – mass immigration kills Europe,” wrote Identitare Bewegung spokesman Sebastian Zeilinger in an email to Al Jazeera. “AHA! is the logical and consequent realisation of our identitarian demand from the first day on to combine a stricter migration policy with local help”.
But AHA! – funded by direct donations from the movement’s supporters – is not the first initiative of the identitarian movement. In the summer of 2017, through a crowdfunding campaign, the group raised £56,489 for the “Defend Europe” action to disrupt charity vessels rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean.
“The idea behind AHA! is the same as the ‘Defend Europe’ boat campaign, but with a slightly nicer packaging”, says Simone Rafael from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a German NGO working to eliminate right-wing extremism. “It is now not to keep people out by letting them drown, but keep people out by helping them in their home countries”.
According to Rafael, racism is the underlying reason behind the initiative, in line with the identitarian principle of “ethnopluralism”, which assumes that each group has a place on earth where it belongs and racial mixing should be avoided.
The difference lies in details, however. With its new snazzy image and communication techniques, identitarians have managed to position themselves as a hip youth movement, the voice of resistance to Angela Merkel’s refugee policy and the ultimate alt-right of Europe.
As the German weekly ZEIT ONLINE wrote, they want to be “a new Greenpeace, just for patriots” – a common euphemism for members of the far-right.
It is dangerous to have inexperienced, extremist groups launching initiatives focusing on refugees. Humanitarian assistance is not a game nor is it something that should be done as a publicity stunt.
With AHA!’s project of a $50 monthly stipend for families in need and financial support for teachers working with refugee children, it says it seeks to give a new “patriotic” face to humanitarian aid.
“Our goal is, to help people to help themselves locally, so that they see a future at home,” Zeilinger wrote. “In times when the ‘left’ does not have any answers to the world crisis, we thought it was time to start to bring our vision to life.”
In Syria, they are planning further initiatives, including a volunteer programme to introduce European “patriots” to the cultures of the Middle East.
“It is dangerous to have inexperienced, extremist groups launching initiatives focusing on refugees. Humanitarian assistance is not a game nor is it something that should be done as a publicity stunt,” Catherine Woollard, secretary-general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles told Al Jazeera.
“People move if they and their families are not safe. They move to unite with family members. They move where there are prospects for work … The displacement from the Syrian war is a massive global challenge – and tragedy. It requires refugees to be hosted in the region and in Europe.”
In August 2016, some Identitare Bewegung members climbed the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and unfolded a banner saying: “Secure borders – Secure future”. In December 2017, they erected a memorial to the victims of mass violence composed of the safety barriers used to prevent truck ramming attacks, chided as “Merkel-Legos” by the far-right.
All these actions have been recorded and spread on social media with the hashtags #DefendEurope and #Reconquista. The old far-right “migrants out!” is no longer in use.
“They use new codes for old ideas”, Rafael comments. “Speaking of ‘homeland’ and ‘identity’, they mean racist exclusion”.
New language has not had an effect on the group’s reputation, however.
In April 2018, Austria froze the accounts of Identitare Bewegung’s national branch on suspicion of incitement and criminal activity. This has led some to suggest that the new humanitarian initiative might not only aim to promote a good image of the group and keep migrants out, but also repair the group’s finances. So far there is no evidence to support this claim.
“We are very much aware, that this project will cause irritation both on the ‘left’ and ‘right’,” Zeilinger wrote in an email. “Be assured: We are here to stay.”