The international far right has been mobilising to oppose the UN compact on migration.
On 13 July 2018, following 18 months of consultation and negotiation, UN member states finalised the text of a comprehensive, non-binding migration pact which is due to be formally adopted on 10-11 December at a meeting in Marrakech, Morocco.
The pact builds on an initial agreement made in New York in 2015 during the rise in migrants and refugees entering Europe, and intends to address both the “risks and challenges for individuals and communities in countries of origin, transit and destination”.
Though some in the far right have drawn attention to the pact as far back as 2017, when the alt-right YouTube channel Red Ice TV published a video in July 2017, sustained campaigning only began in earnest in September this year. Mostly this has come from Europe, given the earlier withdrawal of nations elsewhere, including the US in December 2017.
However, this has not stopped attempts at international cooperation by the far right to affect the narrative around the pact, and the succession of nations withdrawing from the agreement has emboldened their efforts.
At the time of writing, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Dominican Republic, Italy, the Czech Republic, Austria, Israel, the USA and Australia have rejected the pact and elsewhere it has led to considerable political fractures, most notably in Belgium where disputes over the pact have threatened the stability of the country’s coalition government.
Misinformation and conspiracy
Since its finalisation, the pact has received varying attention, being a heated topic of discussion in Europe – though less so in the UK and US, where domestic events (such as Brexit) or early withdrawal have taken it out of the limelight.
It is also due to its non-binding nature, which means that in practice it can at most attempt to influence domestic migration policy and as such is limited in its predictable significance.
Nonetheless, the pact has sometimes suffered from inaccurate and often outright false spin when it has been reported. Confusion was always likely, not least given that there is a concurrent UN global compactspecifically regarding refugees being agreed upon, yet the far right have made efforts to actively misinform people about the migration pact.
As Colette Brown described in The Independent:
“Instead of a legally inert collection of vague principles on how best to deal with migration” the agreement has been “reimagined as imposing cast-iron commitments that would inexorably lead to [signatory] countries being overrun by migrants.”
As Brown highlighted, a false claim by Dutch MEP Marcel de Graaf that criticism of the pact could become a criminal offence, for example, was shared widely online and even picked up by the UK’s Daily Express newspaper.
Disinformation efforts regarding the pact have been no less prevalent amongst far-right activists, who have imbued it with an apocalyptic significance and, in part thanks to the lower media coverage in some nations, a predictably conspiratorial gloss.
Canadian white nationalist Faith Goldy, for example, told viewers of her YouTube channel that it was “The National Suicide Pact” and Rebel Media, the far-right Canadian media outlet, released a video towards the end of November purporting to reveal “What they won’t tell you about the UN Global Compact on Migration”.
Far right campaigns
The most sustained far-right disinformation campaign regarding the pact has come from the pan-European youth movement, Generation Identity (GI).
Martin Sellner, co-leader of the Austrian branch of GI and de facto spokesperson for the movement as a whole, launched a ‘Stop the Migration Pact’ campaign in September, aiming to put pressure on “right-wing populist parties to live up to the expectations of their voters”.
Speaking on his YouTube channel, Sellner said he aimed to create a “botnet” (i.e. a network of automated online accounts which can rapidly share something) of real-life activists, by encouraging viewers to create Telegram channels, WhatsApp Groups and email newsletters to pass on the videos he made about the pact, share posters aimed at discouraging specific politicians from signing it and encouraging viewers to contact their representatives.
The online element attracted some support, with a Discord group, now offline, of between 2,000-3,000 members and a Telegram channel of just over 7,700. However, as archival images from Die Welt indicate, the Discord group had a German-speaking focus, targeting Austrian, German and a Swiss-German audience and the aforementioned Telegram group was likewise in German (and is, at the time of writing, the largest of such groups campaigning against the pact).
While the focus of Sellner’s campaign was online (though he has claimed in a video released in mid-November to have got over 500,000 leaflets shared), the campaign has been taken up by GI branches elsewhere on the streets, including in Germany, where members demonstrated in, amongst other areas, the city of Cottbus.
Members also appeared at a demonstration against the pact held in Berlin and co-organised by the anti-Muslim street movement, Pegida, the anti-Angela Merkel demonstration group Merkel Muss weg Mittwoch (Merkel Must leave on Wednesday, a reference to their weekly demonstrations), and Zukunft Heimat, who are reported to have links to the German right-wing extremist scene. Speakers at the event included Lars Hunich and Karsten Hilse of the anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany party.
Elsewhere they had less success, for example in Denmark where GI attracted less attention with their actions and their accompanying petition, which received less than 5,000 signatures, and in the UK, where despite urging their supporters in their newsletter to join the campaign efforts, they were unable to replicate the interest amongst the Austrian and German GI supporters.
In Canada, where GI run under the name ‘ID Canada’, the movement was likewise quiet, even despite the aforementioned online activity (including too the Canadian alt-right vlogger Stefan Molyneux, whose “Terrible Truth About the UN Migration Compact” video has been viewed nearly 250,000 times).
However, they stated on their Facebook page on 5 December that “if” they were to attend a rally against the pact in Ottawa on 8 December, “it’s to support the message the rally is conveying – not to necessarily affiliate or endorse other groups present”. This is likely in recognition of the fact that, as the Canadian Anti-Hate Network have reported, the rally will include, amongst others, the neo-Nazi tied Northern Guard.
Overall, despite the presence of GI in some of the countries which have rejected the pact, their campaign has not had the impact that they may profess to have done. Not only does GI have a very low membership in some of these countries (for example, Poland), but more fundamentally anti-immigrant sentiment was prevalent prior to their campaign.
Efforts to retaliate against the pact and appeal to an existing hardline anti-immigrant attitude has been most notable in the actions of the New Flemish Alliance party. The largest in Belgium, the party launched an Islamophobic campaign against the pact that was pulled after widespread criticism.
Despite the efforts of the Flemish identitarian group, Schild & Vrienden, to campaign against the pact, the New Flemish Alliance appeared to be taking their lead from other European political parties rather than domestic protest groups. The images used in their Islamophobic campaign, albeit stock photos, appeared to have been directly inspired by the German far-right Alternative for Germany party’s respective campaign against the pact.
In the US, the pact has received less attention given Donald Trump’s decision to pull the country out in December 2017. Despite this, some American online commentators have continued to attempt to affect the narrative surrounding the pact, notably Martin Sellner’s fiancée, Californian alt-right vlogger Brittany Pettibone, who created a video in September to promote Sellner’s campaign.
In the UK, given the current turbulent Brexit process the pact has received far less attention. Aside from GI in the UK and other fringe actors including the anti-Muslim For Britain party and the UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson, who was interviewed by the aforementioned Rebel Media regarding the pact, the British far right has not mobilised against it until relatively recently.
A government website petition started by David Gunn, chairman of the Newton Abbott branch of UKIP, reached the minimum 100,000 signatures needed for the topic to be considered for a debate in Parliament and the message has been picked up by high-profile figures including the Nigel Farage and the anti-Muslim activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy Robinson. With Lennon’s planned ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march this Sunday in London, it is likely that the topic of the pact will come up, though this close to the signing, it will likely have little effect on the UK government’s position.
Given the succession of withdrawals from the agreement in recent months, it seems unlikely that the far right will plan anything substantial in the next week – there are no indications of demonstrations planned in Marrakech itself, nor planned campaigns following up on the pact more generally.
Yet, the pact has shown how the contemporary far right mobilise across borders around issues that they see as of common interest, combining online and offline tactics and reaching out to sympathisers around the globe to spread disinformation that suits their narrative.
They have in a large way got what they desired, yet their role in building pressure on the governments concerned should not be overestimated. The far right campaigns around this issue are better understood as an attempt to exploit existing societal concerns around the issue of migration rather than the key driver of governments decisions to pull out of the Compact.
That said, the fact that tens of thousands of people around the world have been mobilised by the far right around this issue is a worrying sign of what’s to come.