NICOSIA, Cyprus – The captain and crew of a ship chartered by an anti-immigrant group was ordered to leave Cyprus after being detained on suspicion of forging the documents of 20 Sri Lankans on board, a Turkish Cypriot aid group said Thursday .
The Defend Europe-chartered ship's captain and his crew were detained after they sailed into a port in Cyprus' breakaway north for refueling and some Sri Lankans on the boat reported they had paid a trafficker to take them to Italy, Refugee Rights Association advocate Faika Deniz Pasha said.
The Sri Lankans informed Turkish Cypriot authorities that the ship picked them up from the east African nation of Djibouti, Pasha told The Associated Press. The captain and eight crew members spent two days in detention before Turkish Cypriot authorities halted their probe and ordered them deported Thursday.
But Defend Europe spokeswoman Alessia Uanetto denied the boat was carrying immigrants trying to reach Italy illegally. She said the 20 were apprentice sailors who were bribed by non-governmental organizations at the airport in north Cyprus to claim they were asylum-seekers.
Uanetto told the AP that 15 of them refused the alleged bribes and boarded planes in north Cyprus to return home because their apprenticeships had ended. She refused to identify the nationalities of the 20, but said five individuals claimed they were refugees.
Pasha confirmed that five Sri Lankans remained in north Cyprus to file asylum claims.
Uanetto said that while Defend Europe had chartered the ship, the apprenticeships were unrelated to the vessel's mission of sailing the Mediterranean Sea to ensure that "corrupt" non-governmental organizations aren't colluding with human to ferry migrants to Europe illegally.
"We want to see if NGOs are collaborating with people traffickers," she said.
The Swiss owner of the ship C Star, who was aboard the vessel, was transferred to the ethnically split island's internationally recognized south, according to Pasha. The captain and crew were expected to depart from Famagusta, the port they had sailed into, she said.
On its Website, Defend Europe says that an "invasion" by people entering the continent illegally is "changing the face" of Europe, diminishing its safety while posing the risk that Europeans "will become a minority in our own European homelands."
The group says it will mount a search and rescue mission off Libya this month in order to "expose their (NGOs) collaboration" with human traffickers. It also says it would intervene if NGO's "do something illegal."