Italian authorities detain Banksy-funded migrant rescue boat

Italian authorities have detained a migrant rescue boat financed by the British street artist Banksy after it responded to a distress call in the central Mediterranean.

The vessel, painted in bright pink and named Louise Michel after a French feminist anarchist, was impounded in the port of Lampedusa on Sunday in relation to an alleged breach of new Italian rules for rescue boats operated by non-governmental organisations.

“We know of dozens of boats in distress right in front of the island at this very moment, yet we are being prevented from assisting. This is unacceptable!” the crew from Louise Michel said in a tweet.

On Sunday at least 29 people from sub-Saharan Africa died while trying to reach Italy after two boats carrying them across the Mediterranean sank off the coast of Tunisia.

Over the weekend, Italian authorities instructed the Louise Michel to head to the seaport of Trapani, after it had performed a first rescue operation on Saturday, according to an Italian coastguard press release issued on Sunday afternoon.

Owing to the high number of calls from people in distress, the crew decided to perform another rescue, resulting in a violation of the new protocols introduced by Italy’s far-right government.

“One of the boats capsized, the crew said on Twitter. “And 34 people were recovered from the water at night. A mother and her unconscious baby had to be evacuated, along with another person in a life-threatening condition. An Italian coastguard vessel was also present, but ignored repeated calls for assistance for about 37 minutes before finally supporting, while people were in the water just in front of them.

“Even after responding to multiple mayday relays from an aircraft about boats in distress, the Italian MRCC [Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre] repeatedly pressured the crew not to react accordingly, but to sail north without engaging in another rescue.”

The Italian coastguard complained that the NGO vessel was “complicating a delicate rescue coordination work”, as hundreds of other migrant boats arrived in Lampedusa over the weekend.

The incident comes weeks after an overcrowded wooden vessel carrying as many as 200 people fell apart in stormy seas just a few metres from the beach of Cutro, in Calabria. The bodies of at least 90 people have so far been recovered by the authorities, including dozens of children from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq who were seeking refuge in Europe.

“European authorities are fully aware of people in distress in their SAR zone,” replied the NGO. “Still, they block #LouiseMichel from leaving port and rendering assistance. Several lives were lost in two shipwrecks yesterday. These deaths are not an accident nor a tragedy. They are wanted.”

Featuring a Banksy artwork depicting a girl in a life vest holding a heart-shaped safety buoy, the Louise Michel sails under a German flag. The 31-metre motor yacht, formerly owned by French customs authorities, is smaller but considerably faster than other NGO rescue vessels.

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Banksy’s involvement in the rescue mission goes back to September 2019 when he sent an email to Pia Klemp, the former captain of several NGO boats that have rescued thousands of people over recent years.

“Hello Pia, I’ve read about your story in the papers. You sound like a badass,” he wrote. “I am an artist from the UK and I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something? Please let me know. Well done. Banksy.”

Klemp, who initially thought it was a joke, believes she was chosen by Banksy due to her political stance. “I don’t see sea rescue as a humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight,” she previously told the Guardian, making clear that Banksy’s involvement in the operations was limited to providing financial support. “Banksy won’t pretend that he knows better than us how to run a ship, and we won’t pretend to be artists.”

With a top speed of 27 knots, the Louise Michel would be able to “hopefully outrun the so-called Libyan coastguard before they get to boats with refugees and migrants and pull them back to the detention camps in Libya,” said Klemp.