Banksy’s most beautiful artwork yet: a migrant rescue ship

The Louise Michel is the humanitarian rescue ship saving lives in the Mediterranean. Financed by the artist Banksy, it has found a safe port in Sicily.

The ship, named Louise Michel in honour of the French feminist anarchist, left in great secrecy on the 18th of August from the Spanish port of Burriana, near Valencia. In a single day, the 27th of August, it rescued 89 migrants adrift in the Mediterranean, including fourteen women and four children. After searching for a safe port, 150 migrants were transferred to a quarantine vessel together with those from another boat, for a total of 353 people, and will be allowed to disembark in Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily.

The Louise Michel’s hull is white and bright pink, with art by anonymous British artist Banksy, who will finance the humanitarian mission in its entirety. A version of his iconic “Girl with Balloon” is depicted on the boat, readapted into a little girl with a life jacket holding a heart-shaped lifebuoy. The Louise Michel is smaller but much faster than other rescue ships used by NGOs to save lives in the Mediterranean.

Is there a safe port for migrants in the Mediterranean?

The Louise Michel recently found a safe port in which to disembark its passengers. The same can’t be said of the at least 27 migrants on board the Danish freighter Maersk Etienne, which has been waiting off the coast of Malta for a disembarkation port since the 4th of August.

The warning concerning the ship’s state of distress was raised by Alarm Phone, a volunteer platform that collects the SOS signals of boats carrying migrants. The 27 people were adrift in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) area and in danger of drowning. On the 5th August, after aerial sighting by SeaWatch’s Moonbird recognition plane, the migrants were transferred to the Danish merchant ship following indications by Maltese officials.

In addition, 201 shipwrecked migrants rescued by Sea Watch 4, as well as a Doctors without Frontiers team, also waited for a safe port for days, while one migrant who suffered severe burns all over his body was urgently evacuated. In the month of August alone, over 134 people died in four major incidents, bringing the total number of documented deaths in the Mediterranean to 558 in 2020.

La nave Louise Michel di banksy salva in mare le prime vite
The Louise Michel boat, financed by Banksy © Louise Michel

The Louise Michel, between art and a migrant rescue mission

Currently, the ships patrolling the central Mediterranean to cope with the emergency are the Sea Watch 4, the Mare Jonio of the Italian Mediterranea mission and Open Arms’ Astral sailing boat. Aboard the latter is the Italian Riccardo Gatti, responsible not only for coordinating hundreds of rescues, but also the first judicial investigation of an Italian merchant ship involved in illegally rejecting migrants and forcing them to return to Libya.

The Louise Michel boat is now also working alongside them to help save migrants. Wanted and financed by Banksy, it isn’t supported by any NGO and its crew is made up exclusively of European activists with a long experience in search and rescue operations. The planning of the mission took place in great secrecy for fear that media attention could jeopardise its objectives. In fact, Banksy’s team decided to share news of its mission only after carrying out its first rescue.

migrants at sea
From the 1st of January to the 19th of August, 36,221 migrants have reached Europe via sea © David Ramos/Getty Images

Banksy stands against the loss of humanity and European indifference

Banksy’s involvement in the rescue mission in the central Mediterranean dates back to September 2019, when he sent an email to Pia Klemp, the former captain of several NGO boats who has saved thousands of people at sea in recent years.

“Hello Pia, I’ve read about your story in the papers,” he wrote, the Guardian reports. “You sound like a badass. 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 because of her approach to migration not as a political and not just a humanitarian issue. “I don’t consider the sea rescue a solely humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight,” she told the Guardian. Klemp clarified that Banksy’s involvement in the operations is limited to providing financial support: “Banksy won’t pretend that he knows better than us how to run a ship”.

The Louise Michel
The Louise Michel, financed by the English artist Banksy, has saved 150 people in the Mediterranean © Ruben Neugebauer

Louise Michel tries to stop violence in Libyan detention centres

With a top speed of up to 27 knots, the Louise Michel is able to “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,” Klemp says. International organisations, in particular the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the UNHCR, have highlighted the Libyan authorities’ ineffectiveness in stemming mass violence in migrant detention centres.

Although Libya isn’t a safe place for migrants to be repatriated, the policy of countries like Italy, as well as the EU, is to instruct their coastguards not to answer distress calls coming from migrant boats, therefore leaving many desperate people adrift. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), this has resulted in more than 7,600 migrants being intercepted and brought back to Libya in camps where torture and rape are systematically carried out in this year alone.

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