Bansky Accuses European Officials of ‘Deliberately Ignoring Distress Calls’ After a Migrant Boat He Financed Was Stranded in the Mediterranean

The ship ended up in distress after taking on more passengers than it could handle.

Migrants stand on the rescue ship funded by British street artist Banksy "Louise Michel" during a rescue operation by crew members of civil sea rescue ship Sea-Watch 4 off the coast of Malta, on August 29, 2020. Photo: Thomas Lohne/AFP via Getty Images.

rescue ship funded and decorated by Banksy that was working to transport North African asylum-seekers to Europe hit a serious snag on Saturday. With more than 200 people aboard the MV Louise Michel, including one person who had died before being transferred to the ship, according to its Twitter account, the vessel had exceeded its capacity and issued a distress call. 

The Italian Coast Guard and German rescue boat Sea Watch-4 eventually answered, transporting the refugees to other vessels—but only after six hours, according to the ship’s account. In a video posted to Instagram, Banksy accused European authorities of “deliberately ignor[ing] distress calls from non-Europeans.” 

The ship flies a German flag and features bright pink paint and a Banksy design of a little girl in a life vest holding a heart-shaped safety buoy (a twist on his famous Balloon Girl image). It set sail in secrecy on August 18 from the Spanish port of Burriana. Late last year, Banksy had contacted the ship asking how he could help. “I am an artist from the UK and I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money,” he wrote in an email to Pia Klemp, a captain who has helmed several NGO boats, according to the Guardian. “Could you use it to buy a new boat or something?”

The ship’s latest journey began on Thursday, August 27, when MV Louise Michel’s crew rescued 89 people, including 14 women and four children, off the coast of Libya. The dingy had been taking in water and Louise Michel was first to respond to the call. The crew found the passengers sitting in fuel and salt water, attempting to empty the water with their hands. One passenger was already dead.

Banksy financed the purchase of the Louise Michel, which he painted with some of his artwork, to serve as a rescue vessel for refugees in the Mediterranean. Photo by Ruben Neugebauer/Sea-Watch.

Banksy financed the purchase of the Louise Michel, which he painted with some of his artwork, to serve as a rescue vessel for refugees in the Mediterranean. Photo by Ruben Neugebauer/Sea-Watch.

By Saturday, August 29, the Banksy-sponsored ship had 219 survivors, 10 crew members, and another 33 migrants on an attached life raft. Unable to move due to the weight, it sent out distress calls.

#LouiseMichel is unable to move, she is no longer the master of her maneuver, due to her overcrowded deck and a life raft deployed at her side, but above all due to Europe ignoring our emergency calls for immediate assistance. The responsible authorities remain unresponsive,” the crew tweeted.

After around six hours, an Italian coast guard showed up and took some 49 passengers deemed most vulnerable before another vessel, Sea-Watch 4, rescued the remaining 150 migrants. The Louise Michel admonished authorities for the delay, tweeting, “The obligation to rescue at sea is an obligation under international maritime law. This obligation applies to every person in danger at sea—regardless of nationality, reason for flight or legal status. #EU, you don’t respect your own laws.”

Banksy offered his own take via a video on his Instagram account over the weekend. “Like most people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht to cruise the Med,” he wrote. “It’s a French navy vessel we converted into a lifeboat because European authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from non-Europeans.”

So far in 2020, around 500 refugees and migrants are known to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean, though the actual number of deaths is higher. Last week, 45 people including five children died off the coast of Libya when a boat engine exploded.

The United Nations refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration issued a joint statement over the weekend petitioning European officials to allow the hundreds of migrants aboard the various rescue vessels—including those who came from the Banksy-funded Louise Michael—to come ashore. A lack of agreement among regional governments “is not an excuse to deny vulnerable people a port of safety and the assistance they need, as required under international law,” the statement read.

You can donate to MV Louise Michel or Sea-Watch, a growing organization of rescue missions off the coast of Europe, which has rescued 35,000 people since 2015.

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