Hundreds of people were rescued by humanitarian vessels on August 29, after European officials refused to let them land, despite the urging of the United Nations' refugee agency and the International Organisation of Migration.
One of those rescue vessels, the MV Louise Michel, was funded by British graffiti artist Banksy.
Banksy, who comes from Bristol, condemned European nations for deliberately ignoring distress calls from “non-Europeans” stranded for days in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. As he explained in an Instagram video that ends with “All Black Lives Matter”, he bought a French navy vessel and transformed it into a lifeboat to help people fleeing for their lives, but who also risk their lives trying to make it from North Africa to Europe.
The vessel is named after the 19th century French anarchist. “As it is a feminist project, only female crew members are allowed to speak in the name of the Louise Michel”, its website explains.
The boat is painted bright pink, with Banksy’s artwork illustrating a girl in a life vest clutching a heart-shaped buoy. The 31-metre ship is smaller, but much faster, than other humanitarian rescue vessels.
The experienced, 10-member search-and-rescue crew are anti-racist, anti-fascist activists.
Lea Reisner, a nurse and head of the first rescue mission, said the project was set up to bring together a variety of struggles for social justice, including for women’s and LGBTI rights, racial equality, migrants’ rights, environmentalism and animal rights.
Bansky expressed a desire to help with sea rescues by contacting Pia Klemp, a German sea captain who, in 2019, faced 20 years imprisonment for saving refugees.
She highlighted France’s hypocrisy when she explained why she turned down the Parisian mayor’s attempt to award her the city’s highest honour for her heroic rescue missions, while criminalising refugees and the activists who stand up for them.
“Madame Hidalgo, you want to award me a medal for my acts of solidarity in the Mediterranean Sea, because our crews ‘work daily to save migrants in difficult conditions’. At the same time, your police steal blankets from people forced to sleep on the street, while you repress demonstrations and criminalize those who defend the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. You want to give me a medal for acts that you oppose within your own borders. I’m sure you will not be surprised to see me refuse your Grand Vermeil medal.”
Klemp believes Banksy offered his help because of her politics. “I don’t see sea rescue as a humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight,” she told The Guardian.
“With a top speed of 27 knots, the Louise Michel can hopefully outpace the so-called Libyan coastguard before they stop the boats with refugees and migrants and drag them back to the detention camps in Libya”, said Klemp.
Libya is a known gateway for people fleeing Africa for Europe.
Currently, there are more than 636,000 refugees and migrants in Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants project. Libya, ravaged by civil war, remains a dangerous, desperate situation for migrants, many of whom have suffered systematic torture and rape as they wait to cross the sea in the hope of reaching Europe.
This is one of the deadliest migration routes in the world.
The Libyan coastguard has been accused of mistreating people at sea, sometimes selling them to militias at Libyan harbours.
More than 7600 migrants have been intercepted this year and returned to Libya. Since February 2017, at least 36,000 people have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to the North African country. Those who survived the ordeal described it as “hell”.
MV Louise Michel
On August 18, the MV Louise Michel secretly set sail from the Spanish port of Burriana to rescue 89 people. It responded to a Mayday call, saving another 130 people on a leaking rubber dinghy, who almost drowned. The migrants had been at sea for days, suffering fuel burns and other injuries. They were discovered scooping out water from the boat with their hands.
With now more than 200 people in its care, and one dead body, the Louise Michel, with a capacity of 120, could not safely steer the ship and was in a grave emergency. On August 28, it issued a distress call, which was ignored by the Italian and Maltese authorities.
The Sea-Watch 4 vessel, which had rescued 201 people and was also trying to find a host port, decided to help the Louise Michel “in the face of the lack of reaction” from the authorities.
The Italian left-wing collective Mediterranea, whose crew was fined €300,000 last year and had its ship seized under a draconian security order, said it would send a ship from Sicily to assist. An Italian coastguard patrol boat was eventually sent from Lampedusa, but only took people needing immediate care — mainly women and children.
Tensions have been rising in Tunisia, as people struggle to cope with hunger and unemployment, which has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lampedusa is running out of space to quarantine an increasing number of new migrants from Tunisia, and right-wing politicians continue to use COVID-19 to incite racism against migrants and refugees.
In line with Italy’s COVID-19 measures, its central government is using Lampedusa to hold migrants in quarantine for 14 days. The facility is holding 10 times its capacity.
The island’s former mayor Giusi Nicolini had taken a strong stand in support of refugees. But, in 2017 she lost the office to the far-right’s Toto Martello, from the National League, who said he “cannot stand seeing migrants swarming everywhere”.
Nicolini told the La Stampa newspaper: “They say we are overrun [with migrants] for political purposes”. She criticised the government plans to send boats for quarantining to the island, citing virologists’ warnings that isolating them in overcrowded centres would create the perfect breeding ground for the virus and amount to an “expensive and senseless choice”.
Meanwhile, Malta, in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa, has directed its armed forces to stop migrants reaching its shores. In May, soldiers pointed their guns at 101 migrants in a boat, turning them away after giving them fuel and the GPS coordinates to reach Italy. They were given 30 minutes to leave Maltese waters.
Risking lives to cross seas
As the economic crisis worsens in North Africa and war rages on in Libya, more people are attempting the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
An unknown number of people have died at sea of starvation, dehydration or drowning. On August 19, 45 people, including five children, died when their boat’s engine exploded.
These traumatic deaths often go unnoticed, or are quickly forgotten, as the corporate media focuses its attention on promoting nationalism and providing “rationales” for governments to persecute migrants and refugees.
But humanitarian rescue vessels, such as the Louise Michel, and support from well-known artists such as Banksy, give hope to those who are angry with ruling elites’ systemic murder of refugees.
Klemp and her crew are also continuing to shed light on the hypocrisy of governments claiming to stand up for racial equality while also embracing racist, anti-immigration policies.
Claire Faggianelli, an activist on board the Louise Michel told The Guardian: “We really want to try to awaken the consciousness of Europe and say, ‘Look, we have been yelling at you for years now. There is something that shouldn’t be happening at the very borders of Europe, and you close your eyes to it. Wake up!’.”
Louise Michel’s mission and the thousands losing their lives at sea should be a wake-up call to countries, including Australia, with cruel, inhumane refugee policies. Seeking refuge and safety in another country is not a crime: it is a human right. There should be freedom of movement for all.