Banksy, the mysterious British street artist, has made a powerful political statement by funding a migrant rescue boat operating in the international waters of the Mediterranean. The Louise Michel, formally a French Navy boat, has been customised to perform search and rescue for migrants attempting to reach Europe from north Africa.
The crew of activists set sail on its first mission on 18 August and rescued 89 people in the central Mediterranean on Thursday. Banksy and the crew members of the Louise Michel appealed for help over the weekend, as the vessel came across a further 130 people who needed rescuing. The Louise Michel only has space for 120 passengers. Fortunately, after various pleas for assistance on Friday, the Italian coastguard took 49 of the most desperate migrants off the ship on Saturday afternoon. The overcrowded rescue ships continues to beg Europe for help, but has been met with uncaring silence.
Other rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean are also attempting to pick up the slack left from governments that do not want the responsibility of saving human lives. Lea Reisner, head of operations on the Louise Michel said: “The people have sat in a mix of saltwater and fuel for days. It is night and European states are not doing their f*****g job. They deny responsibility while we are trying to keep everyone alive.”
Three years ago, a deal was struck between Libya and Italy to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to find refuge on Italian soil. The route from Libya to Italy is one of the only open routes left for migrants escaping war, famine, torture, and abuse coming through north Africa. With the deal, Italy agreed to support Libya’s development and Libya agreed to tightly control the migrant boats leaving its shores for Italy. It was Italy’s attempt to reduce immigrant entries at any cost.
Since the original deal was struck, more than 40,000 people have been intercepted and returned to Libyan detention camps, where migrants experience harsh treatment, abuse, and dashed hopes of safety – a flagrant violation of EU standards. It was hoped that Luciana Lamorgese, the new Italian Minister of the Interior, would revoke the agreement and allow humanitarian ships to dock in Italy, but no such action occurred and the deal has been renewed for a further three years.
Italy isn’t the only EU country opposed to hosting more refugees. Hungary, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Slovakia, and our beloved United Kingdom have all displayed instances of racist intolerance towards them. And many of these governments are also responsible for introducing nationalistic rhetoric, such as "illegal immigrant", which is passed down to citizens and informs national opinion.
Immigration is not a straightforward, black-and-white issue. It carries criminal, traumatic, financial, political and practical considerations. However, the complicated nature of the migrant crisis is not reason enough for government inaction. Governments of stable and developed countries have a responsibility to care for the most vulnerable in our societies.
Men, women, and children are perilously crossing seas, oceans, and channels to find safety from the escalating terror of war and natural disasters. And yet, countries are refusing to rescue them. Instead, Banksy and a dedicated crew of activists are.
An artist is protecting vulnerable people who should be rescued and supported by stable governments. But we shouldn't have to rely on the likes of Banksy to do the work that should be done by governments. Nor should the burden fall solely on humanitarian organisations like Save the Children and SOS Méditerranée, who are also rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.
Once refugees are rescued, they must be allowed to dock and begin the process of seeking asylum. Volunteering to take refugees in is a humanitarian duty European countries must take on. While some raise concerns that migrants crossing the Mediterranean may have criminal connections or are economic migrants who don’t require the same immediate intervention, these facts can be established after rescue, and dealt with accordingly by relevant authorities, rather than using death at the sea as a screening process.
Banksy has made a career out of thrusting vulnerability and injustice into our social conscience. The Louise Michel is his newest vehicle for helping us see the humanity of migrants and the inhumanity of refusing to rescue them. If art is a means for swaying opinion, let’s hope this propels European governments into action. The rights of the migrants risking their lives to find safety in Europe depends on it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies