A migrant rescue ship funded by the British street artist Banksy has been seized by Italian authorities and remains docked with no “written justification for the detention”, according to its crew.
Activists say the MV Louise Michel, named after the 19th-century French feminist anarchist, was detained over the weekend after delivering 180 rescued people to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Once known for welcoming migrants, Lampedusa is now at the centre of a political battle over anti-immigration policy due to its position as a primary entry point to Europe for migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
Last month, the far-right Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni passed a law clamping down on humanitarian operations at sea. Under the new rules, charity ships have to request access to a port and sail to it straight away after a rescue, rather than remaining at sea searching for other migrant boats in distress. According to the Italian coast guard, the Louise Michel had violated protocols after rescuing people from four different boats before bringing them to port.
“It is super clear that this whole approach is not for the safety of anyone, or the safety of the ships—it’s just about keeping humanitarian rescue ships out of the water,” a Louise Michel crew member told the Financial Times.
On Twitter, the crew said it knows “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 seizure of the Louise Michel comes as migrant numbers surge. According to Italy’s interior ministry, the number of migrants arriving on Italy’s shores by boats more than tripled in the first two months of 2023, compared to the same period last year.
A month ago, 90 people fleeing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran—including dozens of children—drowned just 40 metres from Italy’s southern coast after their wooden ship broke apart on rocks. Meloni’s government is being investigated for not responding to a report from Frontex, the European border agency, about the vessel and its possible distress. The Italian prime minister has blamed humanitarian groups that carry out Mediterranean search and rescue missions for encouraging the flow of illegal migrants by reducing the risks of the Mediterranean crossing.
Banksy first announced he was supporting the purchase of a “new migrant rescue boat” using the proceeds from sales of art in October 2019, and is believed to continue funding it.
The vessel, which is spray-painted with a pink version of the artist’s famous Girl with Balloon image, started its rescue missions in August 2020. Within a week the boat, which is registered in Germany and manned by a crew of activists from across Europe, had rescued more than 150 people off the coast of Libya.
Update: The Louise Michel crew say they have now received official notification that their ship has been detained for 20 days "due to violation of the new Italian decree". They say they will "take all necessary steps to fight this detention".