The Italian coastguard has answered a distress call from a rescue boat financed by the British street artist Banksy and taken charge of 49 migrants in most need of help, it has said.
The boat had become stranded at sea after the crew helped 130 migrants, with the ship’s leaders saying that requests for help from European authorities had been ignored.
The vessel, named Louise Michel after a French feminist anarchist, set off in secrecy on 18 August from the Spanish seaport of Burriana, near Valencia, and went to the central Mediterranean, where, on Thursday, it rescued 89 people including 14 women and four children. It had been safeguarding more than 200 people off Libya’s coast.
On Friday, the crew of European activists responded to a mayday call by Moonbird, an aircraft that monitors migrants’ boat in danger in the central Mediterranean, which had spotted a dinghy that was not moving and was taking in water.
“Louise Michel proceeded at full speed,” a ship spokesperson said. “We handed out life vests to 130 people to secure the situation.”
The rubber dinghy is located in the Maltese search and rescue zone, dangerously overcrowded and taking in water, with several on board suffering from fuel burns and injuries, after having spent several days at sea. When the Louise Michel made contact, there was also a dead body on board the vessel, which the coastguard has now removed.
On Saturday, Banksy posted a short video on his personal Instagram account and accompanied by a comment: “Like most people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht, to cruise the Med.
“It’s a French navy vessel we converted into a lifeboat because EU authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from ‘non-Europeans’.” The video ends with the words All Black Lives Matter.
The passengers had previously contacted the Alarm Phone, an emergency hotline assisting refugees at sea, and requested immediate rescue. Activists of Alarm Phone and Moonbird alerted European authorities to the boat in distress.
The crew alleged that neither the Maltese nor the Italian authorities had reacted adequately.
The Louise Michel is safeguarding the 130 passengers as the ship is already carrying 89 migrants and can accommodate a maximum of 120 passengers on board. The ship has transferred dozens of other migrants on board (the most vulnerable) and deployed life rafts for the others as they await assistance.
The crew said on Twitter: “We are unable to safely move and nobody is coming to our aid. The people rescued have experienced extreme trauma. We need immediate assistance.”
The activists stated that the people had been left alone in a European search and rescue zone and warned: “Don’t let it become a body count. Do your job. Rescue them.”
Lea Reisner, head of operations for the Louise Michel, said: “The people have sat in a mix of salt water and fuel for days.” She accused European states of not doing their job, saying: “They deny responsibility while we are trying to keep everyone alive … We need immediate assistance.”
Neeske Beckmann, of the Moonbird, said: “We were shocked when we saw the rubber boat – it was incredibly overcrowded and people on board were trying to shuffle water out of the boat with their bare hands.
“We knew this was a grave emergency situation and decided to send out a mayday relay to all authorities and actors in the vicinity. Responsible European authorities failed to react to our distress call and only the Louise Michel responded to this serious distress case.”
Painted bright pink and displaying a Banksy artwork depicting a girl in a life vest holding a heart-shaped safety buoy, the Louise Michel sails under a German flag. The 31-metre motor yacht, formerly owned by French customs authorities, is smaller but considerably faster than other NGO rescue vessels.
Claire Faggianelli, an activist who prepared the Louise Michel for its first mission, saw the project as a wake-up call for Europe. “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!’” she said.
So far in 2020, more than 500 refugees and migrants are known to have died in the Mediterranean sea, and the real number is estimated to be considerably higher.
On Wednesday, 45 people – including five children – died when the engine on their boat exploded off Libya, in the country’s deadliest shipwreck this year, the UN said. More than 19,500 migrants have survived the Mediterranean crossing along the central maritime route this year and reached Italy or Malta.