Banksy's Migrant Rescue Boat: Not Just To Save Their Souls, But Our Own

The Louise Michel, with fire-extinguisher painting by Banksy. AP photo

In a mission cogently defined as "humans helping humans," an international crew of rescue activists are helping save the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe in a former French navy boat, "as agile as she is pink," funded and decorated - with a fire extinguisher - by the street artist Banksy. The Louise Michel, named for a 19th century French feminist and anarchist, aims to "uphold maritime law and rescue anyone in peril without prejudice...We answer the SOS call of all  those in distress, not just to save their souls, but our own." The boat "runs on a flat hierarchy and a vegan diet"; its ten diverse crew members identify as anti-racist and anti-fascist, and because its mission is a feminist project, only female crew members can speak in its name. "It might seem incredible there is need for a homemade emergency vehicle in one of Europe's busiest waterways, but there is," notes Louise Michel's website. It cites an  ongoing migrant crisis to which EU states have responded by instructing their coast guards not to answer distress calls from "non- Europeans" - aka black people, often fleeing war-torn Libya - and even preventing other boats from offering aid, thus "leaving desperate people to drift helplessly at sea." During the pandemic, experts say roughly twice as many people have attempted the dangerous journey by often inadequate boat; a report by multiple agencies, titled "On This Journey, No One Cares If You Live or Die," details the human rights abuses many suffer at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. This year, over 500 migrants and refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean - not "unlucky casualties of the elements," activists argue, but of "political decisions and a failure of humanity." Many hope the Louise Michel can be a wake-up call: "There is something that shouldn’t be happening at the very borders of Europe, and you close your eyes to it. Wake up!"

Banksy's art has long reflected migrant issues - murals of refugees on a boat trying to flag down a yacht, a child refugee holding a flare, the triptych Mediterranean Sea View, originally installed in his West Bank Walled Off Hotel, then auctioned for $2.9 million he donated to a Bethlehem hospital. In 2019, he emailed a captain of several NGO rescue boats, explaining he'd  done some art work about the crisis: "Obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something?" Sailing under a German flag, the Louise Michel first set off from Spain in secrecy August 18; it's smaller but faster than other NGO rescue vessels in hopes of outrunning Libyan and other coastguards that return refugees to detention camps. In its first mission this week, it rescued 89 people; it also assisted two other rescues involving 105 people who went aboard #SeaWatch, and other rescue NGOS like Doctors Without Borders at Sea have welcomed them. On Friday, the Louise Michel issued a Mayday call after coming upon 130 Libyan migrants in an overcrowded, fuel-befouled, leaking dinghy; there was one dead body and many people were suffering from dehydration, fuel burns and other injuries, but with 89 already on board and a capacity of 120, they had no room. Other activists - from Alarm Phone, an emergency hotline, and Moonbird, an aircraft monitoring boats - had sent out distress calls, but said neither Maltese nor Italian authorities responded. "European states are not doing their fucking job," they charged. "Don't let it become a body count." The Louise Michel later tweeted things were "stable" and they were "safeguarding" the over 200 people, though four had died "because of Fortress Europe"; later still, they reported the Italian coastguard had evacuated 49 of the most vulnerable. By Saturday evening, they said they'd transferred "all remaining guests" onto #SeaWatch4, who now had 350 people on board. "It's not over," they warned. "We demand a Place of Safety for all survivors, now."
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A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on Aug 29, 2020 at 3:56am PDT


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