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Banksy funds refugee rescue boat
Banksy funds a rescue boat to save refugees trying to reach Europe from north Africavia Instagram (@seawatchcrew)

Banksy funds a rescue boat to save refugees trying to reach Europe

A huge, bright pink yacht emblazoned with Banksy’s art rescued people who set off from north Africa and were found distressed in the Mediterranean

Banksy has helped to fund a secret mission to rescue refugees trying to get to Europe from north Africa. A report by the Guardian states that the enigmatic Bristol street artist financed the huge, bright pink motor yacht, on which a crew has rescued 89 people so far.

The boat secretly embarked on the mission on August 18 from Burriana, a Spanish port close to Valencia. It made for the central Mediterranean sea – a treacherous passage many refugees have been found to take when seeking asylum – and on Thursday (August 26), dozens in distress were found and rescued. The number included four children. The boat, named after French feminist Louise Michel, has a crew of activists from across Europe who have previously participated in search and rescue operations. Some of those on board were involved in recent expeditions that saved 105 people in similar conditions. Painted bright pink, the ship features a girl wearing a lifevest with heart-shaped buoy in Banksy’s signature style.

Pia Klemp, a German human rights activist and sea captain who has been involved in multiple NGO boat missions, and who has saved thousands of lives on the sea across the years, told the Guardian about Banksy’s engagement with the project. Between 2016 and 2018, she commanded two rescue ships in the Mediterranean which saved 14,000 migrants from drowning, and her work caught the artist’s attention.

Klemp shared an email – which she initially thought was a joke – that the artist had sent to her back in September 2019 asking how he could help the crisis. “Hello Pia, I’ve read about your story in the papers. You sound like a badass,” Banksy wrote. “I am an artist from the UK and I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something? Please let me know. Well done. Banksy.”

Klemp stated that Banksy was solely a financial supporter, rather than being involved in operations. She further added that their plans for the further search and rescue operation will be to “outrun the so-called Libyan coastguard” who would send migrants and refugees to Libya’s detention camps.

The Louise Michel is now attempting to find a safe port on which passengers can alight, or a European coastguard boat to transfer them to, as the Guardian reports.

More than 19,500 migrants have survived the Mediterranean crossing the route to Italy and Malta, but 514 refugees and migrants are known to have died in the Mediterranean sea in 2020 alone, though the actual number is expected to be higher than that. 45 people, including five children, died after a boat engine explosion just off of Libya on Wednesday (August 26). 61, 296 attempted crossings of the passage from north Africa to Europe – including Spain, Italy, Cyprus, and Greece – were recorded. More than 7,600 migrants have been intercepted so far this year and returned to Libya, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Maltese and European authorities have been in prolonged tension with search and rescue operations. Italy in particular has proved most resistant – as reported by the New York Times, last week, Sicily’s governor closed all of the island’s migrant centres as they had become too crowded to practice social distancing, while some people in centres tested positive for coronavirus. The order was upheld this week in court, but it’s expected to be challenged.

Most recently, according to the NGO Sea-Watch, a vessel named The Talia, which rescued 52 people almost two months ago, wasn't allowed into the port for 5 days. Now, a boat named the Etienne is in the longest record stand-off between authorities and rescuers ever, having spent three weeks at sea being denied disembarkation in Malta. The boat has 27 people onboard who were rescued at sea. “This charade has to end,” the organisation said. 

Last month, Banksy donated a series of paintings to a charity auction in aid of a Bethlehem hospital. The Mediterranean sea view 2017 series was estimated to fetch between £800,000 and £1.2 million. The triptych features jackets and lifebuoys in a 19th century-style seascape to comment on the refugee crisis.