Banksy migrant ship detained in Italy for 'breaking rules'

Rescued migrants on board the Louise Michel vessel - Santi Palacios/AP
Rescued migrants on board the Louise Michel vessel - Santi Palacios/AP

A Banksy-funded humanitarian ship has been detained by Italian authorities after its crew were accused of breaking new rules governing migrant rescues in the Mediterranean. 

The rescue vessel, which is painted pink and named the MV Louise Michel after a French feminist archivist, features Banksy artwork depicting a girl in a life vest grasping a pink safety buoy shaped like a heart.

Now sailing under a German flag, it is one of several NGO ships that rescue boatloads of immigrants and refugees trying to reach Italy from Tunisia and Libya.

But it has now been impounded on the island of Lampedusa after allegedly breaking regulations introduced by the hard-Right government of prime minister Giorgia Meloni.

Under the rules, NGO patrol vessels are allowed to perform just one rescue at sea before being assigned an Italian port where they can disembark asylum seekers.

They cannot stay at sea looking for other boats to rescue, as in the past. Vessels that contravene the rules risk a fine of up to €50,000 and seizure by the Italian authorities.

The Louise Michel performed a first rescue off the coast of Libya on Saturday and was then instructed by Italian authorities to head to the port of Trapani in Sicily.

Instead, the ship’s crew went on to respond to three more boats in distress near Malta, thereby violating the new protocols introduced by the Meloni government.

“We know 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 crew of the Banksy-funded vessel wrote on Twitter.

“European authorities are fully aware of people in distress in their SAR (Search and Rescue) zone. Still, they block Louise Michel from leaving port and rendering assistance.”

The Louise Michel, funded by Banksy, has been detained on the island of Lampedusa - Zuma Press / eyevine
The Louise Michel, funded by Banksy, has been detained on the island of Lampedusa - Zuma Press / eyevine

The Louise Michel, formerly a French customs vessel, was bought with funds provided by Banksy, who first made his name painting art on buildings in his native-Bristol under his now famous pseudonym. It has been operating in the Mediterranean since 2020.

Morana Milijanovic, head of mission for the rescue ship, said: “The intention of the new law has always been clear – to impede NGO vessels from carrying out rescues.

“It seems absurd because out there, there are hundreds of people who are in danger, while we are stuck in port. The consequences are clear – an increase in the number of deaths at sea,” she told La Repubblica.

The Italian coast guard accused the Louise Michel of “complicating a delicate rescue coordination operation” and putting additional stress on the migrant reception centre on Lampedusa, which is close to collapse as a result of the huge number of migrants that have arrived in recent days.

The coast guard also accused NGOs that use reconnaissance planes to look for boats in distress of overloading the communications system of Italy’s national rescue coordination centre by duplicating emergency calls that were simultaneously coming in from government planes.

The coast guard said more than 3,300 people were rescued on board 58 different vessels over the weekend.

So far this year, 21,000 migrants have reached Italy, compared with 6,500 in the same period last year.

The crew of the Louise Michel insisted that they were simply trying to save lives and that the new government rules mean that migrants are dying at sea because there is no one to rescue them if their boats sink.

“With the situation at sea, holding a rescue ship in port while women, men and children risk dying is absurd: this is not about slogans, but about human lives that can and should be saved,” said Luca Casarini, chief of mission of Mediterranea Saving Humans, another humanitarian organisation.

But Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister in the coalition and the head of the Right-wing League party, said that Italy was "under attack" from the large number of migrant arrivals.

Accusations that NGOs had impeded the Italian coast guard and navy needed to be scrutinised, he said.

"It is Italy that is under attack, not the NGOs," said Mr Salvini, who is also minister for infrastructure. "If there are statements from the Coast Guard or from the Navy, which are proud state corps, complaining that their work is being hindered, they should be taken into consideration."

He added: "Immigration cannot be regulated by private bodies funded by foreign countries."