Banksy funds boat to rescue Med migrants

Louise Michel: The ship has already rescued 89 people, including four children. © Getty

Does Europe have a responsibility to rescue migrants? Refugees fleeing war are dying in the Mediterranean, but politicians say rescue ships encourage smugglers and make the situation worse.

When captain Pia Klemp opened her email, she assumed it was a prank. “You sound like a badass,” the message read. “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.”

But the street artist was not joking, and this month, his new boat set sail for the Mediterranean. Bright pink and decorated with Banksy artwork, the Louise Michel has been picking up migrants and refugees making the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe.

The UN’s refugee agency says the migrant crisis has worsened this year, as people flee countries hit by the economic impact of Covid-19 and as the Libyan civil war rumbles on. So far, almost 20,000 people have survived the journey, paying smugglers for places on unseaworthy and crowded dinghies. At least 500 have drowned.

Until last year, the EU kept ships in the Mediterranean to take migrants off these dangerous boats. This was called Operation Sophia and between 2015 and 2019 it rescued 50,000 people. But public opinion towards migrants has grown hostile and populist leaders have argued that these rescue operations only encourage migration.

So refugees must rely on ships like the Louise Michel, run by charities and funded by donors like Banksy. One refugee rescued by a Sea-Watch ship last year explained they follow the charities on social media and “wouldn’t risk it” without them. But if their boat is intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, they will be taken back to “hell” and the “detention camps in Libya.”

Klemp also risks imprisonment. Italy accuses the rescue ships of human trafficking and helping smugglers. If convicted a captain could face up to 20 years in jail.

Meanwhile, migrants have tested positive for Covid-19 in Italian camps and the governor of Sicily says the migration crisis is now “a matter of public order and health.” He has closed refugee centres on the island and rescue ships have been turned away from Italian ports.

In Malta, private boats are shipping people back to Libya and angry crowds have stopped migrants from landing on Greek islands. Sending refugees back to a warzone is illegal under international law, but a recent investigation alleges Greek officials are rounding up refugees and abandoning them in boats off the Turkish coast.

The Greek prime minister denies the accusations and says his migrant policy is “tough but fair.” However, human rights lawyer François Crépeau says it is a “humanitarian disaster” and that authorities have been taking advantage of the pandemic “to close national borders to whoever they’ve wanted.”

As the Louise Michel sails into this crisis, the argument rages over whether rescue operations encourage migration, or whether stopping them will lead to more deaths. Ultimately, argues Felix Weiss of Sea-Watch, this is a European problem, and "there has to be a European solution."

So, does Europe have a responsibility to rescue migrants?

All at sea

Some say no, this is well-meaning but naive activism. By rescuing boats off the coast of North Africa, Banksy’s ship only makes the crisis worse. Smugglers will no longer try to get to Europe, only to the rescue ships. More people will risk this hazardous journey and many more will die. Europe should encourage them to stay and make it possible for them to seek asylum without risking their lives.

Others say yes, this is Europe’s responsibility. People do not get into a leaky raft to cross a sea unless they are desperate. Making that journey more dangerous by not coming to their aid is inhumane and morally wrong. Migrants strive to reach Europe because they see it as a beacon of humanity, security and prosperity. By letting them drown, Europe fails to live up to these ideals.

You Decide

  1. Would you risk going to prison in order to rescue someone from danger?
  2. Who is to blame when a migrant boat sinks in the middle of the sea?


  1. Explore Banksy’s art in the expert links and draw your own artwork of the Louise Michel rescuing a migrant boat in the Mediterranean.
  2. Watch the first video in the expert links and write a balanced news report of the rescue mission, explaining the motives of the refugees, the captain and the Italian police.

Some People Say...

“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity.”

Pope Francis

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that ships at sea have a legal duty to rescue those in trouble. Maritime law states that sea vessels should respond “with all speed” on learning of a boat in distress. The Mediterranean is divided into national search and rescue regions and it is EU policy to help Libya apprehend boats before they reach Europe. Although guidelines say those rescued should be taken to a “place of safety,” countries are under no legal obligation to accept them.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the EU’s policies towards migrants breach humanitarian law. Although Frontex, the EU’s border agency, says it will rescue boats in trouble, charities report that distress signals are being ignored. Politicians like Italian Matteo Salvini argue a country has the right to “protect its borders and its beaches,” and refuse entry to boats carrying refugees. However, Sea-Watch argues that denying them entry puts their lives at risk.

Word Watch

Pia Klemp
The German sea captain and human rights activist has taken charge of several rescue ships in the Mediterranean, rescuing about 14,000 migrants. The Italian authorities accuse her of aiding human trafficking and that many of those rescued were not at imminent risk of death.
The British street artist is known for his subversive stencil graffiti, which has appeared in public spaces across the world. Because graffiti is illegal, he hides his identity and works in secret.
Louise Michel
The boat is named after a 19th-century French anarchist and the mission is described as feminist, with only female crew members allowed to speak in the name of the ship.
Migrants and refugees
A refugee is someone fleeing war, persecution or a natural disaster, while migrants are usually moving for economic reasons. In reality, individuals migrate for complex and overlapping reasons.
Libyan civil war
The instability in Libya has made it a major route for migrants and a hub for people smugglers. According to a 2018 report, one in five migrants attempting to reach Europe from Libya drown or disappear.
Operation Sophia
In April 2015 a series of tragic shipwrecks killed hundreds of people off the Libyan coast. Public outcry led to an EU rescue operation, named after a Somali child born on a German rescue ship in August 2015.
A German non-governmental organisation (NGO) that deploys rescue ships in the Mediterranean.
International law
Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of human rights law that forbids “pushback,” returning refugees to warzones. Countries sometimes attempt to circumvent this by using private ships to return migrants.
Rounding up refugees
Najma al-Khatib, a Syrian teacher, told journalists how she and 22 others were removed from a Greek detention centre by masked men and put on a life raft. “I left Syria for fear of bombing,” she said, “but when this happened, I wished I’d died under a bomb.”

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