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Migrant rescue boat funded by street artist Banksy pleads with Europe to let it ashore

The Louise Michel had set out Thursday to assist more than 80 people marooned on a rubber dinghy. It then encountered a ship traveling from North Africa to Europe with 130 people aboard and some bodies of people who had died during the journey, according to the Louise Michel’s Twitter account.

The 101-foot Louise Michel, with 10 crew members, quickly became overcrowded and could not properly steer, its Twitter posts said.

The Louise Michel “is unable to move, she is no longer the master of her maneuver, due to her overcrowded deck and a life raft deployed at her side, but above all due to Europe ignoring our emergency calls for immediate assistance. The responsible authorities remain unresponsive,” the ship’s Twitter account wrote Saturday.

The Louise Michel was at sea around 55 miles southeast of Lampedusa, an Italian island off the North African coast that has become a migration transit point, according to the global ship-tracking website Marine Traffic cited by France 24.

Hours after its distress call went out, the group’s Twitter account reported that the Italian coast guard had taken 49 passengers and one body.

Later a vessel run by a German nongovernmental organization had arrived and taken on passengers. The Sea Watch 4 already had aboard 200 migrants recently rescued at sea and was in search of a port to dock at, Euronews reported.

Abandoned at sea

Thousands of people have died making the dangerous trek from the Middle East and Africa across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe’s shores. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may spend thousands of dollars for a space on an overcrowded dingy or an aging ship. Smugglers then abandon them at sea when leaks occur or fuel runs out.

At least 500 people have died so far this year in the Mediterranean Sea, although the number is likely higher, relief groups say. Last year, over 100,000 people tried to cross and at least 1,283 people died, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In recent months, European and nongovernmental rescue operations have been largely suspended or curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some migrants and refugees who have made it to Italy and Greece, a common entry point to Europe, have tested positive for the virus that causes covid-19. Refugee advocates have accused some European countries of using the novel coronavirus as a pretext for stopping migration, such as preventing nongovernmental organization rescue boats from docking.

But distressed people keep coming.

On Aug. 17, at least 45 people, including five children, died when their boat capsized off the coast of Libya, where many boats heading to Europe originate from. The United Nations said it was the deadliest shipwreck in Libya this year. In response, IOM and the U.N. refugee agency, issued a statement calling for an “urgent need to strengthen the current search and rescue capacity to respond to distress calls.”

“There remains a continued absence of any dedicated, EU-led search and rescue program,” the statement continued. “We fear that without an urgent increase in search and rescue capacity, is a risk of another disaster similar to incidents that saw large loss of life.”

The international agencies praised NGO-run vessels for playing “a crucial role in saving lives at sea amid a sharp reduction in European state-led efforts” and called on governments to not restrict or sanction their work.

The Louise Michel is painted pink and white and features original Banksy artwork: a mural of a young girl wearing a life vest and holding a heart-shaped safety buoy. The former French patrol boat is named after a French feminist anarchist and comparatively faster than other rescue vessels, according to the Guardian.

“Like most people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht to cruise the Med,” Banksy wrote on Instagram on Saturday in captions accompanying a video of the ship mixed with footage of people stranded at sea.

“Because E.U. authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from ’non-Europeans’,” he continued. “All Black Lives Matter.”

Greece and Italy were the main thoroughfares to Europe during a massive wave of migration from the Middle East and Africa via the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. In response, European countries made deals with Libya and Turkey to halt the flow of people from their shores. Refugee advocates charge that in practice these agreements often violate the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

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