By Maddy Burt
“Like most people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht to cruise the med”, Banksy proclaimed via captions on an Instagram video. The text is interlaced with videos showing people desperately trying to board a ship, some not even wearing life jackets.
Banksy’s recent secret project is the M.V. Louise Michel, a converted French Navy vessel decorated by Banksy with a fire extinguisher. ‘She runs on a flat hierarchy and a vegan diet’, the website reveals. More importantly, she is a search and rescue ship with the aim of helping those in distress attempting to travel to Europe.
In late August, the M.V. Louise Michel ran an operation that assisted a total of 219 people onto the ship from unsafe boats, a number well over the capacity of the vessel. It logged on its twitter feed the unanswered distress calls for assistance to authorities in both Malta and Italy. The survivors were later transferred to Sea Watch 4, and finally offered a place of refuge in Sicily.
Banksy’s work has certainly proved controversial in the past, and his rescue vessel has received a mixed response from the public and authorities. Some praise him for doing what the EU is frequently failing to do, responding to distress signals of those seeking refuge in Europe who are risking their lives at sea. Others accuse him of a publicity stunt that encourages traffickers in their operations and will lead to an increased number of attempted crossings. The launch of the vessel comes amid growing conversation around such crossings, their legality, and the place of countries to offer rescue and support.
It is not illegal to seek refuge from persecution, and many of the people attempting the crossing from Libya to Italy are fleeing ongoing conflict in Libya and Sudan. Labelling such people as ‘illegals’ is misleading and dehumanising, but a stance taken by governments across Europe.
Indeed, it is a legal obligation to offer assistance to those in distress on the ocean – the 1974 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea states that there is a requirement to respond quickly to those that are in danger at sea. Banksy’s boat is a visual reminder, decorated in pink and featuring his artwork, that an anonymous street artist from Bristol is providing what governments are currently withholding.
The EU is busy funding schemes in Libya to train the coastguard to pick up people attempting the crossing and send them back, often to detention camps for abuse and imprisonment. Turning people back to the countries they seek refuge from is a dangerous precedent to set.
There is an argument that Banksy’s boat encourages traffickers and smugglers, and increased attempted crossings, as rubber boats need only get as far as the rescue boat off the Libyan coast. However, it is a huge humanitarian crisis to neglect to save people seeking refuge in eminent danger of drowning at sea.
Certainly, Banksy’s boat is a short term solution – ideally, people will not have to turn to smugglers and attempt a terrifying journey at all to carry out the human right of seeking asylum. A long term solution is providing more accessible ways of shelter from persecution across Europe, open to increased numbers of people.
In the meantime, at the very least Europe should prioritise saving lives over pre-emptively judging and dismissing claims of asylum.
Image: “Rescue at Mediterranean // 21/05/2018” via Creative Commons