A migrant rescue ship funded by British street artist Banksy has been impounded on the Italian island of Lampedusa over a new border control policy introduced by Giorgia Meloni’s far-right government. It will remain there for a total of 20 days, unable to head out on any new rescue mission at a time when migrants are reaching the Italian coasts in record numbers.
The Louise Michel, a pink-coloured former French navy boat called after a French anarchist and revolutionary, was blocked by Italian authorities in Lampedusa’s port on Saturday morning after rescuing 178 migrants. According to officials, activists on the ship violated a new decree-law ruling NGOs’ behaviour in search and rescue operations by going on multiple rescues – four in total.
The Louise Michel’s crew said they had responded to several Mayday relay calls from a Frontex aircraft warning about people in immediate need of assistance before receiving news that the ship will be blocked by Italian authorities.
According to the Italian Coast Guard, the rescue ship didn’t follow officials’ instructions to reach Trapani’s port after a first rescue mission, going back instead to help more people in distress. These people, the coast guard said, were going to be rescued by officials, but operations were delayed by the Louise Michel’s intervention.
The crew of the Louise Michel, on the other hand, wrote on Twitter that though an Italian vessel was present at the scene, authorities failed to promptly intervene to help the migrants in the water.
The new law, approved in January by Meloni’s government, makes the work of search and rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean more complicated. According to the decree, NGOs must notify Italian authorities immediately after a rescue operation and head to the port indicated by officials without delay. Ships cannot embark on more than one rescue operation at a time unless authorised to do so by Italian authorities.
If these rules are violated, ships can be denied access to Italian ports or blocked for up to two months, while their captains face a fine between 10 and 50 thousand euros. If a ship is found in violation of the decree more than once, the vessel can be seized by Italian authorities.
“The only aim of the decree-law is the blockage of Rescue ships, willingly taking into account the deaths of people on the move,” activists working on the Louise Michel wrote on Twitter.
Italy reported a record number of migrant arrivals during the past weekend, with over 4,000 arrivals in three days, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. The number of people dying in the Mediterranean has also recently increased: Tunisia’s coast guard reported rescuing the bodies of at least 29 people who died after two migrant boats sank off the coast of the country.
Meanwhile, Italy has just found the body of the 91st victim who died in the tragic shipwreck which occurred last month near Crotone, in the southern region of Calabria. The body belongs to an yet-to-be-identified 30-year-old man.
The detention of the Louise Michel was condemned by other fellow NGOs like Sea-Watch International, who wrote on Twitter: “Those who rescue are now punished by Italy with 20 days of detention. While bodies wash up on Italian shores, civil sea rescue ships are blocked. This Italian decree will lead to even more deaths in the Mediterranean.”
The detention of the Banksy-funded ship marked a turbulent weekend for the Central Mediterranean which saw an unprecedented escalation of violence between Libyan authorities and NGOs.
On Saturday, the Libyan Coast Guard fired shots in the air to warn the NGO rescue ship Ocean Viking and stop it from helping a boat in distress in international waters off Libya. The Libyan Coast Guard then intercepted the 80 people in distress and forcibly returned them to Libya.
In a recent report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, investigators found that there is evidence that crimes against humanity have been committed against Libyans and migrants stuck in Libya and accused the European Union of supporting Libyan forces in committing these crimes.