Mystery street artist Banksy has paid for a boat to rescue refugees attempting to reach Europe from north Africa.
The vessel picked up 89 people in distress on Thursday, including 14 women and four children.
It set off in secret on August 18 from the Spanish seaport of Burriana, near Valencia, and is now in the central Mediterranean looking for a safe port to disembark the passengers or to transfer them to a European coastguard vessel.
The boat, which features Banksy artwork depicting a girl in a life vest holding a heart-shaped safety buoy, is ran by a crew of experienced European activists who have carried out two other rescue operations involving 105 people.
Banksy’s involvement in the rescue mission goes back to September 2019, when he sent an email to Pia Klemp, a former captain of several NGO boats that have rescued thousands of people over recent years.
‘Hello Pia, I’ve read about your story in the papers. You sound like a badass,’ he wrote. ‘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.’
Klemp, who initially thought it was a joke, believes she was chosen by Banksy due to her political stance.
Speaking to The Guardian she said: ‘I don’t see sea rescue as a humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight’.
She said the Bristol-born street artist’s involvement in the operations is limited to financial support, adding: ‘Banksy won’t pretend that he knows better than us how to run a ship, and we won’t pretend to be artists.’
The vessel is named Louise Michel after a French feminist anarchist and sails under a German flag. It has a top speed of 27 knots which Klemp hopes can outrun the Libyan coastguard before they ‘pull them [the migrants] back to the detention camps in Libya’.
International organisations have accused the Libyan coastguard of mistreating people at sea or selling them off to militias after intercepting them.
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 7,600 Libyan migrants have been intercepted so far this year and returned to the war-torn country. Human rights organisations say people confined to informal camps are subject to systematic torture and rape.
The 10 crew members of the Louise Michel identify as anti-racist and anti-fascist activists advocating for radical political change. The planning of the mission was carried out in secrecy between London, Berlin and Burriana.
The rescue activists feared that media attention could compromise their goals and agreed with Banksy’s team to release the news about the boat only after carrying out the first rescue.
More than 500 refugees and migrants are known to have died in the Mediterranean sea this year, though the real number is estimated to be considerably higher.
On Wednesday, 45 people – including five children – died when the engine on their boat exploded off Libya, the UN said.
Claire Faggianelli, an activist who prepared the Louise Michel for its first mission, said the project was a wake-up call for Europe.
‘There is something that shouldn’t be happening at the very borders of Europe, and you close your eyes to it,’ she said. ‘Wake up!’
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