Italy has impounded a migrant rescue ship funded by UK artist Banksy as Giorgia Meloni’s government clamps down on humanitarian operations in an attempt to halt a surge in Mediterranean crossings.
Activists operating the MV Louise Michel — a former French naval boat purchased with help from Banksy using money raised from the sale of his art — said the high-speed vessel was seized after delivering 180 rescued people to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where hundreds of others had arrived in their own small boats over the weekend.
“Twenty-four hours after our ship is detained, we still do not have any written justification for the detention,” the Louise Michel crew said in a tweet on Sunday.
“We know of dozens of boats in distress right in front of the island at this very moment yet we are being prevented from assisting. This is unacceptable,” the crew added.
The seizure of the Louise Michel is the latest twist in the bitter confrontation between Prime Minister Meloni and humanitarian groups trying to prevent migrant drowning deaths in the Mediterranean.
It comes just weeks after a devastating shipwreck in which 90 people fleeing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran — including dozens of children — drowned just 40 metres from shore after their wooden ship broke apart on rocks near the Italian coast.
Meloni’s rightwing government believes humanitarian rescue ships such as the Louise Michel and Médecins Sans Frontières’ Geo Barents create an illusion of safety, which encourages people to undertake the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.
Italy has issued restrictive protocols that attempt to limit such humanitarian operations — and seized NGO ships that fail to comply. MSF’s Geo Barents was impounded last month and held for 20 days before being allowed to leave the port in Ancona.
The Italian coast guard said Sunday that the Louise Michel had rescued people from four different distressed vessels before bringing them to port, in violation of the protocols.
The coast guard also complained that the activists had “complicated delicate rescue co-ordination work”.
Despite the attempt to clampdown on humanitarian groups, the number of migrants is surging. As of Friday, 20,379 irregular migrants had reached Italian shores so far this year, compared with 6,518 in the same period last year.
“It is super clear that this whole approach is not for the safety of anyone, or the safety of the ships — it’s just about keeping humanitarian rescue ships out of the water,” a Louise Michel crew member told the Financial Times on Sunday.
Banksy supported the acquisition of the Louise Michel, which started its rescue missions in 2020 and is named after a 19th-century French feminist anarchist. The artist, who still helps fund the operations of the boat, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The seizure of the Banksy-funded rescue ship comes as the Italian government is bracing for a rise in migrants coming from Tunisia, where socio-economic conditions are deteriorating rapidly under the authoritarian rule of President Kais Saied.
“Not everyone is aware of the risks we are running . . . and that it is necessary to sustain Tunisia’s stability,” Meloni told reporters in Brussels on Friday. “The country has huge financial problems. If we don’t address those problems properly, we risk an unprecedented wave of migration.”
More than 3,300 people arrived in Italy on board 58 ships over 48 hours, the Italian coast guard said Sunday, though the government said that the exact numbers were still being compiled.
According to humanitarian groups quoted by Reuters, at least five migrant boats have sunk near the Tunisian coastal town of Sfax in recent days, leaving at least 76 people dead or missing. Tunisia’s coast guard has intercepted about 3,000 prospective migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 80 different ships in recent days.
Additional reporting in Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome