Oh Banksy, love him or hate him, nobody can deny that his latest venture sure has got people talking. Painted pink and white with typical Banksy artwork, this summer, the Louise Michel took to the waves.
Foe my part, I was loathe to touch upon such a delicate subject as this one and in these such uncertain times. Alas, being from the same city that Banksy is said to be from and feeling as though I had an opinion to contribute, I felt that I should perhaps voice my concern.
Banksy’s decision to buy the retired French navy vessel Suroit came in response to the worsening migrant crisis in the Mediterranean sea. Frustrated by the apparent hand-wringing coming from Europe and their refusal to answer distress calls from non-European black people who were in distress at sea, Banksy reached out to Pia Klemp of Sea Shepherd to offer millions in assistance. It is unclear what deal was struck but it is understood that Pia commands the vessel and Banksy purchased, decorated and donated it, and so the Louise Michel came to be. From her website, it is explained that those onboard live by a “flat hierachy and a vegan diet”. I fail to see what significance this plays in their mission, other than a spot of virtue signalling from the crew.
Unfortunately, only weeks after her launch, the Louise Michel issued a distress call when her capacity was exceeded after rescuing 130 migrants. One man died and the Louise Michel had immigrants in her life rafts on the side of the vessel. Unable to move, the Louise Michel herself was now stranded at sea.
Make no mistake, I feel that what this crew is doing is admirable, even if also a little foolish. It takes guts to to challenge international maritime law and it takes guts for such a small group of people to hold countries up to it. Unfortunately though, the crew of the Louise Michel were a little wrong in what they claim.
The crew likes to report that European countries have an obligation to take in the immigrants under maritime law, but that’s wrong. A country does have a duty to rescue a vessel in distress, but it does not have a duty to rehouse its occupants long-term. By all accounts, under maritime law, the aid-giving country can repatriate migrants if deemed necessary or appropriate and only has a duty to find alternative arrangements where it is unsafe for the migrants to return to their original country (as is the case with Libya). Unfortunately for the migrants and perhaps equally damning for the NGOs who rescue them, it also means to say that offshore centres, such as the infamous Christmas Island near Australia, may sometimes be regarded as acceptable solutions. In the long-term then, the rescue of these migrants doesn’t automatically promise them a better life elsewhere.
Arguably. the primary concern for many countries right now is a stretch of resources and the added health risk amidst the ongoing Coronavirus crisis. At time of writing, The primary destinations for the safe landing of these immigrants (Spain, Italy and Malta) has, to the nearest thousand, a combined total of 276.000 Covid-19 cases in a combined total of 107.5 million. They may be safe from conflict and exploitation, but the risk of coronavirus has still not gone away.
Next, we need to understand the fears of many European governments regarding accepting foreign nationals at a time of a global health crisis. Even if cases are dropping across Europe, figures are still very high in some Middle Eastern countries where some migrants are coming from, particularly countries like Iran. We know that many people can be asymptomatic and have the virus and we know that the risk of transmission still remains fairly high, and so a few preliminary tests onboard the vessel may not be enough. Tests take days to deliver results and in the time that it takes to obtain them, more people could be infected. On a vessel only 30 metres in length, it is also safe to assume that social distancing rules have been broken nearly every time, and so the likelihood of transmission rapidly increases.
One of the biggest groups at risk of severe complications from Covid-19 is the BAME community and that, unfortunately, could include Libyan nationals. For Italy and Spain, memories of a strict lockdown are still fresh and the sights and sounds of an overrun health system are something that the people haven’t yet forgotten. Even with the best intentions, a handful of cases can quickly become dozens of cases, and in a worst case scenario, Europe could soon see the second wave they’ve been so desperate to prevent. In order to prevent a second influx of cases and overrunning the healthcare system, many countries understandably have closed or severely restricted their borders. This isn’t merely just Europe refusing migrants, right now, this is also Europe protecting its economy, it’s hurting healthcare system and its people.
Third, we need to look at the other side of this situation, because these migrants wouldn’t need saving if they weren’t coming from somewhere. The more migrants that are rescued (and inevitably make it to Europe), the more migrants will be tempted to make the perilous journey by sea and the more people trafficking gangs will profit from the generosity of this “taxi service to Europe”. No matter how thoughtful and heroic they might believe themselves to be, these NGO ships are, unfortunately, encouraging more people to put their lives at risk and only leading more people trafficking gangs rub their hands with glee. All of a sudden, the risk of capture or a crowded and dangerous dinghy doesn’t seem too scary if a pink ship will deliver you to the promised lands. After two civil wars following the toppling of Mwamar Gaddafi, it would be better to demand that Europe to support and fund the new Libyan government and help fix the problem that it created.
Finally, these people need to understand the dangers that they put themselves under. If you’ve ever stood at the site of a lifeboat memorial like I have, the thoughts of the good hearts lost at sea is unthinkable. I’m sure that each time the Louise Michel sets sail, the very last thing her ten-man crew imagines is not reaching the shore again. The sea is an unpredictable force of nature and no matter how brave these people may seem, they are unfortunately not above it. Her crew may call for help because they have too many saved souls onboard, but pray tell, one day it could be the Louise Michel herself that needs saving.
I should say here that I am not against immigration and I am fully in support of offering refuge to individuals from war-torn countries. I believe that we as a global community should be working together and we should have a duty of care to those most in need. Whilst I am all for helping and supporting those fleeing from corruption and conflict and saving lives at sea, I do think that on the grand scheme of things, Banksy would be much better off sticking to his paintings.