The Louise Michel is financed by the artist Banksy, seen here detained in the port of Lampedusa for violations of the new decree | Photo: ARCHIVE/ANSA/ELIO DESIDERIO
The Louise Michel is financed by the artist Banksy, seen here detained in the port of Lampedusa for violations of the new decree | Photo: ARCHIVE/ANSA/ELIO DESIDERIO

A humanitarian ship funded by British street artist Banksy was seized in Lampedusa on Sunday after rescuing 178 refugees and migrants. Authorities said it had breached new rules for ships operated by non-governmental organizations carrying out search and rescue in the central Mediterranean Sea.

Italian authorities seized the Louise Michel for allegedly violating the code of conduct for NGOs, which was introduced at the beginning of the year. According to the document, private rescue missions are not allowed to carry out multiple rescue operations in one go. Instead, they are supposed to head to an assigned port of disembarkation immediately after the first rescue.

Authorities justify this law by saying that any deviation from this pattern would complicate the coordination of rescue operations.

The Italian coast guard said it had ordered the NGO-run ship to dock in Trapani, Sicily, after its first rescue operation in Libya's search and rescue area. However, rather than proceeding directly to the assigned port under the terms of the decree law introduced by the government of Giorgia Meloni at the end of 2022 and converted into law in February, the coast guard said the vessel assisted refugees and migrants on three other boats in Malta's search and rescue zone.

Overall, nearly 1,000 refugees and migrants reached Italy on Sunday, March 26. Furthermore, a record-breaking 4,000 people landed in just three days between Friday and Sunday, mainly coming from Tunisia.

Meanwhile, the number of reported victims also increased: The Tunisian coast guard on Sunday retrieved at least 29 bodies after two boats sank off its coast while trying to reach Italy. Other shipwrecks had also been recorded in the previous days.

Legal action possible

Crew members of the Louise Michel could also be investigated by magistrates in the Sicilian city of Agrigento alongside other humanitarian organizations.

Prosecutors could open a probe after the Italian coast guard said that NGO ships "jammed communication systems of the National Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre" in Rome, "overlapping and duplicating reports by state aircraft."

The maritime authority said that the ship had "behaved in a way that complicated the delicate work of coordination of rescue operations, and the non-observance of orders moreover slowed down the arrival in the port of destination of migrants who were rescued in the first operation."

Another humanitarian vessel, the Ocean Viking, which is operated by SOS Méditerranée, was at the center of another controversy after its crew members over the weekend reported that Libyan coast guard officials opened fire in their SAR area "without reporting this to the flag country, as provided by law, but to the Italian coordination centre, thus overburdening the centre at a particularly intense time for rescue operations".

SOS Méditerranée responded: "It is very curious now to say that the telephone lines of the national coordination center of rescue operations are overburdened while instead in 2015 those same calls were openly praised. It appears absurd to say that we are hindering rescues instead of highlighting that we are saving human lives", the NGO said.

Criticism against new decree

Morana Milijanovic, mission chief of the Louise Michel, told the daily la Repubblica newspaper in an interview published on Monday that after the first rescue operation, "we did not immediately receive instructions on a safe port, which were imparted only after a few hours."

"Meanwhile, we performed a second operation, after which we headed towards Trapani, as ordered. But along the way we heard a mayday launched by a Frontex plane and we responded, as provided by international law.

"Many boats were asking for help and the coast guard was not in a position to immediately respond to everybody", she added.

She added that the purpose of the new law for NGO ships "was immediately obvious: hindering rescue operations of the civilian fleet. It appears absurd because there are hundreds of people in danger out there while we are stranded here. And the consequences are clear: more deaths at sea," she said.


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