By Alvise Armellini
Rome – The Italian coastguard stepped in Saturday to offer partial relief for the Louise Michel, a charity migrant rescue ship sponsored by British street artist Banksy.
The Louise Michel issued a Mayday call late on Friday, saying that after rescuing more than 200 migrants, its seaworthiness was compromised from having too many people on board.
A Twitter account for the vessel said a 10-person crew was looking after 219 survivors, including 33 held in a separate liferaft.
The ship “is unable to move, she is no longer the master of her manoeuvre, due to her overcrowded deck and a liferaft deployed at her side,” another message said.
On Saturday afternoon, the Italian coastguard said one of its patrol vessels was dispatched from the island of Lampedusa and took in 49 people seen as most vulnerable – 32 women, 13 children and four men.
“Update: The Italian Coastguard took over 49 of the most vulnerable survivors! That’s great – & leaves us with the majority still waiting,” the Louise Michel tweeted.
“Just transferred all remaining guests onto #SeaWatch4, who now have about 350 people on board. It’s not over: We demand a Place of Safety for all survivors, now,” The Louise Michel said later in a tweeted update.
The coastguard also took possession of the body of one person who had died. The man had perished before the Louise Michel crew had reached the stricken vessel he was travelling on Friday, the charity boat said.
Italian authorities stressed that the German-flagged migrant boat was in Maltese search-and-rescue waters, and that they intervened after being asked to by Maltese authorities.
Meanwhile, two other migrant rescue vessels mobilized to help the Louise Michel: the German-flagged Sea-Watch 4 and Mare Ionio, run by the Italian charity Mediterranea.
On Twitter, the Louise Michel said it launched a Mayday request on Friday at 7:40pm (1740 GMT), and spent the following hours trying to contact Italian, Maltese and German rescue authorities.
After a series of “no answer” or “no duty officer available” messages, Maltese authorities called at 11:40 pm saying “they cannot send asset, they are all busy with other cases,” it claimed.
The Louise Michel is painted pink and named after a 19th-century French anarchist and feminist who fought to defend the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871 and advocated class warfare.
The ship, a former French navy unit, was bought with proceeds from the sale of a Banksy artwork. The artist decorated the vessel with the image of a girl with a life vest and holding a heart-shaped buoy.
Banksy, whose identity remains a mystery, is famous for highlighting social issues in his work.
In an Instagram video, he said he “bought a yacht” and converted it into a lifeboat “because EU authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from ‘non-Europeans.'”
His video ended with the message “All Black Lives Matter.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called for the “immediate disembarkation” of all the Louise Michel migrants and more than 200 others also stuck at sea.
“The lack of agreement on a regional disembarkation mechanism, long called for by IOM and UNHCR, is not an excuse to deny vulnerable people a port of safety and the assistance they need, as required under international law,” the two UN agencies said jointly.
They mentioned the Louise Michel, but also the 27 migrants stuck since early August on the Maersk Etienne, a Danish tanker, and 201 migrants on the Sea-Watch 4.
Standoffs over migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean have been playing out for years, with Italy and Malta usually reluctant to take them in.
The two countries have long said they are disproportionately affected by Europe-bound migration from North Africa by sea, and that there is insufficient burden-sharing across the European Union.
Both countries’ positions have hardened in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, amid concerns about the risk of infection from migrants.