Migrants are Being Plunged into a Deadly Rescue Gap 

Covid-19 Migration Surge Leaves Hundreds Stranded in the Mediterranean Sea

The mysterious British street artist Banksy, known for his political or social-commentary graffiti that has popped up in cities around the world, made a powerful statement by funding a migrant boat The Louise Michel, named after a French feminist anarchist, to rescue refugees attempting to reach Europe from north Africa. Banksy's art is nothing if not political, and he has dealt continually over the years with the themes of war, migration and refugees.


Painted bright pink and displaying a Banksy artwork depicting a girl in a life vest holding a heart-shaped safety buoy, the 31-metre motor yacht sailing under a German flag hit a serious snag over the weekend. With more than 200 people aboard, including one person who had died before being transferred to the ship, according to its Twitter account, the vessel had exceeded its capacity and issued a distress call. The Italian Coast Guard eventually answered, transporting the refugees to other vessels—but only after six hours, according to the ship’s account. Another boat, a vessel run by a German nongovernmental organization, later responded to the Mayday and took on the remaining passengers. 


The Louise Michel reprimanded authorities for the delay, tweeting, “The obligation to rescue at sea is an obligation under international maritime law. This obligation applies to every person in danger at sea—regardless of nationality, reason for flight or legal status. #EU, you don’t respect your own laws.”


Banksy offered his own take on his Instagram account over the weekend.  “Like most people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht to cruise the Med,” Banksy wrote on in captions accompanying a video of the ship mixed with footage of people stranded at sea. “It’s a French navy vessel we converted into a lifeboat because European authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from non-Europeans,” he said. 


Five years since the 2015 migrant crisis, hundreds of people are still dying in the Mediterranean. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 554 migrants have died so far this year. Last month, at least 45 people, including five children, died when their boat capsized off the coast of Libya, where many boats heading to Europe originate. The United Nations said it was the deadliest shipwreck in Libya this year. In response, IOM and the U.N. refugee agency issued a statement calling for "an urgent need to strengthen the current search and rescue capacity." "Delays recorded in recent months, and failure to assist, are unacceptable and put lives at avoidable risk," they added.


While the death toll for 2020 is far lower than the comparable figure for five years ago - 3,030 people are believed to have died between January and August 2015 - people are still drowning regularly in the Mediterranean as they try to reach Europe and numbers are up from last year. Italy has recorded 16,942 sea arrivals so far in 2020, compared with 11,471 in all of 2019, reports the UNHCR. The number attempting the perilous journey to cross the English Channel is also rising. Almost 4,900 people have crossed the Channel in small boats since lockdown began, more than double the amount thought to have crossed in the whole of 2019, according to analysis by PA Media. Arrivals in southeastern Europe are also up on 2019, mostly from Syria, followed by Morocco and Iraq.


Coronavirus has left countries such as Tunisia facing serious economic hardship and unemployment, while others, including Libya, are dealing with the effects of war. That's led to the increase in sea arrivals this year in countries including Italy and Malta, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 


Migrants wait onboard the Sea-Watch 4 civil sea rescue ship, that is waiting for permission to run into a port, on sea between Malta and Italy, on August 30, 2020. (Getty)

Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may spend thousands of dollars for a space on an overcrowded dingy or an aging ship. Smugglers then abandon them at sea when leaks occur or fuel runs out. But the situation has become bleaker since the coronavirus pandemic began. "We know that smugglers and traffickers have obviously been impacted by the pandemic and the restrictions that were put in place. But we also know they're very adaptable," UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley told CNN. "That's a big concern for us because it also means that the refugees and migrants who are taking these journeys are taking more dangerous and more risky routes." He said migrants were facing torture, rape and other abuse during land journeys to Libya "by smugglers, traffickers, militias, but also state officials."


The response from European countries burdened by coronavirus has been icy, creating a deadly rescue gap. Conducting rescues had become more difficult during lockdown because of countries including governments in Italy and Malta that have ignored or responded slowly to distress calls from people stranded at sea and declared their ports unsafe because of the virus, closing them to the few NGO rescue boats that had – until recently at least – still been managing to operate.  Some migrants and refugees who have made it to Italy and Greece, a common entry point to Europe, have tested positive for the virus that causes covid-19. Refugee advocates have accused some European countries of using the novel coronavirus as a pretext for stopping migration, such as preventing nongovernmental organisation rescue boats from docking.


Human rights groups and agencies have repeatedly denounced what they describe as an inadequate response by maritime authorities when alerted of people left adrift in damaged boats after embarking on dangerous sea journeys to reach Europe.


The UNHCR and the IOM issued a joint statement over the weekend petitioning European officials to allow the hundreds of migrants aboard the various rescue vessels—including those who came from the Banksy-funded Louise Michael—to come ashore. A lack of agreement among regional governments “is not an excuse to deny vulnerable people a port of safety and the assistance they need, as required under international law. It is crucial that other EU Member States provide more support to countries at the forefront of receiving sea arrivals in the Mediterranean,” the statement read.


The international agencies praised NGO-run vessels for playing “a crucial role in saving lives at sea amid a sharp reduction in European state-led efforts” and called on governments not to restrict or sanction their work.


International maritime rules are clear that vessels at sea have a duty to rescue those in trouble. The 1974 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea says any ship learning of persons in distress "should proceed with all speed to their assistance". There's also the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which makes clear that any state with a ship flying its flag should ensure that ship goes to rescue those "in distress." There also established legal frameworks for how different countries should co-ordinate rescue efforts between them in the open sea.