Banksy-funded rescue ship Louise Michel carries 31 refugees as Tunisian Navy sends 70 to its ‘unsafe’ country
EUROPEAN maritime authorities and fossil fuel giant Shell were accused of complicity in the sending of about 70 refugees to an unsafe country today.
Civilian rescuers on board the Louise Michel, a rescue ship part-funded by the elusive British artist Banksy, discovered about 101 people within Malta‘s search-and-rescue (SAR) zone in the central Mediterranean on Monday night.
It was the Seabird, a reconnaissance plane operated by rescuers Sea-Watch, that first spotted the refugees in distress, and passed their position onto the Louise Michael.
The Louise Michel’s crew managed to bring 31 refugees aboard their vessel, but the remaining 70 or so others climbed onto the nearby Miskar offshore gas platform, which Shell operates on behalf of the Tunisian government.
The Louise Michel warned on social media this morning that the refugees on the platform had been waiting there for over 14 hours and that the Maltese authorities, who are legally responsible for coordinating their rescue, were refusing to communicate.
The Tunisian navy arrived on scene later in the afternoon and took the 70 refugees from the platform to Tunisia, a move Louise Michel and many of the other NGO refugee rescuers condemned as a “pullback,” the unlawful return of refugees to an unsafe place.
“We witnessed an illegal pullback of around 70 people by several Tunisian Navy vessels from the Shell platform,” a crew member aboard the Louise Michel told The Civil Fleet today.
“We strongly condemn this violation of human rights and maritime law of which European authorities and Shell are complicit in.”
Jacob Berkson, an activist with the distress hotline organisation Alarm Phone, described the Tunisian and Maltese authorities’ actions as an “egregious breach” of the refugee conventions.
“It is to be hoped that they [the refugees] have not been returned to the hell of Libya, but nor can Tunisia be assumed to be a safe third country. It was on Malta to rescue these people,” Mr Berkman told The Civil Fleet today.
“In any sane world, the Armed Forces of Malta would intervene swiftly and professionally to rescue people in distress, irrespective of why they took to sea in the first place.
“Of course, in any sane world, it would be rare that people seeking refuge needed rescuing because they would be travelling on a well maintained, commercial vessel to a country of their choice.”
Shell’s Tunisian arm said: “[We] can confirm that on January 3 2022 at 8pm (Tunis time), a boat carrying people reached our offshore platform. They were assisted and provided with water, food and dry clothes.
“Shell had informed the Tunisian authorities and worked closely with them to ensure the safety of people on board the boat. They have since been safely transferred to the Tunisian navy vessel on January 4.”
Over 1,100 people were rescued by civilian rescuers on three NGO ships in the central Mediterranean over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
The European authorities once again kept Doctor’s Without Borders’ (MSF) Geo Barents, SOS Mediterranee‘s Ocean Viking, and Sea-Watch’s Sea-Watch 3 at sea for days after their crews had saved hundreds of lives.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced today that over 32,400 people were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya in 2021.
MSF said the number of interceptions in the central Mediterranean last year almost tripled compared to 2020.
“32,425 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have been brought back to systematic extortions, violence and abuse in Libya with the complicity of EU and EU member states,” the organisation said.