Hundreds of migrants were lifted to safety from a rescue boat funded by street artist Banksy after it became so overcrowded that it was in danger of capsizing in the Mediterranean.
Some 209 migrants were transferred from the MV Louise Michel on to another rescue boat, after its crew put out a series of mayday alerts saying the vessel could not move due to an overcrowded deck.
Earlier on Saturday, Italian coastguards had reached the Louise Michel – stranded in waters between Malta and the island of Lampedusa – but were only able to rescue 49 of the most vulnerable passenger, including 13 children.
But late last night, a fellow rescue boat Sea Watch 4 arrived to help ‘all remaining guests’ off the Louise Michel, according to a tweet put out by the latter’s crew.
The ten-strong crew of the Louise Michel also tweeted: ‘It’s not over: We demand a Place of Safety for all survivors, now.’
The 100ft former French navy vessel, named after a female anarchist, had been almost double its maximum safe capacity of 120 and was said to be ‘losing its balance’.
In earlier tweet its crew had asked for urgent help, posting: ‘We repeat, #LouiseMichel is unable to safely move and nobody is coming to our aid.
‘The people rescued have experienced extreme trauma, it’s time for them to be brought to a #PlaceOfSafety. We need immediate assistance.’
But migration activists criticised Banksy for launching a rescue ship in the Mediterranean, saying it would only encourage people smugglers to put more migrants on small boats and send them towards Europe.
The boat features some of Banksy’s trademark work, including a girl in a life vest holding a heartshaped safety buoy.
So far this year, 550 migrants have died trying to cross the 300- mile stretch between Libya and the coasts of Italy and Malta.
The Louise Michel’s passengers were mainly African men believed to have set off from the Libyan coast in flimsy dinghies – but also include women and children.
One of the dinghies carrying the migrants also had a dead body, which was taken on board and then placed on a life raft, covered by a white sheet. The life raft was then attached to the Louise Michel.
Appealing for help, Lea Reisner, head of operations for the Louise Michel, said: ‘The people have sat in a mix of salt water and fuel for days. It is night and European states are not doing their f****** job. They deny responsibility while we are trying to keep everyone alive.’
But Alp Mehmet, chairman of campaign group Migration Watch, said: ‘Although Banksy may think what he is doing is helping, his actions are only serving to encourage this evil trade of migrant trafficking.
These people only care about making money and profit from others’ misery.
‘By launching this search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, traffickers will be able to convince more migrants to attempt the perilous crossing.’
On Wednesday, 45 people – including five children – died when the engine on their boat exploded off the coast of Libya.
Official data shows that more than 19,500 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean from Africa to either Italy or Malta this year.
Although Banksy has not said how much he has paid towards the vessel, the Louise Michel is believed to have cost £860,000.
Last night, the United Nations also weighed into the furore by saying it was concerned about the lack of dedicated EU-led search and rescue efforts.
In a statement, the UN High Commission for Refugees said: ‘The humanitarian imperative of saving lives should not be penalised or stigmatised, especially in the absence of dedicated state-led efforts.’
The Louise Michel set off in secrecy on August 18 from the Spanish port of Burriana, near Valencia. Banksy remained silent about the crisis in the Med last night, but earlier issued a video on his Instagram page, where he told his 10 million followers: ‘Like most people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht to cruise the Med.
‘It’s a French navy vessel we converted into a lifeboat, because EU authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from non-Europeans.’
Banksy, who hides his real identity, is believed to have asked a controversial German sea pilot and human rights activist called Pia Klemp for help.
Her company Sea-Watch has provided the all-vegan ten-man crew for the vessel, which sailed under the German flag.
Sea-Watch rescued more than 1,000 migrants in the Med last year, which has angered the Italian Government.
Italian authorities have charged Ms Klemp in absentia with aiding illegal immigration.