Wednesday was World Refugee Day, and a newfound wave of urgency and empathy has inspired fresh optimism — online and off — to find solutions to the worst displacement crisis since World War II.

But not everyone’s sending the right message.

Italian clothing brand United Colors of Benetton just launched a new campaign featuring photographs of recently rescued migrants from the Mediterranean, causing quite a bit of controversy.

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The advert shows a photo of a sea rescue operation on June 9 that saved the lives of 629 refugees, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children, seven pregnant women, and 15 with serious chemical burns. The survivors spent a week stranded at sea as both Italy and Malta refused to let their boat dock, before Spain eventually allowed the ship to land in Valencia.

SOS Méditerranée operated the vessel, called “Aquarius”, with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and rescued the refugees across six operations off the coast of Libya.

Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini was among those who turned the boat away, but reportedly tweeted about the Benetton campaign, saying: "Am I the only one to find this despicable?"

The images were captured by German charity SOS Méditerranée and used by Benetton without permission, according to the charity. They were published in Italian newspaper La Repubblica, and shared online.

Read More: Over 600 People Stranded on Migrant Rescue Ship Because No One Would Let Them Dock

The charity disassociated itself from the Benetton campaign entirely, and criticised the brand for using images showing “people in distress” in order to sell clothes.

“Dignity of survivors must be respected at all times,” read a statement from SOS Méditerranée. “The human tragedy at stake in the Mediterranean must never be used for any commercial purposes.”

Benetton is known across the world for its provocative campaigns, especially in partnership with divisive photographer Oliviero Toscani, who is back as the architect of this migrant campaign.

The BBC reports that Toscani left the company in 2000 after 18 years courting controversy with some of the world’s most notorious fashion campaigns, but returned in February.

Toscani won a reputation as a provocateur for his work with Benetton depicting racism, religion, and LGBTQ rights across the 1980-90s, including one image of a nun kissing a priest, and another of three raw hearts with the words “white”, “black”, and “yellow” written on top.

Read More: 'Harry Potter' and 'Game of Thrones' Actors Team Up to Fight for Refugees — With Shakespeare

However, some observed that his work often went too far, such as when he used a photo of a famous HIV/AIDS activist on his deathbed in 1990, or captured a series of convicted murderers on death row a decade later.  

Now, Toscani is chasing headlines once more.

More than 3,000 people have died each year crossing the Mediterranean in the last four years, according to the International Organisation of Migrants (IOM), and on June 2 at least 100 drowned in the deadliest boat disaster of the year so far.

Migrants and refugees will often risk the deadly trip to flee famine, war, or poverty. Globally there are 68.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced, including 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum seekers. And with an addition 2.9 million displaced from the previous year, it appears that the problem is only growing worse.

Benetton is yet to comment on the controversy, but has deleted its tweet sharing the image of the migrants on the SOS Méditerranée rescue boat.

Global Citizen campaigns on the UN’s Global Goals, including action on the core issues behind the refugee crisis, such as hunger and food security, peace, justice, reduced inequalities, health, and shelter. You can join us by taking action here.


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This Clothing Giant Is Under Fire for Using Photos of Rescued Migrants in Adverts

By James Hitchings-Hales