France accepts migrant ship as dispute erupts with Italy

France accepts migrant ship as dispute erupts with Italy


A rescue ship carrying 230 migrants docked at the French port of Toulon on Friday amid a blazing row between France and Italy over which country is responsible for them.

The Ocean Viking, operated by a French NGO, had intercepted the migrants at sea near the Libyan coast before spending weeks searching for a port to take them in.

France had never before allowed a rescue ship carrying migrants from the Mediterranean to land on its shores, but this time because Italy had refused access.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Thursday that the migrants were Italy’s responsibility under EU rules and that the French move was an “extraordinary” measure.

He said Italy’s refusal to take in the migrants was “incomprehensible” and that there would be “serious consequences” for Italy’s bilateral relations with France and the European Union at large.

He said France acted in accordance with its “humanitarian duty” while Italy “lacked humanity”.

– ‘End of an ordeal’ –

On Friday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni condemned what she called an “aggressive response” by the French government, telling reporters France’s criticism was “incomprehensible and unjustified”.

The Ocean Viking ship had initially sought access to the Italian coast closest to where the migrants were picked up and said health and hygiene conditions on board were rapidly deteriorating.

Italy declined, saying other nations would have to shoulder more of the burden to accommodate the thousands of migrants who try to get to Europe from North Africa each year.

A French doctor boarded the ship before it docked to identify the most vulnerable members of the migrant group, who were to be brought ashore first.

“Emotions are running high on the ship,” Laurence Bondard of the NGO SOS Mediterranee, which runs Operation Viking, told AFP.

“Everyone is very, very tired but also relieved to set foot ashore, it’s the end of an ordeal.”

The migrants, including more than 50 children, were taken to an international waiting zone where asylum applications are being processed.

They would not be allowed to leave the zone until the process was completed in about three weeks, the government said. The asylum hearings were scheduled to begin on Saturday.

The shelter, a short drive from the port, was heavily guarded, an AFP photographer said.

About 600 police officers were on hand for the ship’s arrival, with the Red Cross in charge of humanitarian assistance.

Meloni, head of Italy’s most far-right government in decades, appears poised to push the dispute to the top of the European agenda.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said Thursday the request concerned “234 migrants, while Italy has taken in 90,000 this year alone”.

Nine European nations have pledged to take in two-thirds of the migrants, Darmanin said on Thursday, while the remaining third remain in France.

Germany will host “more than 80,” while Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Luxembourg and Ireland will also contribute in the name of “European solidarity,” he said.

In retaliation for Italy’s stance, France has suspended a plan to take in 3,500 refugees currently in Italy as part of a European burden-sharing deal and has urged Germany and other EU nations to do the same.

– Stricter border controls –

French police said on Friday they had also stepped up controls at several Italian border crossings.

The flare-up of tensions is reminiscent of European refugee disputes four years ago, when French President Emmanuel Macron in particular clashed with Italy’s populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

France had insisted that Rome must accommodate the Ocean Viking under international maritime law.

But Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said this week he was sending a signal to EU countries that they must play a bigger role.

Rome wants “an agreement to determine, on the basis of population, how migrants with a right to asylum are resettled in different countries,” Tajani told a meeting of EU ministers next week.

In June, around a dozen EU countries, including France, agreed to accept migrants arriving in Italy and other key entry points.

So far this year, 164 asylum seekers from Italy have been brought to other countries in the bloc, which have volunteered to take them in.

That’s a fraction of the more than 88,000 who have reached shore so far this year, 14 percent of whom arrived after being rescued by NGO ships, according to Italian authorities.

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