France grants port to migrant rescue ship amid Italy rift
NICE, France (AP) — France will take in passengers from a migrant rescue ship who have been stranded in the Mediterranean Sea for weeks after Italy refused them entry but plans to withdraw from a voluntary European Union mechanism for sharing asylum-seekers, the country’s interior minister said Thursday.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said France would welcome some 230 Ocean Viking passengers at the military port in the city of Toulon on Friday. Darmanin said the passengers subsequently would be divided among France and other EU countries in line with the “solidarity” mechanism approved in June to reduce the pressure on front-line countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain.
By refusing to assign the Ocean Viking a port and dragging its feet in responding to other charity-operated rescue ships in recent weeks, the Italian government broke its commitments to the initiative, Darmanin said in explaining the French government’s decision to cease participating.
The decision means none of the 3,500 asylum-seekers who were planned to be relocated from Italy will be taken in by France, the minister said. He called on all other EU members in the sharing system, notably Germany, to also opt out of the program.
Darmanin displayed obvious anger at the government in Rome. He called Italy’s response to the boats operated by humanitarian aid groups as “unacceptable” and said Italy’s refusal to give the Ocean Viking a port at which to disembark passengers was “incomprehensible.”
“France will take measures in the coming hours to tighten the border security with Italy” and adjust bilateral relations accordingly, he said, adding: “France deeply regrets that Italy did not accept to behave like a responsible European state.”
Italy’s response was just as heated. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi denounced the French decision to stop accepting asylum-seekers under the mechanism adopted when France held the EU’s rotating presidency as “totally incomprehensible.”
“European solidarity is being heralded, but Italy has so far faced this problem alone and our reception system is in very serious difficulty,” Piantedosi said. He said Italy could not agree to a pending EU migration pact “that is not adequately balanced between measures of solidarity and responsibility.”
In a statement, the Italian minister said about 90,000 migrants had arrived in Italy so far this year and that 13 European countries had agreed to relocate 8,000 of them. To date, only 117 have been resettled, 38 of them in France, an “absolutely inadequate” number, he said.
The Ocean Viking became the cause of a diplomatic rift between France and Italy earlier this week after Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, under pressure from other European countries, granted three other private maritime rescue ships permission to dock in Italy.
Meloni then jumped the gun and announced that France had agreed to accept the Ocean Viking, even though the French government had made no such pledge publicly.
Her announcement on Tuesday and Italy’s persistent refusal to allow the ship to disembark migrants infuriated French officials. The crew started heading to Corsica on Wednesday in hopes French authorities would offer its passengers a safe port.
In Brussels, the EU’s executive commission said member countries in the vicinity of the Ocean Viking must take responsibility for those aboard, but it declined to name any. The ship was closer to Italy than France when the European Commission warned Wednesday that it should be ordered to the nearest safe port.
“In this critical situation, there is a legal obligation to rescue and to ensure the safety of life at sea,” commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said. She said “people should have been disembarked to avoid a humanitarian tragedy.”
The French coast guard boarded the Ocean Viking earlier Thursday and evacuated four passengers in dire need of medical attention, France’s general secretariat for the sea said in a statement.
“All measures will be taken to bring health and medical assistance necessary to the passengers” and to carry out security controls, Darmanin told reporters in Paris following the government’s weekly Cabinet meeting.
SOS Mediterranee reported earlier this week that the passengers rescued at sea included 57 children aboard, the youngest a 3 year, and more than 40 unaccompanied minors traveling alone. The main countries of origin were Eritrea, Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Aid workers on the Ocean Viking said they had performed 479 medical consultations since the first rescue of the ship’s current rescue voyage on Oct. 22. They said some of the people rescued had injuries from fuel burns, serious sunburns, and suffered from dehydration. Others reported abuse during their journeys to Europe.
Nicole Winfield contributed reporting from Rome and Lorne Cook from Brussels.
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