The diplomatic fallout between France and Italy over a stranded migrant ship in the Mediterranean Sea is far from over.
The French government on Thursday suspended a deal to take 3,500 asylum-seekers currently in Italy, as Paris criticized the newly appointed right-wing Italian government of Prime Minister Georgia Meloni for not accepting passengers from the Ocean Viking migrant rescue ship.
Italy has not allowed the vessel to dock in its territory, leaving in limbo some 230 passengers who were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Thursday that France would allow the ship to dock in the French military port of Toulon on Friday. He blamed the “the new Italian leadership” for making the “incomprehensible choice not to respond to the many requests for assistance sent by the ship” even though the boat was “clearly in the search and rescue area of Italy.”
Darmanin also announced that France would immediately pull out of a European Union agreement where some asylum-seekers accepted by Italy would be welcomed for relocation in other EU countries.
“France suspends all relocations of 3,500 refugees currently in Italy and calls on all other participants in the European mechanism, including Germany, to do the same” he said.
Italy hit back and described France’s reaction as “totally incomprehensible” and “disproportionate.”
“The reaction that France is having in the face of a request to take in 234 migrants — when Italy has taken in 90,000 this year alone — is totally incomprehensible in the face of constant calls for solidarity owed to these people,” Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said in a statement, following Darmanin’s comments.
It also shows “how firm and determined the posture of other nations in the face of illegal immigration is. What we do not understand is why Italy should willingly accept something that others are not willing to accept,” Piantedosi went on to say.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani also slammed the French reaction as “disproportionate.” Speaking to journalists in Amsterdam, Tajani said “it is not written anywhere that they all have to come to us.”
Darmanin said that France would soon organize a meeting with the European Commission and Germany “to draw the consequences of the Italian attitude and to better regulate the actions of rescue at sea by NGO ships in the Mediterranean.”
“This is a bitter sense of relief because it’s 20 days too many for those on board who now have to start rebuilding their lives,” Eliot Guy, a spokesperson for SOS Mediterranee, the NGO operating the Ocean Viking rescue ship, told News84Media on the phone, after France announced it would allow the vessel to dock in its territory.
Guy confirmed that three people in need or urgent medical attention had been transported via helicopter to a hospital in France on Thursday.
The survivors onboard were rescued in six rescue operations between October 22 and October 26, SOS Mediterranee said Thursday in a press release.
“Disembarking almost three weeks after their rescue, so far from the area of operation in the central Mediterranean, is the result of a dramatic failure from all the European states, which have violated maritime law in an unprecedented manner,” the group’s Director of Operations Xavier Lauth said.
The International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) thanked France for “doing the right thing.”
France’s decision came after the European Commission on Wednesday called for the “immediate disembarkation, at the nearest place of safety, of all persons rescued and who are on board the Ocean Viking.”
The Commission stressed in a statement that the situation onboard the vessel had reached “a critical level and needs to be urgently addressed to avoid a humanitarian tragedy.”
In recent days around 1,000 migrants on board four NGO ships have been in limbo off the Italian coast, after Rome demanded that countries whose flag was flown by the rescue ships take responsibility for the migrants.
Two of those ships — Geo Barents and Humanity 1 — were eventually allowed to disembark Tuesday in the southern Italian city of Catania, Sicily, while a third one, called Rise Above, docked in Reggio Calabria in southern Italy.
The EU Commission said Wednesday that it “will reinvigorate the work to reinforce cooperation among member states on search and rescue activities,” and would “urgently” convene the members to work further on common solutions.
“The situation we are witnessing in the Mediterranean exposes yet again the urgent need for a singular, cohesive, migration and asylum policy,” it said.