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France accepts Mediterranean migrant ship refused by Italy amid row

The Ocean Viking docked in Toulon, its 234 passengers having been placed in a ‘waiting zone’. Italy has condemned France’s response as ‘incomprehensible’

A photo of the Ocean Viking ship off the coast of Italy

The Ocean Viking migrant ship has been waiting in the Mediterranean for almost three weeks after Italy refused to let it dock Pic: Alessio Tricani / Shutterstock

France has accepted a migrant boat carrying 234 people who have been stuck at sea for 19 days, intensifying a diplomatic crisis between Paris and Rome, after Italy refused to accept the ship.

The Port of Toulon accepted the migrants on the SOS Méditerranée Ocean Viking ship today (Friday, November 11), as it is a “humanitarian duty”, said Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

Italy has recently allowed three other ships to dock, but all 43 requests for docking from the Ocean Viking were refused. This prompted the ship to turn towards France.

Three of the migrants on the ship (plus one accompanying) have already required evacuation by helicopter to Corsica due to health emergencies.

The migrants on the ship will be checked by internal security officers at the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure (DGSI) before boarding. They will then be placed in a “waiting zone” to enable them to be checked before reaching French soil.

“All health and medical assistance” will be offered to the migrants, said Mr Darmanin, “but the passengers will not be able to leave the administrative centre…and will not be in the country in the legal sense. There will be a medical exam, then a DGSI check to ensure there are no dangerous people.”

They will then have an interview to establish their suitability to seek asylum in France. Eligible migrants will remain in France, but others will be sent to other European countries. 

Germany is set to take 80, while Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Luxembourg, and Ireland are also scheduled to take some, in the name of “European solidarity”, said Mr Darmanin.

‘Unacceptable attitude’

The issue has sparked new diplomatic tensions between Paris and Rome, four years after the Aquarius crisis, which caused a similar row when Italy turned another rescue vessel away in 2018.

Mr Darmanin has condemned Italy’s “unacceptable attitude”, which he says goes against “international law”. He added: “We are welcoming this ship as an exception, given the two weeks of waiting at sea that the Italian authorities have made the passengers suffer.

“The gravity of the situation on board is significant, with 57 children, and many people who are very ill.”

Mr Darmanin said: “Italy is the loser in this behaviour. It is putting itself outside of European solidarity and its own commitments. There will be extremely severe consequences for bilateral and European relations.”

The French government has also decided to suspend, “with immediate effect”, the planned welcome of 3,500 migrants currently in Italy, and called on Germany to take similar action.

The minister said: “We must now organise things differently, so that Italy can no longer benefit from European solidarity while also being selfish when refugees, especially children, show up.”

France’s reaction ‘incomprehensible’

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi refuted France’s statements. He said: “France’s reaction faced with the request to welcome 234 migrants, when Italy has welcomed 90,000 this year alone, is totally incomprehensible.

Former Interior Minister and current Transport Minister Matteo Salvini echoed Mr Piantedosi’s statement, and added: “The jumpiness of some French politicians faced with the arrival of 234 migrants by boat is inexplicable….France has only accepted 38 arrivals [so far]. Italy should protest, not others.”

Italian authorities had previously agreed to only welcome women, children, and people with health issues. This was intended to put pressure on the EU, so that it would offer more help.

Mr Piantedosi rejected the “principle imposed on Italy that it should be the only European arrival point for illegal immigrants” and what he called a lack of European support, which has seen Italy “facing this problem alone so far”.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni defended Italy’s stance to only take the most vulnerable migrants, saying that the people on humanitarian ships are “not shipwrecked”.

Ms Meloni has also called France’s response “aggressive, unjustified, and incomprehensible”.

Italy on the frontline 

Italy has for many years been the first port of call for migrant ships in the Mediterranean, and the country regularly complains about what it sees as a lack of European support.

Head of Italian diplomacy, Antonio Tajani, said this week that the situation with the Ocean Viking was a clear message to Europe. He said that the Italian government would bring up the situation during the forthcoming cabinet minister meeting of the EU next week.

Since June, a relocation system has been in place, with around a dozen EU member states taking part, with a view to voluntarily accepting 8,000 migrants that are currently in countries such as Italy, close to the Libyan coast.

However, only 164 migrants have been relocated from Italy since June. Italy has said that this number is insufficient, and said that around 88,100 migrants have been accepted on its shores since January.

The crisis comes just three weeks after the formation of the most far-right government seen in Italy since World War Two. The new government has been described as putting an end to France’s “golden relationship” between Emmanuel Macron and former Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

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