The fate of hundreds of people rescued in the central Mediterranean by a charity vessel has sparked a diplomatic row between Italy and France, with the French government calling it “unacceptable” that Rome has refused to allow the ship, carrying 234 asylum seekers, to dock in an Italian port.
On Tuesday, the Ocean Viking rescue boat, operated by the European charity SOS Méditerranée under a Norwegian flag, began sailing towards France after Italy’s new far-right government refused to give it a safe port for more than two weeks.
The French government spokesperson, Olivier Véran, told FranceInfo on Wednesday: “The boat is currently in Italian territorial waters. There are extremely clear European rules which have been accepted by the Italians who are, in fact, the first beneficiary of a European financial solidarity mechanism.”
Véran added that the Italian government’s declarations were “unacceptable”, as was its refusal to allow the boat to dock. “We still have a few hours of discussions and, in any case, we are still at that stage. Obviously no one will let this boat run any risk, especially for the people on board,” he added. “We are following the situation minute by minute.”
Over the weekend, in its first test of migration policy, Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of a party with neo-fascist origins who once said Rome should “repatriate migrants and sink the boats that rescued them”, enacted its controversial anti-migration plan, which provides for the pushback of mostly male asylum seekers of adult age rescued in the central Mediterranean whom Italian authorities do not deem qualified for international protection.
On Saturday, Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, initially allowed Humanity 1, a rescue boat run by the German NGO SOS Humanity, to enter the port of Catania in Sicily with 179 passengers onboard. However, Italian authorities began disembarking only children and sick people: 144 passengers were moved to a reception centre while the rest, all males over the age of 18, were left onboard with Rome threatening to push them back into international waters.
On Sunday, it was the turn of another rescue boat, the Geo Barents, run by Médecins Sans Frontières and carrying 568 asylum seekers. Again, after a quick inspection on board, 217 people were left on the ship, with volunteers reporting people sleeping on the decks, as fever-inducing infections and scabies spread.
After a two-day standoff, all remaining asylum seekers aboard the two charity vessels were allowed to disembark due to their physical and psychological condition.
On Tuesday, after unsuccessfully waiting for permission to dock in Italy since late October, Ocean Viking appealed to France, requesting authorisation to disembark its passengers.
Meloini said on Wednesday: “The people aboard the NGO vessels are migrants, not shipwrecked. We did not ask for the disembarkation of all the people aboard the vessels. That was the doctors’ decision after a second inspection on board, and we found that decision bizarre.”
Sophie Beau, the director general of SOS Méditerranée, said: “The situation aboard the Ocean Viking has reached a critical stage. We are now confronted with very serious consequences including the risk of loss of human life … after more than two weeks of being blocked at sea.”
The Ocean Viking is now sailing toward France and should reach international waters off the French Mediterranean island of Corsica by Thursday.
Gilles Simeoni, the president of the executive council on Corsica, said he was “ready if necessary” to allow Ocean Viking into one of the island’s ports temporarily. He said the row between the French and Italian governments was regrettable and playing out “at the expense of the health, and perhaps the lives, of hundreds of people who are in a state of distress”.
“Our position is dictated by the duty of humanity, by the emergency. We cannot, when there are people suffering and in absolute distress a few dozen kilometres from the Corsican coast, look the other way,” Simeoni said.
A French interior ministry source cited by BFMTV criticised the Italian authorities’ “unacceptable behaviour” that they said was “contrary to marine law as well as the spirit of European solidarity”.
On Wednesday, Piantedosi said its government “will not accept lessons on human rights”.
Meanwhile, Meloni thanked France for “sharing the responsibility of the migratory emergency, which up to now has been on the back of Italy and a few other states”.
“The immigration emergency is a European issue,” she said, “and it should be addressed as such.”