France and Italy have intensified their bitter row over migration after a charity-operated ship carrying hundreds of asylum seekers rescued in the central Mediterranean docked in the French port of Toulon after almost three weeks during which Italy’s far-right government failed to give it safe port.
The French government called Italy “irresponsible” and “inhumane” for not coming to the aid of the ship, which had been stuck in Italian waters for weeks carrying sick passengers who had been rescued at sea between Libya and Italy.
“Trust has been broken,” the French junior minister for European affairs, Laurence Boone, told Franceinfo radio. She said Italy had made a “unilateral decision” that “put lives in danger” and did not comply with international law or European rules.
The standoff marks a deepening rift in Paris’s relations with Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist roots.
Meloni hit back at France, telling a news conference she was “struck by the aggressive reaction from the French government, which from my point of view is incomprehensible and unjustified”.
The Ocean Viking, operated by the European NGO SOS Méditerranée, picked up the migrants at sea near the Libyan coast before spending weeks seeking a port to accept them.
On Friday morning, the ship’s 230 passengers, including 57 children, arrived at Toulon after facing deteriorating conditions onboard. Four passengers with serious health difficulties had been airlifted from the boat by helicopter on Thursday and transferred to a French hospital.
Ocean Viking’s passengers were expected to be given medical aid and interviewed at an administrative centre at Toulon’s naval port. Those eligible to make asylum claims could then be moved to other European countries, 11 of which – including Germany, Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Portugal – have offered to take in two-thirds of the passengers in “solidarity”. Those who France decided were not eligible to make an asylum claim would be returned to their countries of origin, said the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin.
France had never before allowed a rescue vessel carrying refugees to land on its coast, but said it did so this time because Italy had refused access.
Darmanin said the asylum seekers were Italy’s responsibility under EU rules and that the French move to allow the ship to dock was an exceptional measure taken for humane reasons because of the serious situation of the many sick people onboard. He said they were saved at sea when they had been “a few hours from death”.
Darmanin said the French president, Emmanuel Macron, had for days tried to convince the Italian authorities to accept international law that a boat in distress could go to the nearest port.
He said Italy’s refusal to accept the migrants was incomprehensible and that there would be “severe consequences” for Italy’s bilateral relations with France and with the EU as a whole. He said the Italian authorities had been unprofessional to allow the ship to wait at sea for 20 days without a decision on whether it could dock.
As a consequence of the row, France has already decided to freeze a plan to take 3,500 asylum seekers currently in Italy, part of a European burden-sharing accord.
Asked about the comment of the French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, that France was being “dramatically” soft on immigration by allowing the boat to dock, Darmanin said: “What does Marine Le Pen want? To let children die on that ship a few metres from our ports?”