France is to open its southern port of Toulon to a charity-operated ship carrying hundreds of asylum seekers rescued from the central Mediterranean, saying it is an “exceptional” move and criticising Italy’s new far-right government for its “incomprehensible” refusal to help the vessel.
The Ocean Viking rescue ship, operated by the European charity SOS Méditerranée under a Norwegian flag, and whose 234 passengers include 57 children, is facing deteriorating sanitary conditions after Italy refused to give it a safe port for more than two weeks despite its presence in Italian waters.
The boat will dock in the military port in Toulon early on Friday morning, where its passengers will receive medical aid and can make asylum applications.
But the French government said it was an exceptional move to let the vessel dock, and had harsh words for the Italian government in a worsening diplomatic row over rescue boats and migration.
The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said Rome’s refusal to answer calls for help from the ship in Italian waters was “incomprehensible” and “unacceptable”. He said it was “obvious that there will be extremely severe consequences for bilateral relations” between France and Italy.
He said France had already decided to freeze a plan to take 3,500 people currently in Italy, part of a European burden-sharing accord, and he urged Germany and other EU countries to do the same.
The standoff marks a 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, who once said Rome should “repatriate migrants and sink the boats that rescued them”, is facing the first test of her immigration policy and 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. Meloni’s government has accused charity ships of acting as a de facto taxi service for people seeking a better life in Europe and has threatened them with fines.
The France-Italy row risks flaring up into a repeat of the bruising EU migration clashes of four years ago, when there was a souring of relations amid a spat between the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Italy’s populist interior minister at the time, Matteo Salvini.
On Thursday, France said it would remove four passengers from Ocean Viking by helicopter for health reasons.
After Darmanin’s announcement, SOS Méditerranée said it felt “relief tainted with bitterness”. A spokesperson for the charity told Agence France-Presse of the sick passengers onboard: “One of the patients is unstable and no longer reacting to treatment since October 27 … The two others were injured in Libya and because of this long wait for treatment, they risk having long-term health issues.”
Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, had pushed for passengers to be able to disembark quickly and said “politics should not be pursued at the expense of people in distress”.
France has had its own political rows over the ship. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, which is the biggest opposition party in parliament, hit out at the decision to let the ship dock in Toulon. Le Pen tweetedthat Macron was being “dramatically” soft on immigration.
Last week, a lawmaker from Le Pen’s party was banned from parliament for two weeks and fined for racism after he shouted “Go back to Africa” when a black member of the lower house, Carlos Martens Bilongo, was speaking about the urgency of finding a port for the migrant rescue ship.
Under international law, ships in distress or carrying rescued passengers must be allowed entry in the nearest port of call, which means Italy and often Malta are obliged to take in those rescued after trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.
In June, about a dozen EU countries, including France, agreed to take in people who arrive in Italy and other main entry points.
So far this year, 164 asylum seekers have been moved from Italy to other EU countries that have volunteered to accept them. But that is a tiny fraction of the more than 88,000 who have reached Italy’s shores so far this year, of which just 14% arrived after being rescued by NGO vessels, according to the Italian authorities.
According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, 1,891 people have died or disappeared while trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year.