France looks to relocate migrants turned away by Italy after boat docks

War of words continues between Paris and Rome over 'Ocean Viking' rescue ship

The 'Ocean Viking' rescue ship enters the harbour in Toulon, France. EPA
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France sought on Friday to offload scores of migrants who arrived on its shores on a rescue ship turned away by Italy.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said at least 175 of the 234 passengers on the Ocean Viking were set to be relocated to other European countries.

A seething France earlier accused Italy of breaking international law by refusing safe harbour to the vessel.

French authorities allowed it to dock in Toulon on humanitarian grounds, a decision swiftly condemned by anti-immigration politicians.

Eric Zemmour, a far-right former presidential candidate, called it “absolutely scandalous … for the first time, French ports are opening to illegal immigration”.

The migrants were to receive medical checks before police escort them to a reception centre on the French coast.

Tension flared on Thursday over Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's decision to turn away the Ocean Viking from its waters.

“It is a breach of confidence, because a unilateral decision was made that puts lives in danger,” Laurence Boone, France's minister for European affairs, told French television.

She would not be drawn on possible further penalties against Italy, after France tightened security at its southern border and withdrew an offer to take in 3,500 other migrants.

Ms Meloni hit back on Friday by saying Italy could not be expected to take in every possible migrant from the Mediterranean.

“I was very struck by the aggressive reaction of the French government, which is incomprehensible and unjustified,” she said.

Richard Evence, the prefect of the area surrounding Toulon, said the Ocean Viking passengers would be kept in secure but dignified conditions on the southern coast.

They will first be inspected by doctors, and arrangements made for passengers to be taken to hospital if necessary, he said.

The charity operating the ship, SOS Mediterrannee, said some passengers were in poor physical and mental health after more than two weeks at sea.

“The 230 women, children, and men on board the Ocean Viking have been through a dire ordeal and are exhausted, as are our teams,” said charity spokesman Xavier Lauth.

Passengers on the 'Ocean Viking' watch French coast guards approach. AP

Passengers not needing hospital treatment will be driven by bus to an accommodation centre on the Giens peninsula.

The next stage will be to consider their asylum claims, Mr Evence said.

Mr Darmanin said 11 European countries were looking to take in 175 of the migrants.

“France can count on the support of its partners. We warmly thank them,” he pointedly said.

It came amid suggestions that electricity supplies or European economic recovery funds could be withheld from Italy because of the feud.

“I hope they are not referring to the funds,” said Italian minister Giovanbattista Fazzolari, who told the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera that such a move would be “very serious”.

Ms Meloni said countries such as France should share responsibility in dealing with the “migration emergency” that disproportionately affects Italy.

“Europe could decide to deal with this issue by isolating Italy. I think it would be better to isolate the migrant boat smugglers,” she said.

France has urged European neighbours to follow suit in rescinding offers to take in migrants from Italy.

“Treaties continue to apply beyond the life of one government,” Ms Boone said, after Ms Meloni was elected on a platform of curbing migration.

Updated: November 11, 2022, 3:58 PM
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