Paris has warned of “strong consequences” for the Franco-Italian relationship after France agreed to accept a ship carrying 231 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean and refused shelter in Italy.
French interior minister Gérald Darmanin told reporters on Thursday that the passengers aboard the charity-operated Ocean Viking, including 57 children, several under the age of four, would disembark at the military port in Toulon.
But he also criticised Italy’s new rightwing government for what he called its “incomprehensible” and “selfish” refusal to let the Ocean Viking dock at an Italian port earlier despite repeated appeals to Rome from the ship.
“France decided on an exceptional basis to make up for the Italian government’s unacceptable behaviour and to invite the ship to come,” Darmanin said. “France deeply regrets that Italy has decided not to behave like a responsible European state in dealing with this matter.”
The treatment of the Ocean Viking is being seen in Paris as an early indicator of how Italy’s new government, led by the far-right Giorgia Meloni, will behave with respect to its European partners. Illegal migration is a politically charged issue in both Italy and France.
Meloni’s rightwing coalition, which includes her Brothers of Italy party, Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, campaigned in September’s election on a pledge to stop the flow of migrants travelling from north Africa across the Mediterranean to Italy.
Darmanin said there was “no doubt” that Italy was legally obliged to offer safety to the Ocean Viking as it had been in Italy’s search and rescue region — international waters in which the country is responsible for aiding boats in distress.
In a sign of irritation at Italy’s conduct, Darmanin announced Paris had decided not to take in 3,500 migrants currently in Italy and due to be relocated to France as part of a new “solidarity mechanism” that disperses migrants arriving in Italy and other coastal nations to a range of EU states. He also said border checks would be reinstated between the two countries in the coming days.
Meloni insists Rome is adhering to its international obligations. She told Brothers of Italy members that her government’s refusal to accommodate the Ocean Viking — and its initial rejection of hundreds of passengers on two other NGO vessels last week — was justified because “these are not shipwrecked persons — these are migrants”.
But the European Commission on Wednesday issued a statement reminding member states that “the legal obligation to rescue and ensure the safety of life at sea is clear and unequivocal, irrespective of the circumstances that lead people to be in a situation of distress”.
French president Emmanuel Macron’s government now faces an emboldened far-right led by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National that has been critical of its handling of migration. Darmanin has been charged with helping to pass a new law in the coming months to clamp down on people arriving illegally and increase deportations.
Politicians in both countries have also criticised the role of humanitarian organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Méditerranée, which rescue migrants from dangerously unsafe boats. Some blame the operations for encouraging and helping people to illegally cross to Europe by sea.
On Thursday, Darmanin said France would convene a European ministerial meeting to discuss the actions of charities carrying out sea rescues. It would also put in place a new framework to allow “better regulation of the rescue actions carried out” by NGO ships in the Mediterranean to ensure they do not “encourage the activity of smugglers who act with disregard for the lives of migrants”.
The issue of the rescue ships became a source of tension between Italy and its fellow EU members several years ago when Salvini, Italy’s then interior minister, waged a fierce campaign to block NGO vessels from docking in the country.