Migrant ship docks in France as row with Italy escalates

Crew members of NGO rescue ship 'Ocean Viking' give lifejackets to migrants on an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean Sea, October 25, 2022. Camille Martin Juan/Sos Mediterranee/Handout via REUTERS
  • Migrant boat turned away by Italy reaches France
  • Italy PM says EU should do more to defend borders
  • France says Italy has failed to follow European rules

PARIS/ROME, Nov 11 (Reuters) - A charity-run ship carrying around 230 migrants rescued at sea docked at a French port on Friday after being turned away by Italy, as a war of words over their fate between the two European Union neighbours intensified.

The French government agreed on Thursday to take in the Ocean Viking NGO ship, sharply criticising the new right-wing government in Rome's refusal to do so and saying it would suspend plans to take in 3,000 migrants already in Italy.

As a French minister accused Rome of breaking a bond of trust and breaching international laws on safeguards for migrants, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called Paris's reaction "incomprehensible and unjustified".

She said Italy had taken in almost 90,000 migrants at its ports this year, and that the EU needed to do more to defend its borders.

The Ocean Viking docked on Friday at a military port in Toulon, southern France, with migrants, including dozens of children, saved from the Mediterranean in October.

French Junior Minister for European Affairs Laurence Boone said that Italy's rejection of the ship broke European rules about sharing responsibilities or taking in migrants.

"Trust has been broken... because there's been a unilateral decision that puts lives in danger and which also doesn't comply with international law," Boone told Franceinfo radio.

Charity SOS Mediterranee, which operates the Ocean Viking, said migrants should be allowed to disembark in nations closest to rescue areas and pledged to be back at sea "within a few weeks".

"Nothing will make us give up the imperative of sea rescue," Alessandro Porro, the head of the group in Italy, said in a statement.

"DON'T ISOLATE ITALY"

Meloni said in her maiden speech to parliament last month, after being appointed to head Italy's most right-wing government since World War Two, that she wanted to stop sea departures and her administration would not allow people to enter Italy illegally.

On Friday she told the EU not to seek to punish Italy for its stance. "Europe could decide to deal with this issue by isolating Italy. I think it would be better to isolate the migrant boat smugglers."

One of her closest aides earlier warned France against seeking to limit Rome's access to EU's post-pandemic recovery funds in retaliation.

European Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, a former Italian Prime Minister, called for restraint.

"These two great countries have to have a friendly, cooperative relationship. This is essential for France as well as for Italy, but it is essential also for the European Union," he told Italian media in Brussels.

Accused by France's far-right opposition of being soft on immigration, President Emmanuel Macron's centrist government is eager to keep the ship's arrival from fuelling further criticism at home.

The head the French government service in charge of foreigners, Eric Jalon, said nine EU states had already agreed to take in two-thirds of the Ocean Viking migrants.

Local Var region prefect Evence Richard said the migrants would be sent to a holding site where they would be given medical care and their asylum requests processed. Those not deemed eligible to stay would be returned to their home countries.

Additional reporting by Angelo Amante, Alvise Armellini and Keith Weir; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Angus MacSwan and John Stonestreet

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