France to allow Ocean Viking migrant rescue ship to dock

NGO vessel carrying more than 230 passengers has been at sea for more than two weeks since Italy refused to let it dock.

Rescued passengers sleep on the deck of the NGO rescue ship 'Ocean Viking', in the Mediterranean Sea
The Ocean Viking has been denied permission to dock in Italy since late October [File: Camille Martin Juan/Sos Mediterranee/Handout via Reuters]

France has said it will allow the Ocean Viking rescue ship carrying more than 200 migrants and refugees rescued in the Mediterranean to dock at the southern port of Toulon, following tense exchanges with Italy over the vessel’s fate.

Gerald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said on Thursday that the Italian government’s ban on the boat was “incomprehensible” and “selfish”.

“In this context, France decided on an exceptional basis to make up for the Italian government’s unacceptable behaviour and to invite the ship to come to the military port of Toulon,” Darmanin told a news conference.

The NGO boat is carrying 234 people on board, including 57 children. France will welcome about a third, Germany another third and the rest will be taken in by other European Union countries.

The ship was on Thursday sailing by the French island of Corsica, the MarineTraffic tracker app showed, but had been close to Italy before that. It was set to arrive in Toulon on Friday.

“There is no doubt that it [the Ocean Viking] was in Italy’s research and rescue zone,” Darmanin said. He added “there will be extremely strong consequences” for France’s bilateral relationship with Italy over the issue.

France accuses Italy of acting ‘irresponsibly’

To start with, France will discard an agreement with Rome to take in more than 3,000 migrants and refugees who had previously arrived in Italy. France will also reinforce controls at its borders with its southeastern neighbour.

The question of how to handle immigration in the largely border-free EU has been a source of tensions for years, but France’s very open and harsh criticism of Italy on Thursday is more unusual.

“France very deeply regrets that Italy has decided not to behave like a responsible European state,” Darmanin said.

Italian authorities have long argued that other EU countries need to shoulder more of the burden of taking in the thousands of asylum seekers and refugees trying to reach Europe by sea each year, often in perilously unsafe vessels.

Italy has seen a sharp increase in refugee arrivals this year. Nearly 88,700 people have reached the country, compared with 56,500 in the same period last year. About 15 percent were picked up by charity vessels.

A total of four charity ships carrying around 1,000 migrants and refugees had been stuck off Italy in recent days, with the government urging Germany and Norway to take charge of them.

Two of the boats disembarked on Tuesday in the city of Catania, in Sicily, after the government initially allowed ashore only those it said were vulnerable. A third smaller vessel was allowed to dock in the southern port of Reggio Calabria.

Ocean Viking, which has been at sea for more than two weeks since its first rescue in the central Mediterranean, was the fourth.

Source: News Agencies