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France to let migrant boat dock, has harsh words for Italy

World Nov 10, 2022 11:41AM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Migrants sleep on deck of NGO rescue ship 'Ocean Viking', in the Mediterranean Sea, November 6, 2022. Camille Martin Juan/Sos Mediterranee/Handout via REUTERS

By Dominique Vidalon and Marc Leras

PARIS (Reuters) -France said on Thursday it would allow an NGO ship carrying more than 200 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to dock at the port of Toulon, while harshly criticising Italy for not taking the boat in.

Immigration is a hot-button issue in both countries, and French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the right-wing Italian government's ban on the charity vessel, which had been stuck off Sicily for days, was "reprehensible" 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.

Italy firmly rejected the criticism, saying the French reaction underscored Europe's failure to deal with a rising number of migrants, many of whom reach the continent via boats from north Africa.

"France's reaction to the request to take in 234 migrants, while Italy has taken in 90,000 this year alone, is totally incomprehensible in the face of constant calls for solidarity," Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said in a statement.

The Ocean Viking, which is operated by the SOS Mediterranee charity, was sailing on Thursday by the French island of Corsica, but had previously been close to Italy. It was set to arrive in Toulon on Friday.

"There is no doubt that it was in Italy's research and rescue zone," said Darmanin, adding "there will be extremely strong consequences for the bilateral relationship".

To start with, France will not take in some 3,000 migrants who had arrived in Italy and which he said Paris had previously agreed to take in. The French would also reinforce controls at its borders with Italy to prevent migrant crossings, he said.

LONGSTANDING TENSIONS

Italy and Spain, where most boat migrants arrive, have long said EU allies must do more to help. Only 164 of the almost 90,000 migrants who have reached Italy this year have so far been relocated to other EU states, the United Nations says.

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

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

Three eventually docked in Italy. Ocean Viking was the fourth.

Meloni's government has accused charity ships of acting as a de-facto taxi service for migrants seeking a better life in Europe and threatened them with fines.

With French politics veering to the right, and the far-right National Rally (RN) the second biggest-group in the lower house of parliament, President Emmanuel Macron's centrist government is also under mounting pressure over immigration.

The far-right was quick to react to the decision to let the Ocean Viking dock, with the RN's Marine Le Pen tweeting that he was being "dramatically" soft on immigration.

Meanwhile, Fabienne Lassalle, deputy head of charity SOS Mediterranee urged EU states to better co-ordinate efforts and stop "politicising" the issue.

"It's a great relief tainted with a lot of anger," she said of France's green light.

France to let migrant boat dock, has harsh words for Italy
 

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