A European charity ship carrying 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea has set sail for France after Italy’s new rightwing government refused to allow the vessel to dock, drawing fierce criticism from Paris.
French government spokesperson Olivier Véran called Rome’s refusal to allow the Ocean Viking, operated by the charity SOS Méditerranée, to dock at its ports and permit the men, women and children aboard — some for nearly three weeks — to disembark as “unacceptable”.
Véran also called on the government, led by Giorgia Meloni of the hard-right Brothers of Italy party, to “respect its European engagements” and maritime laws requiring Italy to handle vessels in distress in its waters. Meloni campaigned in September’s election on a pledge to staunch the flow of migrants travelling from north Africa to Italy, including with a naval blockade if necessary.
“There are extremely clear European rules which have been accepted by the Italians, who are the biggest beneficiary of a European financial solidarity mechanism,” Véran told France Info radio on Wednesday, referring to EU pandemic recovery funds. “The attitude of the Italian government of refusing the boat’s arrival goes against all European rules.”
SOS Méditerranée said the Ocean Viking set sail for France late on Tuesday, after Italian authorities did not respond to repeated appeals for permission to dock and provide refuge to its passengers, 40 of whom are children, several under four years old.
The charity said it had not yet received any confirmation that the migrants would be permitted to disembark in France, though Véran said “obviously no one will allow them to be put in danger”.
“We want Italy to play its role,” he added. “People call this a boat of migrants, but I remind you that these are human beings.”
The French government’s strident criticism of Meloni’s government came hours after she issued a statement offering its “heartfelt appreciation for France’s decision to share responsibility for the migration emergency . . . by opening its ports to the Ocean Viking”.
An Italian government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Italy allowed 252 people on two other charity-operated rescue ships to disembark at Catania in Sicily late on Tuesday, ending a tense stand-off between Italy and the charities over their fate.
Italy had faced fierce criticism from international organisations, including the UN’s refugee agency, Amnesty International and other charities for attempting to push back would-be asylum seekers into international waters.
While Italy had allowed three charity ships to dock last weekend, Rome initially selected only those it considered vulnerable — including children and pregnant women — to come ashore. It then ordered two of the ships, with the 252 people on board, to leave. However, the charities operating the ships Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Humanity refused the order and requested further medical checks of their passengers.
Italian doctors ruled on Tuesday that 217 people aboard MSF’s Geo Barents and 35 on the Humanity 1 — many of whom had been on the spartan ships for weeks — were all vulnerable, and thus met the criteria required to disembark.
However, Meloni has vowed that her government will maintain its efforts to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean in a bid to reach Europe.
“We want to put a stop to illegal immigration, prevent new death at sea and fight human traffickers,” she said in a statement on Facebook. “Citizens have asked us to defend the Italian borders and this government will not betray its promise.”