TOULON – A maritime rescue ship docked Friday in a southern French port carrying 230 migrants whose fates have sparked a diplomatic row between France and Italy — a dispute that's threatening EU efforts to share around asylum-seekers.
The French welcome for the Ocean Viking, though reluctant, unleashed fury from far-right rivals of the French government. Migrant advocates expressed relief, but lamented that it took weeks to find a harbor for the ship as Italy refused to let it dock, and vowed Friday to send their vessels back out to the Mediterranean to save others in distress.
The Ocean Viking disembarked its passengers at the Toulon port. people from Eritrea, Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other nations, including 44 unaccompanied minors and children as young as 3.
Two dozen needed medical care and one was hospitalized, the Var regional administration said Friday. All underwent security checks and most were sent to temporary lodging in the Mediterranean resort of Giens. The unaccompanied minors were taken to a separate, undisclosed location, it said.
All those taken to the processing center wanted to seek asylum, and immigration officials will start the interview process Saturday, the statement said.
Some who disembarked Friday had been rescued in the Mediterranean Sea as long as three weeks ago.
The ship became the cause of a rift between France and Italy after Rome eventually granted three other private rescue ships permission to dock in Italy but refused the Ocean Viking. Premier Giorgia Meloni then praised France for taking the migrants in, although the French government had not said so publicly.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the passengers would ultimately be divided among France and 11 other European Union countries.
As apparent retaliation for Italy's behavior, Darmanin announced France’s withdrawal from a “solidarity” mechanism approved in June to reduce the pressure on front-line countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain by taking in asylum-seekers. French officials also announced new border checks with Italy.
While politicians battled over the 230 people aboard the Ocean Viking, they are a fraction of those fleeing global crises this year. From January to August this year, France received 82,535 asylum requests, more than any EU country but Germany. Italy came in fifth, with 43,750 asylum applications.
France’s reaction appeared to have taken Italy by surprise. Italy's Meloni on Friday lashed back at what she said was France’s “aggressive,” “incomprehensible and unjustified” measures.
The premier said she had a voter mandate to change the way Europe deals with mass migration and that Italy would no longer accept being the main disembarkation point for asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean.
“That’s not written in any agreement,” she said, noting that Italy has taken in nearly 90,000 migrants so far this year. The EU redistribution accord called for 8,000 of them to be resettled in 13 member countries; to date 117 have been relocated, 38 of them to France.
“Something in this mechanism isn't working,” Meloni said.
Advocacy groups agree that France has been slow in processing asylum-seekers as part of the sharing agreement.
SOS Mediterranee said Friday it plans to send the Ocean Viking back to sea “despite the obstacles.” Doctors Without Borders, whose Geo Barents ship was also caught in the recent migration drama, said the same: “These operations are and will be the response to irresponsible European and national policies of refusing to help those at sea.”
Italian news reports said French President Emmanuel Macron and Meloni had agreed at the U.N. climate summit in Egypt that France would take in the Ocean Viking, but that the Italian government had undermined the verbal accord by prematurely claiming victory in the standoff.
France's actions empowered Meloni’s center-left opponents, who said the outcome isolated Italy from its European partners.
“Shows of strength over migrants not only don’t pay off but provoke international isolation and a loss of credibility,” tweeted lawmaker Piero Fassino of the Democratic Party. “Getting into fights with partners like France is wrong, especially when you need allies."
In France, far-right politicians unleashed a barrage of criticism against Macron.
“Enough is enough,” Jordan Bardella, president of the far-right National Rally. “Immigration to France is not an unconditional right."
The far-right uproar in both countries over Mediterranean Sea migrants stands in sharp contrast to Europe's welcome of millions of Ukrainians who fled after the Russian invasion.
Winfield reported from Rome. Daniel Cole in Toulon and Giers, France and Renata Brito in Barcelona contributed.
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