NICE, France (AP) — France will take in passengers from a migrant rescue ship who have been stranded in the Mediterranean Sea for more than two weeks after Italy refused them entry, the country’s interior minister said Thursday.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said France would welcome some 230 Ocean Viking passengers at the military port in the city of Toulon on Friday. Darmanin said the passengers subsequently would be divided among France, Germany and other European countries.
The crew of the ship operated by the European charity group SOS Mediterranee had started heading to Corsica on Wednesday in hopes French authorities would offer its passengers a safe port.
“All measures will be taken to bring health and medical assistance necessary to the passengers” and to carry out security controls, Darmanin told reporters in Paris following the government’s weekly Cabinet meeting.
The rescue ship became the cause of a diplomatic rift after Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, under pressure from other European countries, granted three other private maritime rescue ships permission to dock in Italy.
Meloni then jumped the gun and announced that France had agreed to accept the Ocean Viking, even though the French government had made no such pledge publicly.
Her announcement on Tuesday and Italy’s persistent refusal to allow the ship to disembark migrants infuriated French officials. Darmanin could barely contain the French anger against the government in Rome.
He slammed Italy’s response to the charity-operated boats as “unacceptable” and said Italy’s refusal to assign a port to the Ocean Viking was “incomprehensible.”
“France will take measures in the coming hours to tighten the border security with Italy” and adjust bilateral relations accordingly, Darmanin said. He added: “France deeply regrets that Italy did not accept to behave like a responsible European state.”
“Managing migratory flows in the Mediterranean is a European problem that touches all of us, calling for a European response,” Darmanin said.
Referring to the European Union’s mechanism for sharing asylum-seekers who land at front-line countries like Italy and Greece, Darmanin said France was suspending its participation “with immediate effect.”
That means none of the 3,500 asylum-seekers who were planned to be relocated from Italy will be taken in by France, Darmanin said. He called on all other EU members in the sharing system, notably Germany, to do the same.
The French coast guard boarded the Ocean Viking earlier Thursday and evacuated four passengers in dire need of medical attention, France’s general secretariat for the sea said in a statement.
SOS Mediterranee reported earlier this week that the passengers rescued at sea included 57 children aboard, the youngest a 3 year, and more than 40 unaccompanied minors traveling alone. The main countries of origin were Eritrea, Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Aid workers on the Ocean Viking said they had performed 479 medical consultations since the first rescue of the ship’s current rescue voyage on Oct. 22. They said some of the people rescued had injuries from fuel burns, serious sunburns, and suffered from dehydration. Others reported abuse during their journeys to Europe.