France to deport 44 migrants rescued by NGO ship in Italy row

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France has rejected asylum applications from 44 of the 234 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by an NGO ship, who will be returned to their country of origin, the interior minister said Tuesday.

France allowed the Ocean Viking to disembark at its port of Toulon last Friday after Italy refused access, sparking a diplomatic row over how to handle the thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa each year.

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Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told parliament the 44 migrants would be deported “as soon as their health allows,” adding that others could also be sent home as more asylum claims are examined.

He said officials had determined that 60 of the migrants – Syrians, Sudanese and Eritreans in particular – could request asylum, and that 44 were minors.

Of those allowed to stay, France and Germany will take in around a third, with the remainder going to other EU nations who have volunteered to take in a share.

France had never before allowed a rescue vessel carrying migrants from the Mediterranean to land on its coast, but did so this time because Italy refused access.

The French government said under international maritime law, the Ocean Viking with its passengers in distress should have been granted access to the nearest ports.

But Italy, under its new far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, wants other EU nations to shoulder more of the burden, and appears ready to force the issue to the top of the European agenda.

In retaliation, France suspended a plan to take 3,500 refugees currently in Italy, part of a European distribution accord, and urged Germany and other EU nations to do the same.

Italy along with Cyprus, Greece and Malta responded by slamming the voluntary European system for managing migrant flows and called for the EU Commission to intervene by forcing all EU members to take in migrants who arrive in Italy.

According to Italian authorities, so far this year just 164 asylum seekers have been moved from Italy to other nations in the bloc.

That is a small fraction of the more than 88,000 that have reached Italy’s shores this year.

Read more: France, Italy wrangle over migrant ship

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