Most of the adult migrants rescued by the Ocean Viking NGO in the Mediterranean have been denied entry into France, which allowed the vessel to disembark after Italy blocked access to its ports, the interior ministry said Friday.
The standoff has rekindled the EU immigration debate and heightened tensions between France and Italy’s new far-right government under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
After pleading for days to be allowed to dock in Italy, the Ocean Viking and its 234 rescued migrants disembarked at the French port of Toulon in what the French government called an “exceptional” decision.
Around 40 minors have been placed in social care, while 189 adults were brought to a retention center to evaluate the validity of their asylum requests, a senior interior ministry official said at a hearing by the State Council, the country’s top administrative court.
Of those, 123 people did not provide sufficient proof to back up their claims and were denied entry, the official said, without specifying if or when they might be deported.
The 66 others will be transferred to 11 other EU nations, including Germany, Finland and Portugal, that agreed to take them in under a voluntary scheme that Italy wants to be made compulsory for all EU members.
A French presidency official, requesting anonymity, called Italy’s refusal a “dirty trick” ahead of a crisis meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels next week.
Under international maritime law, vessels in distress must be granted access to the nearest port, which means Italy takes in a much larger share than its EU neighbors of the migrants rescued while trying to cross from North Africa.
Meloni’s government says it has already taken in 90,000 migrants so far this year, and said its refusal to aid the Ocean Viking was a signal to the EU that it needed a new burden-sharing system to spread migrants across the bloc.
“We have to work together to find efficient solutions on immigration,” the presidency official said, adding that migrants taken in would be deducted from the total France has agreed to take from Italy in coming months.
France has already suspended a plan to welcome 3,500 refugees currently in Italy, with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin warning Rome of “several consequences for our bilateral relations.”