Migrant rescue ship docks in French port amid Italy rift

NICE, France (AP) — A maritime rescue ship docked in a southern French port Friday carrying 230 migrants whose fates sparked a diplomatic row between France and Italy, as well as fury from far-right rivals of the French government.

The Ocean Viking disembarked its passengers at the Toulon port, where they were expected to undergo health and security checks at a military base, Var region prefect Evence Richard told reporters. He said that migrants would then be bused to the Mediterranean resort of Giens to start asylum application procedures.

The passengers from Eritrea, Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other nations include 57 children, the youngest of whom is 3 years old, and more than 40 unaccompanied minors, according to European rescue group SOS Mediterranee, which operates the ship.

Some of the people on the ship were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea three weeks ago, the group said. The French coast guard boarded the Ocean Viking Thursday to help four passengers who needed urgent medical attention ashore.

The ship became the cause of a rift between France and Italy after Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni granted three other private rescue ships permission to dock in Italy but refused the Ocean Viking, claiming that France would take it although the French government had not said that publicly.

France agreed to offer a safe port to the Ocean Viking ship on Thursday. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the passengers would ultimately be divided among France and other European Union countries in line with a “solidarity” mechanism approved in June to reduce the pressure on front-line countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain.

Calling Italy’s response “unacceptable” and “incomprehensible,” Darmanin also announced France’s withdrawal from the voluntary initiative for sharing asylum-seekers because of the Italian government’s behavior. He said France would soon impose border checks with Italy as the diplomatic dispute between otherwise two friendly neighbors deepened.

France’s reaction appeared to have taken Italy by surprise. Italy’s Meloni lashed back at what she said Friday 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 would-be asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean.

“That’s not written in any agreement,” she said, noting that Italy has admitted 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.

“You understand that something in this mechanism doesn’t work,” Meloni said.

Advocacy groups say France has been very slow in processing asylum-seekers as part of the sharing agreement. Darmanin said Thursday that France had taken in a “few dozen” but did not elaborate on why so few.

The French government did not immediately respond to Meloni’s accusations.

The secretary of state for European affairs in the French government confirmed Friday that France planned to impose “much tighter” and “serious” controls at what has been a passport-free border with Italy. Speaking to public radio Franceinfo, Laurence Boone said the tougher measures would include “passport controls.”

“It’s a breach of trust,” Boone said of Italy’s action.

Italian news reports said 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 and publicly claiming victory in the standoff.

France’s actions empowered Meloni’s center-left opponents, who said the outcome isolated Italy from its European partners at a time it needs European solidarity to deal with mass migration.

“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, which we now won’t find.”

The arrival of the Ocean Viking reignited a furious political debate on immigration in France. Far-right politicians unleashed a barrage of criticism against President Emmanuel Macron and what they described as his government’s open-arms immigration policies.

“Enough is enough,” Jordan Bardella, a far-right European Parliament member and the president of the National Rally, the largest opposition party in the French parliament.

He blasted Macron’s government for agreeing to welcome the migrant ship on humanitarian grounds, alleging the move represented the government’s “out-of-control” immigration policies.

“Immigration to France is not an unconditional right,” Bardella said. “The French people want a much tougher stand against migration.”

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Winfield reported from Rome.

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