NICE, France (AP) — A deal for Europe to jointly help asylum-seekers was breaking apart Thursday in a French-Italian feud over a ship floating in the Mediterranean with its passengers and crew desperate for land.
The crew of the Ocean Viking had been trying to dock since Italy’s right-wing government refused to take in people aboard last month. The centrist government of France said Thursday that it will take them but withdraw from a broader European Union mechanism for distributing migrants more evenly.
The announcement fueled a broader rise in tensions between the otherwise-friendly neighbors.
“France will take measures in coming hours to tighten border security with Italy,” and adjust bilateral relations accordingly, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
“France deeply regrets that Italy did not accept to behave like a responsible European state,” he said.
The fight could herald the end of a deal approved in June to reduce the pressure on Mediterranean nations that receive most of the refugees, generally from Africa, the Mideast, and South Asia. Italy broke its commitments to the international deal, Darmanin said, and France is suspending its participation. He urged other countries to pull out, too.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi denounced the French decision as “totally incomprehensible.”
Piantedosi said about 90,000 migrants had arrived in Italy this year. Thirteen European countries had agreed to take 8,000. Only 117 of the migrants have been resettled, 38 in France, he said, which he called “absolutely inadequate.”
“European solidarity is being heralded, but Italy has so far faced this problem alone and our system of receiving is in very serious difficulty,” Piantedosi said.
The roughly 230 passengers aboard the Ocean Viking ship include 57 children and are from Eritrea, Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh and Pakistan, among other nations. More than 40 are unaccompanied minors.
The youngest is 3.
“Our situation is very, very, very complicated," a man from Mali said in a video interview shared by SOS Mediterranée. “We want to see land."
The NGO did not reveal the man's name, a common practice with people fleeing persecution.
France will welcome the Ocean Viking at the military port in the city of Toulon on Friday, Darmanin said. Passengers will be housed in France and other EU countries, he said.
France’s withdrawal from the European migration deal means it will not take in 3,500 asylum-seekers whom Italy had been sending, the minister said. Darmanin called Italy’s response “unacceptable” and “incomprehensible.”
The Ocean Viking became the cause of a rift between France and Italy after Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, under pressure from other European countries, granted three other private maritime rescue ships permission to dock in Italy but refused the Ocean Viking.
Meloni said that France had agreed to accept the Ocean Viking, even though the French government had not said that in public.
The EU’s executive commission said member countries in the vicinity of the Ocean Viking must take responsibility for those aboard. The ship was closer to Italy than France when the commission warned Wednesday that the vessel should head to the nearest port.
“There is a legal obligation to rescue and to ensure the safety of life at sea,” spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said. “People should have been disembarked to avoid a humanitarian tragedy.”
Aboubakar Soumahoro, an Italian lawmaker and migrant-rights activist, said that the people involved in the standoff were a “scapegoat for Italy’s socioeconomic problems."
The French coast guard boarded the Ocean Viking Thursday to help four passengers who needed urgent medical attention ashore, France’s general secretariat for the sea said.
Aid workers on the Ocean Viking said they had performed 479 medical consultations since 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.
Nicole Winfield contributed reporting from Rome and Lorne Cook from Brussels.
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Barbara Surk, The Associated Press